Letters of Marshall McLuhan

by Marshall McLuhan

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Letters of Marshall McLuhan

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1708

One of the seminal insights of Marshall McLuhan was that the media, through their presentations, created a new and different sort of reality. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were few names more widely found in the media, coupled with both praise and blame, than that of McLuhan. Since his death, however, his name has faded from public—and media—consciousness. Informed of this fact, McLuhan would undoubtedly have cited it as further evidence of the correctness of his insights.

It must be said at the outset that reading these letters will not help much in explaining the phenomenon that came to be called “McLuhanism.” Nor are these letters particularly interesting; McLuhan is not to be numbered among the notable letter writers of the English language. The reasons for this are not far to seek; McLuhan is too earnest and too much the teacher to allow for that ease of manner and polish of style which mark the best letter writers.

There was perhaps some confusion in the purposes of the three editors when compiling this work. From 100,000 pages of letters, Corinne McLuhan, Marshall McLuhan’s wife, and Matie Molinaro, his literary agent, selected some fifteen hundred letters which they believed would constitute an autobiography of McLuhan; they saw it as a tribute to him. Needing a professional editor, they selected William Toye, editorial director of Oxford University Press in Canada, who reduced the selection to about 450 letters, a manageable single volume. In addition to the biographical, Toye’s purposes included demonstrating McLuhan’s intellectual development and interests and presenting his ideas, with their clarifications and elaborations. The editors chose to include letters to famous and important people, even though such letters may have little intrinsic interest. All the chronological introductions and notes in the text are by Toye, and Molinaro contributes a brief preface.

Such a collection of letters, then, presents several questions. While a counsel of perfection would wish for the whole of the correspondence, that was clearly impossible. It would, however, have been interesting to know whether the proportion of letters to various correspondents as seen in the text are in fact borne out by the whole of the collection. If the development and refining of McLuhan’s ideas is to be important, it might have been useful occasionally to have seen the other side of the corespondence, that is, the discussion of ideas.

McLuhan was born in 1911 in Edmonton, Alberta. He received a B.A. from the University of Manitoba in 1933 and an M.A. in 1934; he was awarded a postgraduate scholarship to study at Cambridge University, from which he received a B.A. in 1936. During 1936-1937, he taught at the University of Wisconsin, and he became a Catholic in 1937. From 1937 to 1944, he taught in the English department at St. Louis University, except for 1939-1940 when he studied at Cambridge for the Ph.D. degree, which he received in 1943. McLuhan married Corinne Lewis in 1939. From 1944 to 1946, he taught at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario, and from 1946 until his death, he was on the staff of St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto. It was here that he conducted his career as critic of society and interpreter of the electronic age. McLuhan died on New Year’s Day, 1980.

The collection of letters is arranged chronologically, with each of the three sections prefaced by a useful brief biographical sketch of the years covered. The first section spans the period from 1911 to 1936, though the letters begin only in 1931. In this section of some forty letters, all but a few are to his mother or his immediate family. McLuhan is seen here as already much interested in literature, devoted to his mother, rather self-consciously “adult,” and a bit of a prig. His brother Maurice was only two years his junior, but McLuhan addresses him from the stance of a rather pompous, successful uncle, explaining how to succeed intellectually and morally in life. The most interesting of the letters are those from England.

In the second group of letters, from 1936 to 1946, about twenty-five are to his mother, but the section is highlighted by a series of letters to British painter and writer Wyndham Lewis, at that time living in Canada. The letters are rather entertaining, as McLuhan attempts to arrange a visit by Lewis to St. Louis for speaking engagements and portrait commissions. Lewis was always short of money, and McLuhan’s efforts to aid him certainly passed the boundaries of the routine.

The third group of letters, from 1946 to 1979, is clearly the most important and the most extensive, comprising about 350 of the total of some 450 letters in the collection; there are only five letters to his mother here. The letters of this section are more relaxed, and, as McLuhan grows older, his style becomes less rigorous and more free, even to the point of occasionally dashing off ideas as they occur to him. Ironically, his own prose style sometimes assumes the characteristics of the electronic media with which he became so concerned.

