Marshall McLuhan (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
With his cryptic, maddeningly aphoristic style, Marshall McLuhan provided the twentieth century with its most provocative critique of the way technology, specifically electronic media, has shaped the modern view of what it means to be human. In this first biography of McLuhan, journalist Philip Marchand (himself a former student of McLuhan) provides a much-needed overview of the life and times of the controversial Canadian academic. McLuhan’s meteoric rise to media prominence delighted his followers and dismayed many of his colleagues, some of whom accused McLuhan of intellectual fraud. Few college professors—and fewer Canadian professors still—become household words or influential media critics and theorists, but in a ten-year period between 1958 and 1968, Marshall McLuhan emerged as a most improbable “guru,” sought by Madison Avenue executives, television moguls, and politicians on both sides of the border for his insights into the way media work to influence human culture. McLuhan’s public image as an eminently quotable but inscrutably evasive thinker was fixed forever by his cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s film, Annie Hall. McLuhan’s fall from grace was as swift and seemingly inexplicable as his rise, and Marchand effectively captures the pathos of the proud, defiant McLuhan fighting to hold on to the prestige that he enjoyed for most of the turbulent 1960’s.
Marchand’s strategy is to let McLuhan’s life more or less speak for itself, drawing heavily on journals, letters, and interviews that trace the evolution of his thought. Consequently, Marchand’s volume is decidedly not what one would call an “interpretive biography,” one that devotes substantial space to in-depth discussions and explications of the ideas themselves that brought McLuhan fleeting fame and occasional fortune. Marchand’s terse, restrained style will best serve the reader who wishes to make his or her own judgments about the value and application of McLuhanisms such as “the medium is the message” and “the global village,” and who would thus rather learn more about the professor himself. In the end, Marchand makes only a modest attempt to place McLuhan and his innovations within the pantheon of the West’s most influential twentieth century thinkers, content to leave such a determination to another book, one, presumably, with more historical distance from McLuhan’s own era. His helpful, sifting bibliographical survey of the prolific McLuhan’s oeuvre nevertheless gives the scholar and the admirer a place to begin such an endeavor.
Marchand begins his narrative on the Canadian prairie, where Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911. McLuhan’s father, of Scotch-Irish descent, earned his livelihood by selling real estate and insurance. His mother, Elsie, whose family was English by way of Nova Scotia, performed widely as a monologuist. When his family moved to Winnipeg during his youth, McLuhan began his lifelong infatuation with electronic media, building his own crystal radio set at the age of ten. He later enrolled at the University of Manitoba, intending to become an engineer but, in his own words, eventually reading his way out of engineering into English literature; he was graduated from the university in 1933 with a B.A. in literature. The following year he earned an M.A. in the same field and took a vacation to Europe, attempting to acquaint himself with Continental scholarship.
As a result of this adventure, McLuhan decided to study further in England, enrolling at the University of Cambridge and attending the lectures of such famous British scholars as I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis. After two productive years at Cambridge, McLuhan returned to North America, teaching at the University of Wisconsin and Saint Louis University. He returned to Cambridge in 1939, eventually completing a brilliant graduate career with a Ph.D. in medieval and Renaissance studies. It was at Cambridge that McLuhan drank at the foundations of Western culture to discover not only its roots but also the means of its uprooting. Just as his exposure to G. K. Chesterton had prepared McLuhan emotionally and intellectually for his later conversion to Catholicism, so his eventual immersion in Britain s world- weary modernism—that literary and social movement that rejected the past as a barometer and guide for the future—prepared him to receive the genius of James Joyce. McLuhan saw in the Irish writer a man who bridged the gap between the West’s two eras: the pre- and post-Enlightenment. His discovery so enriched his understanding of the printed word and its product, mass culture, that it led to McLuhan’s most innovative thesis: how new media inevitably forge a new humanity that looks at itself and its destiny with a new “noetic,” or way of knowing and negotiating the world.
After completing his coursework for the Ph.D., McLuhan returned to teaching in the United States while completing his dissertation. It was here, immersed in the coarser American culture, that McLuhan was first exposed and attracted to the power of popular culture in Western society. (Even as a graduate assistant at the University of Wisconsin, McLuhan had noticed the hold that the relatively new media of cinema and radio had on young American students.) Two other developments had changed his life. In 1939, he had married Corinne Keller Lewis, a beautiful and spirited Texan from a distinguished Southern family. Two years earlier, in 1937, he had entered the Roman Catholic Church- a pivotal event that indubitably influenced his moral critique of the technology he is often mistaken for adulating. Marchand reveals that in the midst of building a career in academia, McLuhan rested the foundations of his intellectual growth increasingly on a Christian medievalist view of Western mankind as an ordered society under the providence of God. Within this providence it was the duty of men and women to understand their God-given roles and to preserve the prescribed Divine order. This conservative faith directly fueled McLuhan’s skepticism toward and opposition to the emerging feminism of post- 1950’s politics....
(The entire section is 2498 words.)
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Analysis (Magill Book Reviews)
Most people over thirty have heard of Marshall McLuhan; not a few have seen his cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL. Finding anyone who has read his books is not so easy. Mention his name around English departments and the response is likely to be a condescending sneer--rarely based on firsthand knowledge. Biographer Philip Marchand describes a cartoon that appeared in THE NEW YORKER in 1970, showing a young woman addressing her companion as they are leaving a cocktail party: “Ashley, are your sure it’s not too soon to go around parties saying, ’What ever happened to Marshall McLuhan?’”
Often dismissed as a phenomenon of the 1960’s, a creature of hype, McLuhan was indeed given to scattershot pronouncements, irresponsible generalizations, and (in private mainly rather than in print) wild conspiracy theories. He was also a provocative and far-sighted thinker of genuine originality, many of whose insights are only beginning to be understood and applied. The time is ripe for a fresh appraisal of his thought--an enterprise to which MARSHALL MCLUHAN: THE MEDIUM AND THE MESSENGER makes an indispensable contribution. Aside from providing that service, this biography tells a story that is fascinating in its own right, especially as it illuminates the enormous gap between the “media guru” and the real man in all his complexities and contradictions.
In recounting the rise of an obscure Canadian English professor to worldwide fame (and the hardships, physical and otherwise, of McLuhan’s last years), Marchand seamlessly combines exposition of his subject’s thought with a narrative of his personal and professional life. While making clear the scope of McLuhan’s achievements, Marchand maintains an objective distance throughout, drawing heavily on letters and interviews with people who knew McLuhan. The text is supplemented by illustrations, notes, and index, and a bibliography of writings by and about McLuhan.
Sources for Further Study
Commonweal. CXVI, October 6, 1989, p.537.
Insight. V, August 7, 1989, p.62.
Kirkus Reviews. LVII, February 1, 1989, p.189.
Library Journal. XCIV, March 15, 1989, p.75.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. June 4, 1989, p.23.
Maclean’s. CII, May 22, 1989, p.63.
National Review. XLI, June 30, 1989, p.46.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, January 27, 1989, p.458.
The Washington Post Book World. XIX, April 30, 1989, p.4.