Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Literary Criticism Canadian

The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp, 1932-1939

Volume 1

by (author) Northrop Frye

edited by Robert Denham

University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division
Initial publish date
Dec 1996
Canadian, Letters
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Dec 1996
    List Price
  • Hardback

    Publish Date
    Dec 1996
    List Price
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jul 1998
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


Robert D. Denham has collected in these volumes the 266 letters, cards, and telegrams that Helen Kemp and Northrop Frye wrote to each other during the six periods when they were apart, from the winter of 1931-32 until the summer of 1939. The letters form a compelling narrative of their early relationship. They tell of a romance in which two people fall in love, want to get married, and are confronted with obstacles blocking their path, including lack of money and the education they both need to advance their careers. But the story is much more than a romance.

The letters reveal Frye's early talent as a writer, illustrating that both the matter and the manner of his criticism had begun to take shape when he was only nineteen. Helen Kemp's expressiveness and intelligence come through clearly in her letters, which were only discovered in 1992. Kemp and Frye share their thoughts on literature, music, religion, politics, education, and a host of other topics. They discuss their alma mater, Victoria College; artists and musicians of Toronto; southwestern Saskatchewan, where Frye spent a summer as a pastor on a United Church circuit; Frye's hometown, Moncton, New Brunswick; and Kemp's neighbourhood on Fulton Avenue in Toronto. We travel with them around the world, from Ottawa to Rome. We see through their eyes the early years of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the struggles of the United Church of Canada, the activities of the Student Christian Movement, the appeal of Communism, the rise of fascism, and the beginnings of art education in the galleries of Canada.

About the authors

Northrop Frye (1912-1991) was one of Canada's most distinguished men of letters. His first book, Fearful Symmetry, published in 1947, transformed the study of the poet William Blake, and over the next forty years he transformed the study of literature itself. Among his most influential books are Anatomy of Criticism (1957), The Educated Imagination (1963), The Bush Garden (1971), and The Great Code (1982). Northrop Frye on Shakespeare (1986) won the Governor General's Award for Non-Fiction. A professor at the University of Toronto, Frye gained an international reputation for his wide-reaching critical vision. He lectured at universities around the world and received many awards and honours, including thirty-six honorary degrees.

Northrop Frye's profile page

Robert D. Denham has edited a number of books by Northrop Frye, including Myth and Metaphor, Reading the World, The Eternal Act of Creation, Frye's diaries, and three volumes of his notebooks. Denham is also the author of Northrop Frye and Critical Method and Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World.

Robert Denham's profile page

Editorial Reviews

'Frye was that rare creature, a prodigy whose promise was entirely fulfilled. How this came about - through the love a woman both good and wise, as in many old-fashioned tales - is the true subject of this collection.'

The Globe and Mail

'These two beautifully produced and edited volumes are a bonus for scholars, who will now be able to trace the genesis of many of Frye's ideas. But the correspondence is also a treasure in its own right. With their wit, robust energy, lovingness and playful brilliance, these love letters are among the most fascinating ever published in the country - and should banish forever the notion of Frye as an intellectual iceberg.'


'Editor Robert D. Denham has done a stellar job of assembling the letters into a testament which not only celebrates a reciprocal meeting of minds, but reveals the private "Norrie" Frye who hovered behind the formidable public personality...The letters teem with good talk and they are warm and engaging as well as scholarly, literate and full of high purpose. Denham has done Canadians a service in making sure this correspondence, clearly an important historical document, has been unearthed and published.'

The London Free Press

'The propulsive force of narrative, the drive of the romance plot, together with the archetypal nature of the human bond whose progression these letters trace, all kept me entranced.'

Books in Canada

'The letters themselves ... are breezy and bantering, full of teasing rebukes and playful intimacies ... Denham's footnotes are not only admirably thorough, they are indispensable. Without them, how could we tell the difference between Aunts Dolly, Hatty and Evelyn? How would we find out whether Helen had passed her economics course or what Norrie sent her for Christmas? To read somebody else's mail is to be immersed in the pathos of life's details - news and rumors that mattered to somebody, once. It is strangely touching to see these little things, these pieces of a shared life, treated with so much care and respect.'

Montreal Gazette

'Friends and lovers, favorite confidants, and finally husband and wife, Frye and Kemp maintained a lively correspondence ... This meticulously annotated collection ... reveal[s] the personality of the young scholar at a time when he was considering the ministry, engrossed in music, and fascinated with Blake.'


'[Frye] triumphs through the sheer unremitting shining-forth of his wit, his impatience, his clear promise of what's to come. In short, the book documents the early years of an unmistakable and close-to-unique intelligence.'

The Globe and Mail

Other titles by Northrop Frye

Other titles by Robert Denham