Letters of Marshall McLuhan

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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 entire section is 1708 words.)