The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp

I swore I wouldn’t buy any books on this trip, but somehow I found myself drawn into a bookstore on Bloor Street … at the back of the store was the Lit Crit section. The usual stuff. Wayne Booth on the novel. That kind of thing.

But then, on the top shelf, I saw something very unusual: The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp 1932-1939. Without opening the covers or looking at the price, I knew I had to get it. It belongs to an enormous series of books under the heading “The Collected Works of Northrop Frye.” But what makes this special is that we get to read his wife’s writing too.

Basically, these are letters that were written during the periods they were separated for various reasons.

But I am getting ahead of myself. First let me show you the old man who sold me the book (and didn’t like that I took his picture):

Okay, so Helen Kemp was a fantastic artist and also a great writer. She drew this amazing map of the University of Toronto, for instance:

I haven’t read very far into it, but she and Northrop were separated a fair amount between 1932 and 1939 and at some point inbetween even got married although they knew more periods of separation were forthcoming.

This is what she looks like along with her handwriting. Frye and his script follow below:


In the letters I’ve glanced through, Frye and Kemp say a lot of wonderful things to each other. For instance, Kemp writes at one point:

“My letters to you will like like a diary very probably, for I want you to know what is happening to me – it is one way of amusing myself, telling you what is happening to me. I may make good natured fun of your straw hat, or the way you plant your feet, or some of your small-boy tricks that make me gasp …”

Frye’s also describes how his own letters to her will be:

“You’ll get a flood of letters from me, some passionate, some bored and bothered, some mere calf-bawling and self-pity, some purely sexual – I can feel the need for you as a general Slough of Despond fairly obviously. Take them all, but not seriously. I don’t want to distress you.”

But sometimes over the years, they found that writing only letters was a bit depressing. At one point, Kemp says:

“I find letters more unsatisfactory than I ever could have imagined – by way of trying to talk to you. It all seems so hanged one-sided – all this deferred reply, long-distance sort of thing. And I can’t tell you to-night how I love you because I want to show you and have you read me a story and put me to bed.”

One really funny complaint is when Kemp writes: “Oh hell, I can’t write to you to-night. I’m so tired I can hardly hold a pen.”

Frye recognizes the frustration and concludes that people forced to conduct a relationship by mail have to suffer as a result of the very nature of separation between people who are in love:

“Denied the supreme satisfaction of the bed-sheets, he sublimates himself in letter-sheets. I carried on this literary flirtation with you some years ago, in the first summer I was home and we corresponded. But since I have grown to love you so immeasurably more than I did then, or could then, the ideal lady at the other end of the postal service has become a part of myself, and when I write I am painfully conscious only of your absence. Hence these awkward, stammering, whining, almost illiterate letters.”

And all I can think as I read through their correspondence is, thank goodness we have Skype!







2 responses to “The Correspondence of Northrop Frye and Helen Kemp

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