Harold Adams Innis

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(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...

(The entire section is 1,263 words.)