Harold Adams Innis Essay - Critical Essays

Innis, Harold Adams


Innis, Harold Adams 1894-1952

Canadian economist, historian, and essayist.

In the years between the world wars, economist Harold Innis became the first Canadian intellectual to attract significant international recognition. His work was revolutionary in several regards. He showed that the railroads had replaced the trade routes of the earlier fur industry, and thus reinterpreted Canada's development as something which took place because of its geography rather than in spite of it, as had been previously supposed. His views of history made use of the "staple theory of economic development," which approached the story of a nation's evolution as a chronicle of various "staples"—fur, timber, fish—at the center of its economy. Such an interpretation was particularly applicable to Canada, which as Innis showed, had an economic environment quite unlike that of the United States or Britain. By treating Canada as an economic entity separate from its influential mother country and its powerful neighbor to the south, Innis inaugurated a new era in Canadian studies. In spite of his emphasis on individualism and a free market, his focus on economics as a determining factor in a nation's political history helped to draw a following, long after his death, among Marxists. His career and work fell into two phases, the first of which was marked by the publication of The Fur Trade in Canada (1930), and which focused on the study of economic factors in the development of Canadian history. After the Second World War, Innis directed his attention to the means by which civilizations propagate themselves through modes of communication. These ideas, which he developed in Empire and Communications (1950), would have an impact far beyond Canada, in part through their influence on his more famous countryman, Marshall McLuhan.

Biographical Information

Innis was born in southwestern Ontario, and raised by strict Baptist parents. Though in later life he did not belong to any organized religion, the influence of his upbringing would be felt in many particulars of his life and work, perhaps most notably in his emphasis on both personal freedom and personal responsibility. Educated at local high schools and later at Woodstock Collegiate Institute, to which he had to commute many miles by train every day, he enrolled at McMaster University in 1913. At McMaster, a Baptist college then located in Toronto, Innis was lonely and lacking sufficient funds, but he managed to graduate with honors in 1916 as a political economy and philosophy major. By then Canada had entered World War I, and Innis enlisted in the army as a private. During fighting at Vimy Ridge in France he was wounded with shrapnel in his leg, and he spent the next year in the hospital. The war would have an enormous influence on Innis, who saw firsthand the manner in which governments manipulated their fighting men through control of information. He also came to believe that Canadians' sacrifices entitled them to a greater degree of political and cultural independence from Britain than they had previously enjoyed. After the war, he finished his M.A. at McMaster and entered the doctoral program at the University of Chicago. There he came under the influence of several notable academicians, particularly F.H. Knight, and met Mary Quayle. In 1921 he married Quayle, who would also become a writer on economic and historical subjects. Innis's doctoral thesis would become his first published work, A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1923). Having obtained his doctorate in 1920, he accepted a position in the political economy department of the University of Toronto. The department took an interdisciplinary approach, combining studies in a number of social sciences, and Innis applied a similarly wide range of disciplines to his first major work, The Fur Trade in Canada. During the 1930s, the university environment was torn by the increasing politicization of professors, a movement of which Innis disapproved strongly. But when the next world war began, and his left-wing colleague Frank H. Underhill came under fire for his anti-British opinions, Innis placed his by then considerable influence in Underhill's defense. With the war raging overseas, Innis remembered the lackluster reception he and his comrades had received following the First World War, when they descended on institutions unprepared for the onslaught of new students. Therefore he helped to ready his university for an influx of eager young soldier-students who would arrive after the end of the hostilities. During this time, he came under the influence of his colleague Charles Cochrane, a classical historian whose Christianity and Classical Culture (1940) examined the decline of Rome in terms of the Romans' inability to develop a sustaining intellectual framework that took account of Christianity's rise. Soon after the German surrender, he visited the Soviet Union as part of a small Canadian delegation, and recorded his observations in a diary that would not be published for another four decades. While in Russia, he began to consider the differing strains of Western civilization which had created a society similar to, but quite different from, that of Europe. These influences may have led in part to his shift away from strictly economic studies, and toward an examination of the influence of communications on civilization. Innis received a number of awards in his lifetime, and was celebrated by scholars throughout North America and Europe. He died of cancer in 1952.

