I have an essay coming out in the July issue of Harper’s which I titled “The Mythical Method” but which will probably end up with the title “Yesterday’s Men: The Death of the Mythical Method.” It concerns the rise and fall of myth as a central, or perhaps at times the central, concept of humanistic study; and therefore it has some things to say about Northrop Frye’s former influence over the humanities and especially over literary criticism. 

Perhaps the most prominent scholar of Northrop Frye’s work is Robert D. Denham, who has repeatedly written — see for instance this 2009 essay — that the rumors of Frye’s repetitional demise are greatly exaggerated, and that “if Frye is no longer at “the center of critical activity,” as he was in the mid-1960s, he still remains very much a containing presence at the circumference.” Denham continues, 

In 1963 Mary Curtis Tucker wrote the first doctoral dissertation on Frye. The period between 1964 and 2003 saw another 192 doctoral dissertations devoted in whole or part to Frye, “in part” meaning that “Frye” is indexed as a subject in Dissertation Abstracts International. The number of dissertations for each of the decades falls out as follows: 1960s = 5; 1970s = 28; 1980s = 63; 1990s = 68; and in the first four years of the present decade, 29.3. These data obviously indicate that during the twenty-year period following the height of the post-structural moment, interest in Frye as a topic of graduate research substantially increased. 

I mention all this because this is an interesting case of how statistics can mislead when context is eliminated. In citing these numbers Denham omits some important information: 

  • The rise of literary theory as a subset of literary studies. When Mary Curtis Tucker wrote that first dissertation on Northrop Frye, people in English studies simply didn’t write dissertations on other academic literary critics. The rise of theory as a sub-discipline changed that. 
  • The overproduction, especially in the humanities, of PhDs — something that has been worried over since I was in grad school

If in 2009, when Denham published that essay, we saw (a) far more PhDs in English being produced than had been the case in in 1963 — a trend that, inexplicably and indefensibly, continued for several more years — and (b) a far larger percentage of dissertations focusing on contemporary literary criticism and theory than had been the case in 1963, then it becomes clear that citations of Frye could rise in absolute numbers during the same period when Frye’s influence was significantly decreasing proportionate to the whole discourse

In a recent book, Denham goes beyond his 2009 argument to say that there has been an “exponential progression” to Frye’s influence. But here he is relying on dissertations from places like the University of Peking and even the University of Inner Mongolia in Hoh-Hot (now known as Inner Mongolia University). But how many dissertations on any topic in English literature or literary theory and criticism would have been produced in those universities forty or forty years ago? Denham is making comparative judgments without a fixed or appropriate baseline of comparison. “People say that the Sega Genesis console is obsolete, but far more people use them today than used them in 1987!” 

(In so doing — I say this only in passing — Denham is missing what could be a really fascinating point: I’d be willing to bet that Chinese students of Western literary criticism and theory will, generally speaking, find Northrop Frye more interesting and useful than, say, Judith Butler. That would be a topic worth exploring.)  

There is another issue also: “citation” is a word that captures a wide range of possibilities. In the 1960s and 1970s, Frye’s work could be cited to clinch a point — if you could get Northrop Frye on your side you could win an argument. But since then Frye has typically been cited in North America and Great Britain as a representative of a Eurocentric false universalism, a residual Christian imperialism, a putatively apolitical totalizing discourse of patriarchy — that kind of thing: citing him not because he’s on the winning side but because his side isn’t winning any more, thank God. 

But of course, as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.