Toronto Star – The fall and rise of Marshall McLuhan


Marshall McLuhan by Fred Sebastian

Marshall McLuhan by Fred Sebastian

By Philip Marchand

It was December 1970 and warning signs were already visible. The reputation of Marshall McLuhan, professor of English at the University of Toronto and oracle of the electronic age, was under siege. An editorial in the Toronto Star in defence of McLuhan attributed hostility partly to good old Canadian envy of “the local boy who had made good.” That local boy was a “pioneer in studying the effect of new means of communication such as television on society,” the editorial stated, an intellectual whose “many intuitive leaps and dazzling insights have made him one of the few seminal thinkers of the 20th century.” Sure enough, the Star pointed out, “Canadian critics and reviewers are attacking him right and left.”

This year’s numerous celebrations of McLuhan’s centenary — he was born in Edmonton on July 21, 1911, — has made it clear McLuhan’s reputation has survived, and is now thriving. His is a remarkable story. For years he toiled in relative obscurity, a University of Toronto professor and expert in Renaissance literature who turned his attention toward contemporary culture and the effects of the media of communication, notably the printing press and television, on the human nervous system. In the mid-sixties, with the publication of such books as The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) and Understanding Media (1964), his work caught the attention of intellectuals in North America and Europe. Journalists followed suit. He was the subject of an article in Harper’s entitled “Marshall McLuhan: Canada’s Intellectual Comet,” a profile in New York magazine by Tom Wolfe, a cover story in Newsweek. He was mentioned in New Yorkercartoons and cheerfully saluted in Laugh-In, a popular show in the late sixties.

A reaction set in, and not just among McLuhan’s fellow Canadians. McLuhan’s playful style, his love of puns and aphorisms and one-liners, his refusal to play by the rules of academia, enraged that class of individual the poet T. S Eliot described as “the mild-mannered man safely entrenched behind his typewriter.” McLuhan’s embrace of celebrity confirmed suspicions among many of his colleagues that he was little more than a charlatan. In fairness to these critics, McLuhan, who had experienced long years of penny-pinching in support of his wife and six children on a professor’s salary, frankly admitted he wanted to cash in on his fame while it lasted.

For a while after McLuhan’s death in 1980 it seemed that his reputation was indeed destined for oblivion, despite the defence of McLuhan in that Toronto Star editorial. He would never again trouble the peace of Communications Departments in universities across the land. When I began research on my biography of McLuhan in the mid-1980s, I often had to remind people who he was. (Usually I mentioned McLuhan’s appearance in Woody Allen’s 1976 movie, Annie Hall.)

At the same time I noticed a curious phenomenon. I kept coming across articles that ripped off McLuhan’s insights with no acknowledgement of source. It reminded me of Friedrich Engels’ remark about political economists in his day who were as busy plagiarizing Marx’s work as they were persistent in trying to kill it by silence.

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Philip Marchand is a former Star book critic and the author of Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger.


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