Major Works

Innis's work fell into two phases: the period between the world wars, when he focused his attention chiefly on Canadian economic history, and the years following World War II, when the role of communications in the rise and fall of civilizations became his primary subject. Following his study of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the doctoral dissertation which he published in 1923, Innis wrote a highly specialized study called The Fur-Trade of Canada (1927), which he broadened and published three years later as The Fur Trade in Canada. He intended the book, as its subtitle indicated, to be an introduction to Canadian economic history, and in it he brought to bear a variety of disciplines in his examination of the fur trade's effect on the evolution of Canada as a political entity. In this volume, he sketched out the essentials of his staple theory as he applied it to the Canadian situation, portraying his land's economic history in terms of its shift from one staple to another, each a primary export to the United States and Europe. He further developed these ideas in The Cod Fisheries (1940), whose thesis in part was that "European civilization left its impress on North America through its demands for staples products." The second and much shorter—but potentially more significant—phase of his writing began with a series of books in the early 1950s, each comprising lectures or essays on the relationship of the modes of communication to the power structure of the civilization that produces them: Empire and Communications, The Bias of Communication (1951), and Changing Concepts of Time (1952). Innis was particularly interested in the effect of one type of "bias" or another. There was the bias of time, motivated by forms of communication made to last for centuries, but not particularly adapted to the easy spread of information across distances—e.g., stone tablets. And there was the bias of space, encouraged by modes such as printed material which are easily disseminated through a great area, but are not made to last. Another theme was the use of a dominant medium by a dominant group, whether priests, the military, nobles, or businesspeople: this control of the medium, he posited, would lead to stagnation, and the ultimate usurping of authority by a rival group possessing modes not susceptible to the dominant bias.

Principal Works

A History of the Canadian Pacific Railway (history) 1923

The Fur-Trade of Canada (history) 1927

The Fur Trade in Canada: An Introduction to Canadian Economic History (history) 1930

Problems of Staple Production in Canada (nonfiction) 1933

Settlement and the Mining Frontier (history) 1936

The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy (history) 1940

Political Economy and the Modern State (essays) 1946

Empire and Communications (lectures) 1950

The Bias of Communication (essays) 1951

Changing Concepts of Time (essays) 1952

Essays in Canadian Economic History [edited by Mary Quayle Innis] (essays) 1956

The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis [edited by William Christian] (essays) 1980

Innis on Russia: The Russian Diary and Other Writings [edited by William Christian] (journals) 1981


W. T. Easterbrook (essay date 1953)

SOURCE: "Innis and Economics," in Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Vol. XIX, No. 3, August, 1953, pp. 291-303.

[In the following essay, Easterbrook delineates phases of Innis's career as a writer on economics.]

Over the three decades of teaching and research allotted Harold Innis, no subject concerned him more than the state of economics. He looked to economic history to enrich and broaden economic thought, and he sought to explain fashions in economics and to make economists intelligible to themselves. Although Veblen's influence left its mark on his work, Innis remained throughout a disciple of Adam Smith and no name appears more frequently in his...

(The entire section is 6865 words.)

Robert F. Neill (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "The Content and Context of the Work of H. A. Innis," in The Journal of Economic History, Vol. XXVI, No. 4, December, 1966, pp. 589-90.

[In the following essay, Neill offers a short analysis of Innis's theories and the cultural environment in which he developed them.]

The eccentric Innis was too complex a personality and too prolific and varied in his writings to be treated with justice in a short space. He ranks with James Mavor and Stephen Leacock as a great character in Canadian intellectual history. In the present sketch only the main lines of his contribution to economics can be drawn.

The context was an economy experiencing long-run...

(The entire section is 980 words.)

James W. Carey (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Harold Adams Innis and Marshall McLuhan," in The Antioch Review, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 5-39.

[In the following essay, Carey compares Innis's theories of communication with those of Marshall McLuhan.]

Commenting on the abstruse and controversial scholarship of Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan is a rather audacious and perhaps impertinent undertaking. It is also a thankless task. McLuhan has often argued that the attempt to analyze, classify, and criticize scholarship—the intent of my paper—is not only illegitimate; it also represents the dead hand of an obsolete tradition of scholarship. I am sensitive to treading forbidden waters in this...

(The entire section is 13530 words.)

Leslie A. Pal (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Scholarship and the Later Innis," in Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Vol. 12, No. 5, Winter, 1977, pp. 32-44.

[In the following essay, Pal explores Innis's later work within the context of his changing ideas.]

The early Innis—the Innis of fish and fur—is fairly well known; the later Innis—the Innis of print and paper—less so. Part of the fault lies with Innis himself. His economic studies were never models of clarity but they seemed lucid next to the elliptical arguments, acrane terminology, and obscure conclusions of his communications works.

The list of his stylistic and substantive sins is a long one. But...

(The entire section is 8543 words.)

William Christian (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "The Inquisition of Nationalism," in Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Vol. 12, No. 5, Winter, 1977, pp. 62-71.

[In the following essay, Christian investigates the question of Innis's nationalism.]

Twenty-five years after his death Harold Innis's reputation is slowly regaining the heights that it held during his lifetime. It may be, as Marshall McLuhan suggests, that Innis is more admired than read; but nonetheless he is now generally esteemed as a great scholar, and perhaps held in even higher regard as an early and perceptive Canadian nationalist. Concerning his greatness as a scholar I take it that there is little controversy; later...

(The entire section is 7260 words.)

