Marshall McLuhan Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: With a cryptic, maddeningly epigrammatic style, McLuhan provided the twentieth century with its most provocative critique of the way technology, specifically electronic media, has shaped the modern view of what it means to be human.

Early Life

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in western Canada on July 21, 1911, to religious, Scotch-Irish parents; his father earned his livelihood by selling real estate and insurance, while his mother worked in theater as an actress and monologuist. His family moved to Winnipeg during his youth, and in his adolescence, McLuhan began his lifelong infatuation with electronic media, building his own crystal radio set at the age of ten. He later enrolled at the University of Manitoba, intending to become an engineer but, in his own words, eventually “reading his way out of engineering into English literature”; he was graduated from the university in 1933 with a B.A. in literature. The following year he earned an M.A. in the same field and took a vacation to Europe, acquainting himself with Continental scholarship.

Soon after this trip, McLuhan decided to study further in England, enrolling at Cambridge University and attending the lectures of such famous British scholars as I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis. Eventually McLuhan took a second B.A. and M.A. at Cambridge and remained long enough to complete a brilliant graduate career with a Ph.D. in medieval and Renaissance studies in 1942. In the midst of his graduate study, McLuhan had begun a teaching career in the United States, where he was first exposed to the power of popular culture in Western society, as he noticed the hold that the relatively new media of cinema and radio had on young American students. It was also during this period that he met his wife, Corinne Keller Lewis, and converted to Roman Catholicism—the latter an event that undoubtedly influenced his critique of the morality of technology.

After having taught at various colleges and universities in the United States and Canada between 1937 and 1946, McLuhan accepted a professorship at the University of Toronto, where he spent most of his teaching career and where he enjoyed his most fruitful and provocative years of scholarship. In the early 1950’s, surrounded by evidence that the popular culture of film and television had begun to displace centuries of traditional literary values and preoccupations, McLuhan began his incisive inquiry into the nature of media. In particular, McLuhan focused on the effect of advertising on human behavior, a subject which he pursued in his first book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951). Influenced by his colleague at the University of Toronto, economist Harold Innis, McLuhan continued to enlarge his critique of mass media and reached the zenith of his productivity and notoriety in the early 1960’s.

Life’s Work

To appreciate McLuhan’s impact on and contribution to the twentieth century’s understanding of communication and communications media, one must examine not only particular events or achievements in his life but the substance of his ideas as well. In 1962, McLuhan published The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, a far-reaching analysis of the effect of the printing press on the culture of Western Europe, a book which earned for him the Governor-General’s Award for Critical Prose, Canada’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. In this book, McLuhan argued that the fixed, linear nature of typeset texts affected the way sixteenth century writers, musicians, and scientists thought about their disciplines and about the meaning of humanness, thus forging a radical change in the values and modes of perception in Western culture. The eye displaced the ear as the primary sensory organ, and, McLuhan claimed, this alteration of perception encouraged a self-reflectiveness or narcissism. This in turn led, McLuhan believed, to a fragmentation in society that sharply divided literates from nonliterates, creating a new underclass.

Sociologists had long debated the effect of industrialization—of the machine—on society’s members and their modes of perception, but McLuhan was one of the first to identify the printed word as a unique technology that altered perception, value, and authority in a culture. He, in effect, made a “thing,” or a “machine,” out of the printed word, so that it could be seen as the powerful and thus disruptive influence it was in human society. By objectifying the technology of writing, he empowered communications theorists to recognize and explain the burgeoning gap between the highly technologized cultures of the West and the undertechnologized cultures of the third world and elsewhere.

In 1963, McLuhan established, at the University of Toronto, the Center for...

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Marshall McLuhan Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Herbert Marshall McLuhan (muh-KLEW-uhn) was one of the most original and controversial of twentieth century social theorists and critics, and his concepts on the impact of communications media on human society and culture have profoundly influenced later writers. The essence of his views was presented in his famous aphorism “The medium is the message,” by which he meant that it is the form of a communication, rather than its content, which has the greatest impact.

McLuhan was born and reared in western Canada and originally intended to become an engineer. After entering the University of Manitoba, however, he switched to literature and an academic career, earning a B.A. in 1933 and an M.A. in 1934. During this time, he developed a lasting admiration for modernist writers such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and, especially, James Joyce. These authors were much quoted in McLuhan’s later works. He pursued further studies with a stay at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, earning a Ph.D. in 1942.

During the 1930’s McLuhan converted to Roman Catholicism, a shift which deeply affected his intellectual view of literature, the media, and culture. Unlike many other academic writers, who prefer to remain detached, neutral observers, McLuhan always insisted upon the need for moral dimensions to his work. In 1946 he accepted a post at the University of Toronto. He remained there until his death on New Year’s Eve, 1980. At Toronto he was soon connected with the University’s Centre for Culture and Technology. There McLuhan began the investigations into the nature of media and their effects which formed the basis of his work. Much of the foundation for his studies was provided by two short but provocative works written by fellow Canadian Harold Innis. In Empire and Communications (1950) and The Bias of Communication (1951), Innis advanced the thesis that societies develop in ways largely determined by their technologies of communication. Like McLuhan after him, Innis defined communications in a broader sense than usual.

Working on these premises and in this environment, in 1951 McLuhan produced The Mechanical Bride. The work is notable for a number of points. First, it was a serious yet highly original treatment of a topic many thought beneath the notice of true academics: advertising. Second, it combined texts,...

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Marshall McLuhan Biography

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Early Life

The young Herbert Marshall McLuhan was fascinated by technology, but at the University of Manitoba, he discovered literary studies and did graduate work at Cambridge, receiving a doctorate in 1943. In 1946, McLuhan joined the faculty at the University of Toronto and, by 1959, had founded the interdisciplinary journal Explorations and published The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951), a study of print advertising.

The 1960’s

McLuhan’s emergence as an authority on media and culture occurred through several channels simultaneously. The University of Toronto established and funded the Centre for Culture and Technology, a research institute run by McLuhan to explore and promote his ideas and topics. The National Association of Educational Broadcasters and the National Council of Teachers of English provided him with access to the education establishment, and such business-oriented think tanks as General Electric’s Management Center helped him become a popular presenter at corporate meetings and executive seminars.

The intellectual center of McLuhan’s work was contained in four books he published in the 1960’s: The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), which provides the historical foundation for his theories; Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964), in which he analyzed the specific properties of such media as clothing, comics, and television; The Medium Is the Massage (1967), an illustrated popularization of his main ideas; and War and Peace in the Global Village(1968), in which cultural conflict is examined in relation to media.

McLuhan argued that changes in information technology (media) were more important than the messages transmitted by that technology. For example, Gutenberg’s press itself, rather than any book it produced, made medieval Europe’s oral culture obsolete, ushering in the age of print literacy. In the...

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Marshall McLuhan Bibliography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Finkelstein, Sidney. Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan. New York: International Publishers, 1968. A critical assessment of The Medium Is the Massage.

Gordon, W. Terrence. McLuhan for Beginners. New York: Writers and Readers, 1997. A basic introduction, illustrated as a comic book. Part of the “For Beginners” series.

Horrocks, Christopher. Marshall McLuhan and Virtuality. Cambridge, England: Icon Books, 2001. Discusses McLuhan’s theories in terms of the contemporary “information age.”

Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger....

(The entire section is 269 words.)