It is difficult in a brief account to summarize McLuhan’s main ideas on the media, but several of the themes and characteristics of his discussions can usefully be mentioned. As far as his discussions of media are concerned (this is by far the dominant subject of his letters), it must be said that these letters are not any clearer about McLuhan’s ideas and insights than his published works. McLuhan was frequently criticized in his heyday as a proponent of the electronic age and a prophet of the death of the book. In fact, as many letters clearly show, McLuhan disliked intensely what he saw the media doing to humanity and to culture; he maintained repeatedly that he was not judging or promoting any particular view of the media but was simply trying to make his generation aware of what the media were doing to the human race. Although he deplored what was happening, he believed that humankind had to understand what was occurring in order to combat the change and to save those elements most human. In some of his later letters, McLuhan can become a bit querulous about what he sees as failures to understand what he has been trying to say.

The letters also reveal McLuhan’s continuing intellectual life. He reads widely, frequently reporting on the books he has read. He finds new insights in all sorts of books, from chemistry to sociology to literature. McLuhan never ceased to think and was always willing to alter his theories and insights, adding to his store of ideas. As his circle of correspondents widened, so too did his reading and his perspective. While McLuhan began as a literary critic (generally in the vein of the New Criticism), he became a social critic, approaching the changes and trends in society mainly through his insights into the electronic media.

The letters of this period also reveal McLuhan’s industriousness: He lectures, writes, travels, and consults. He was much on the go, juggling many projects, following up lines of investigation that occurred to him through his reading and that were suggested to him by his correspondents. One of the rather sad topics which recurs throughout the letters is that of the book he is writing, or the paper which he is going to publish, and which never appear or are completed. It is clear that, to a certain extent, his career as media guru overwhelmed his natural scholarly bent.

McLuhan often connects his approach to the media as deriving from his study of Symbolist art and poetry. There are several excellent examples in his letters of his fondness for grabbing an insight or an idea and trying to make a variety of elements fit into it. One example is the distinction between the terms “figure” and “ground” as they are originally used in painting. Another would be his concern for the five traditional divisions of rhetoric—which he asserts to be the organizing principle of works as diverse as James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake (1939), T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1943), Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Cause of the Wealth of Nations (1776), Niccolò Machiavelli’s Il principe (1532; The Prince, 1560), the plays of the Renaissance, and Saint Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana (books 1-3, 396-397, book 4, 426; On Christian Instruction). In the latter years of his life, McLuhan was much taken with the growing biological and psychological awareness of the two hemispheres of the brain.

His interest in these and other ideas verifies his capacity for learning and growth; McLuhan was the farthest thing from a man of one idea. It also speaks for his enthusiasm—for helping a friend such as Lewis, for investigating a new idea, for attempting to educate a public that he believed did not understand the world they were taking for granted. He was possessed of an enthusiasm which he never lost, and the letters make this clear. Half-prepared he may have been sometimes, half-understanding of the implications of his own insights he may have been sometimes, but he was always eager and concerned to grow in understanding and to transmit that understanding.

While McLuhan gave to a generation such concepts, now taken for common currency, as the global village, the information explosion, and, most famously, the medium as message, his work had its deepest roots in much older sources. The letters of all three periods of his life make it clear that his view of the world and of his place in it springs first from a traditional humanism. Letter after letter speaks of his concern for youth, for “the kids.” His concerns are not merely intellectual but also moral, though he is far from being a moralist in the usual sense of that term. The second important root of his analysis of media, society, and popular culture was his Catholicism, which not only inspired his missionary zeal but also shaped his personal point of view. He calls Christians who kneel before the new electric environment “misguided” and the electronic media a “Luciferan product,” a “mock-up of the mystical body” of Christ. At bottom, as these letters make clear, Marshall McLuhan was far from being the prophet of a new age or the destroyer of the old.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 64

Books in Canada. XVII, April, 1988, p. 31.

The Christian Science Monitor. April 6, 1988, p. 19.

The Guardian. CXXXVIII, March 20, 1988, p. 28.

Library Journal. CXIII, May 1, 1988, p. 74.

London Review of Books. X, March 17, 1988, p. 3.

Macleans. C, December 21, 1987, p. 54.

Manchester Guardian Weekly. CXXXVIII, March 20, 1988, p. 28.

The New Republic. CXCIX, July 18, 1988, p. 35.

The Observer. March 6, 1988, p. 42.

Saturday Night. CIII, May, 1988, p. 59.

Spectator. CCLX, March 12, 1988, p. 34.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 6, 1988, p. 493.

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