Hugh J. G. Aitken (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Myth and Measurement: The Innis Tradition in Economic History," in Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Vol. 12, No. 5, Winter, 1977, pp. 96-105.

[In the following essay, Aitken offers his personal and professional insights on Innis's theories of economic history.]

Most people past middle age would probably agree, if they look back on their early years, that there were a few individuals who, without ever intending to do so or being conscious of having done so, exercised a decisive influence on their later thoughts and attitudes. The effect of such people is, as it were, accidental; they transform without intent. Harold Innis played such a...

(The entire section is 7279 words.)

W. J. Eccles (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "A Belated Review of Harold Adams Innis, The Fur Trade in Canada," in Canadian Historical Review, Vol. LX, No. 4, December, 1979, pp. 419-41.

[In the following essay, Eccles compares the historic fur trade in Canada with Innis's scholarship on it]

A reappraisal of the Canadian fur trade is long overdue. For this to be done adequately there are two prerequisites: first, past misconceptions have to be cleared away; then the trade has to be placed in its historic and not just its economic context. This communication addresses it-self primarily to the first of these presumptions.

Harold Adams Innis' major work, The Fur Trade in Canada, has...

(The entire section is 10667 words.)

Donald Creighton (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Harold Adams Innis—An Appraisal," in Culture, Communication, and Dependency: The Tradition of H. A. Innis, William H. Melody, Liora Salter, Paul Heyer, eds., Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1981, pp. 13-25.

[In the following essay, Creighton assesses Innis's education, career, and achievements.]

Some little time ago, the head of one of the University of Toronto's new colleges put a sudden and very general question to me. What, he said in effect, is the importance of Harold Innis? I must admit that I was surprised and slightly annoyed by this abrupt inquiry and I made no serious attempt to answer it. I might have replied that Harold Innis had been the Head of...

(The entire section is 5768 words.)

James W. Carey (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Culture, Geography, and Communications: The Work of Harold Innis in an American Context," in Culture, Communication, and Dependency: The Tradition of H. A. Innis, William H. Melody, Liora Salter, Paul Heyer, eds., Ablex Publishing Corporation, 1981, pp. 73-91.

[In the following essay, Carey evaluates Innis's contribution to the social sciences.]

What is it about the ponderous and often unreadable texts of Harold Innis that makes them the subject of continuing interest, indeed, of a revival of interest some twenty-five years after his death? Despite their opacity, their maddening obscurity, their elliptical quality, I find myself drawn back to these texts...

(The entire section is 8154 words.)

John Hutcheson (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Harold Innis and the Unity and Diversity of Confederation," in Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Vol. 17, No. 4, Winter, 1982-83, pp. 57-73.

[In the following essay, Hutcheson examines Innis's views of Canadian economic development.]

A prevalent view of the Canadian imagination, articulated by Northrop Frye, is that it has been dominated by a sense of dislocation occasioned by the enormity of the landscape and the sparseness of "civilization." Frye's view is that Canada has been seen as "a country of isolations and terror, and of the overwhelming of human values by an indifferent and wasteful nature." From this perspective Frye has...

(The entire section is 11749 words.)

Ronald Keast (essay date 1985)

Source: "It Is Written—But I Say Unto You: Innis on Religion," in Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Vol. 20, No. 4, Winter, 1985-86, pp. 12-25.

[In the following essay, Keast outlines Innis's ideas on the influence of religion.]


When Harold Innis died in 1952 he had achieved an international scholarly reputation and was recognized as Canada's foremost historian. That reputation had been established by his early published works, those dealing with the Canadian Pacific Railway, the fur trade in Canada, and the cod fisheries. In these Innis showed how technique (the method or means) and technology (the...

(The entire section is 6613 words.)

Robin Neill (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "Rationality and the Informational Environment: A Reassessment of the Work of Harold Adams Innis," in Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d'études canadiennes, Vol. 22, No. 4, Winter, 1987-88, pp. 78-92.

[In the following essay, Neill examines the significance of Innis's writings on communications and economics.]


Harold Innis's message was not well communicated, because, in part, those who received it did not occupy a perceptual vantage point from which it could be understood. The consequence has been a multiplication of interpretations of Innis, many cited in R.F. Neill's intellectual biography,1 others...

(The entire section is 6595 words.)

Further Reading


Creighton, Donald. Harold Adams Innis: Portrait of a Scholar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1957, 146 p.

The definitive Innis biography, written by an associate who conducted extensive interviews with Mary Quayle Innis and others close to Innis himself.

Havelock, Eric A. "Harold Innis: A Man of His Times." Et cetera 38, No. 3 (Fall 1981): 242-54.

A personal reminiscence of Innis by a colleague, with emphasis on the controversial Underhill affair.

Innis, Harold Adams. The Idea File of Harold Adams Innis, introduced and edited by William Christian. Toronto: University of Toronto Press,...

(The entire section is 423 words.)