I almost missed the centennial of my first academic mentor.(Thank the Toronto “Globe and Mail” and Google!) Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta on July 21, 1911. His father’s business failed and they moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. He graduated U of Manitoba with a Gold Star in 1933, and an MA, after a yearlong diversion as an engineer. (Reminds me of my flop in electrical engineering at the University of Detroit, after two years repairing Navy radar!)
He failed to get a Rhodes for Oxford, but settled in 1934 for Cambridge where his two tutors, I.A.Richards and F.R.Leavis were inventing the New Criticism—the immediate antecedent of his idiosyncratic take on the media revolution. Meanwhile, in 1935 he wrote his mother(who was unconsoleable) that G.K. Chesterton’s writing had moved him into the Roman Catholic Church. His dissertation on Thomas Nashe and the medieval trivium,indeed, reminded him of the sacred Trinity, and he even confessed that the Virgin Mary “provided intelligent guidance for him.” And (new to me) he accepted the evolutionary speculations of the rejected Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin, even though he never acknowledged this aberration publicly.
He returned to America and started teaching English at the Jesuit St. Louis University (1937-44) where he helped the Jesuit Walter J. Ong (1912-2003) develop his ideas about orality in medieval rhetoric. He married a Texan teacher and aspiring actress Corinne Lewis (1915-2008) with whom he had six children, an economic burden that would tempt him into the Big League business consultancies (GM and AT&T).
Ford gave him and Edward Carpenter $43,000 for two years to start their innovative magazine, “Explorations”. He got his Cambridge Ph.D. in 1943 and spent two years (1944-46) at Assumption College, Windsor, Ontario across the Detroit River from my home town. (If only I had known then!) Finally he ended his wandering at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, where except for a year at TC, Columbia in 1955-56 and Fordham as Albert Schweitzer Distinguished Professor,1967-8.
We met several times (usually in bars by Grand Central station!) while I was in New York on a Ford grant, mulling with TV network and media brass on how to deploy the schools in the midst of this communication revolution. I had read his first book “The Mechanical Bride: the Folklore of Industrial Man” (1951) and it motivated me to involve media in my 10th and 12th grade classes.
The greatest day I’ve ever spent in a classroom was the time I assigned my 10th graders Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Catered Affair” (about a Bronx taxi driver torn between giving his only daughter an expensive wedding or paying off his hack license). My students were the highly motivated children of GM execs or Michigan State professors with a few blue collars to do the dirty work. They had written reviews overnight like Steve Scheuer’s syndicated “TV Key” newspaper feature.
When Michigan State got a new UHF station we did a weekly “Everyman Is a Critic” stint on teenage leisure. I played CBC’s Lister Sinclair’s radio series”Ways of Mankind” , a popularization of anthropology, especially “A Word in Your Ear” about linguistics and “I Know What I like” about esthetics. I talked Moe Asch at Folkways into distributing them and they are still available through the Smithsonian at the Library of Congress.
I’ll never forget the flack I got from two Michigan State professors for playing a recording of the Stan Kenton’s orchestra “Salute to Democracy” (agree to a key and tempo and let the soloists innovate. The skeptical parent’s “research” was an agricultural dictionary. (Can’t win em all at a Cow College!)
Marshall and I got along fine until I panned “Understanding Media” (1964) for its obsessive creation of categories, the assimilation of which left no time for explain to students how a work of art works. It seemed to me then that Marshall was succumbing to the same European compulsion to create learned sounding systems to be as respected as the scientists had been for over a generation.
His popularity faded in the late 60’s though we all remember Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” in which McLuhan in the flesh chided a pompous professor expatiating in the ticket line, ”You know nothing of my work!” Woody actually led a successful fight against the U Toronto brass who threatened to shut down his Technology and Culture Center.
Lately there’s been a vigorous McLuhan revival, led by his son Eric. I checked out three of the most touted centennial books to see if I had written off my first hero too uncritically. Ach, the neologisms still flourish, and I’ll stick by Gilbert Seldes’s classic, “The Seven Lively Arts” (1924). Describe the evolution of the new genres, cite a few of the best in each, and encourage the students to choose better and better, as their muses mature. Polysyllabic Humanism is a contract with death.Its facile blurbery has corrupted Humanities scholarship for a lost (de)generation Marshall was a unique soul and quirky as the day is long.
But don’t contradict him, if you value his friendship.