For a time, it seemed as if Marshall McLuhan had experienced the inevitable trajectory of modern fame: early years of academic preparation and semi-obscurity, followed by a sudden rise and brief prominence, and then a fall into oblivion with no influence left on those to come. The comet had flashed, the world had wondered, and then it was over.
McLuhan’s major publications, with their revealing subtitles and their dates, seem to confirm the story. His first work, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), was published in 1951 and not followed until 1962 by The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. The trilogy (so it seems in retrospect) was completed in 1964 with Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Following those three seminal volumes came some secondary but still important works, most notably the visually and intellectually stimulating The Medium Is the Message: An Inventory of Effects (1967), undertaken in collaboration with Quentin Fiore; Counterblast, the journal produced with the noted designer Edmund Carpenter; and a compendium of views edited by Gerald Stearn titled McLuhan, Hot and Cool: A Primer for the Understanding of and a Critical Symposium with a Rebuttal by McLuhan (1967). From then until McLuhan’s death on New Year’s Eve in 1979, there was a series of works that to the casual reader might seem marginal, even derivative, including a compilation of his literary criticism.
Before ten years had passed after his death, the interest in McLuhan’s ideas, which had never died (neither the interest nor the ideas) began to re-emerge with publication of the Letters of Marshall McLuhan (1988); Laws of Media (1989), written in conjunction with and finished by his son, Eric McLuhan; Essential McLuhan (1995); and a host of book- length and shorter studies, including recognition by the growing Internet community of McLuhan as its “patron saint.” The question Tom Wolfe perceptively had posed back in the 1960’s finally was answered: “What if he is right?” Wolfe had asked the question in a major essay about McLuhan—if this Canadian professor was correct in his outlandish theories, what difference would that make? Now the world knew: McLuhan had been right about many things, and his being right about so many things had made a very big difference. Terrence Gordon’s authorized biography helps readers understand what McLuhan was right about and something about how he came to his startling but seemingly inescapable conclusions. This is among the best and rarest of biographies, one that links the history and life of an individual with the growth and development of his ideas.
McLuhan, born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta, moved with seeming ease and ability into the academic life. After receiving his undergraduate degree in English literature from the University of Manitoba, where he had enrolled with the intention of becoming an engineer, McLuhan won a coveted scholarship to Cambridge University, where he came under the profound and lasting influence of the great English critic I. A. Richards. It was Richards, through works such as Practical Criticism (1929), who suggested to McLuhan that the way to approach a work of art—or, later, any medium of communication between human beings, including most famously the electric light bulb, which McLuhan defined as “pure information”—was to focus on its effect and form, rather than its intent and content. The thought that “The medium is the message” had been seeded; it awaited only its quickening and then delivery to a first indifferent, then astounded, world.
An essential impetus to the development of McLuhan’s thoughts on media and their effects was his choice of the English writer Thomas Nashe for his dissertation subject. McLuhan’s study of Nashe and Nashe’s prose style brought a galaxy of wildly disparate topics into focus to make startlingly yet irrevocable sense. Nashe, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, was a bravura performer in the exuberantly rhetorical prose of his period, yet his works were so seemingly muddled and confused that traditional literary critics had been baffled by him. McLuhan, intuitively at first and later with increasing understanding, supplied the key: Nashe was a transitional figure, an artist at the nexus between the oral age of the Middle Ages (when “reading was necessarily reading aloud” as McLuhan glossed in The Gutenberg Galaxy) and the print age of the Renaissance (the transition of “the auditory into visual terms”). It was not Nashe’s subject matter (his content) but his technique (his medium) that made the difference. It was a difference, McLuhan claimed, that altered not only the...
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