Harold Adams Innis Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.