Northrop Frye on Marshall McLuhan: A Compilation


Of the twenty-nine volumes of Frye’s Collected Works, there is reference to McLuhan in twenty-three of them, from his 1949 diary to the late notebooks of the 1980s and one of his last interviews in November 1990. Here they are.

From the 1949 diary:

Norma Arnett came up to me last night & wanted to know why a poem she (and I remember to some extent) thought was good had not been considered even for honourable mention in the Varsity contest. . . I said the judge was just plain wrong (I think it was McLuhan, so it’s a reasonable enough assumption). (CW 8, 94)

Marshall McLuhan went after me [regarding a paper on Bacon’s essays] with talk about essences & so on–Helen Garrett reported back from Jack that he’d said he was out to get me. He didn’t quite, though a stranger would have been startled by his tone. Actually, I imagine he agreed with a fair amount of the paper, though he didn’t say so when I went home with him. . . McLuhan again on his anti-English line–I think Jack Garrett is right in regarding it as a phobia. (CW 8, 143)

McLuhan did say something after all yesterday, about Germans. Said when a German met another human being it was like a root meeting a stone: he had to warp & twist himself into the most extraordinary convolutions to get around to the unpleasant fact of someone else’s existence. (CW 8, 145)

McLuhan’s Forum article [“Color-bar of BBC English”] suggests that he suffered abominably from the kind of self-consciousness he denies. (CW 8, 168)

Went for lunch with McLuhan and Ned [Pratt]. . . McLuhan brought up the subject about his magazine [about media communications] again. (CW 8, 209)



From the 1950 diary:

Marshall talked quite well about Wyndam Lewis: first he read a statement, in rather stilted language, about Lewis’ conception of the mask, & then read some amusing bits from the autobiography. . . Considering that Lewis at Rugby got a cup the boys give for six floggings in one day (after getting five & finding the day nearly at an end, he went & bounced a tennis ball against the headmaster’s door) & was kicked out of the Slade in two weeks, I don’t know if Toronto’s attitude was a provincial as he seems to think. (CW 8, 262)

McLuhan said the medieval critics distinguished epic from romance on the ethos-pathos basis–the association of romance & pathos (passivity, stress on event) made me prick my ears [sic], & I must look into it. (CW 8, 316)


From Notebook 33 (1946-1950/1953-1956):

The detective story is therefore a conservative form: it demonstrates the rightness of society vis-a-vis the criminal. The people who like them best are people who are confident of the essential solidity of the social order, or try to be & seek their reassurance from the detective story. As [Marshall] McLuhan pointed out to me, the detective is a man-hunter, & has about him the glamour of the F.B.I, the London bobby, the Canadian Mounties, & so on. Sherlock Holmes wears a hunting cap. (CW 15, 75)


From the 1952 diary:

I told Marshall that anything I said about any writing I was going to do was just official communique & meant go ‘way & don’t bother me, & he said he’d heard that was the line I took with the Guggenheim Committee. I don’t know who told him. . . Marshall has a tremendous fund of literary gossip. (CW 8, 385)

They [a number of colleagues at a party] discussed a recent article by Al Capp in Life announcing that he wasn’t going to be America’s only good social satirist any more, because he (or his syndicate, I couldn’t make out which) thought that satire was getting un-American. . .

They debated whether it was ironical or not, & it was suggested that the recent marriage to Daisy Mae meant he was going in exclusively for domestic humour. But Marshall pooh-poohed the idea: he said Cappy was just getting started, beginning with the projected birth of a son on July 4 called Yankee Doodle Yokum. (CW 8, 562-3)

In the morning I managed to waste time collecting the committee for Sanborn’s exam. Roper, McLuhan, [Norman J.] Endicott & myself, in Endicott’s office. McLuhan suggested a single overall question, which I had to fight. It’s bad enough having having to struggle with Woodhouse over exam questions, trying to get something that’s less Woodhouse party line, trying to make him see that what he’s not interested in isn’t necessarily always peripheral to the subject, and now here’s Marshall, a worse party-liner even than Woodhouse. His question followed exactly the general outline of (a) his course (b) Hugh Kenner’s book on Pound, and even though Sanborn had taken the course I thought it was bad for discipline to accept the single-question formula. Marshall didn’t give in too gracefully, identifying me with Toronto prissiness as he did so. (CW 8, 576)


From the Anatomy of Criticism notebooks (c. 1952/1953):

Marshall McLuhan says that Sidney regarded the prose epic, the Cryopaedia, More’s Utopia, & so on, as the highest form of literary art, & that that was the highbrow attitude as opposed to Spenser’s middlebrow attempt to combine popular romance & sound doctrine. This, naturally, is pretty speculative, but the existence of the conception of a prose epic in Renaissance criticism is something I badly need. Also as providing a link with the other half of rhetoric: oratory, & so of the assimilation of the hero to the prophet via oratory: the existential situation clarified by epiphany being, as in the Incarnation, also a historical “occasion.” (CW 23, 139)


From the 1955 diary:

Carpenter’s Explorations 4 is out, in a most handsome Kandinskyish cover. It has my archetypes thing and Miller MacLure’s Dylan Thomas article, but is otherwise as silly as ever. Except that article by Ong saying the Hebrews talked in terms of the ear & the Greeks the eye, & our conceptual language has got steadily more spiritual as ever, let the cat out of the bag as far as Marshall’s main thesis is concerned. I mean, now I know what he thinks he’s talking about. Back to oral tradition, the ear, and the Word of God. . .

Marshall has issued [his privately published pamphlet] “Counter Blast”: his love affair with the twenties is getting indecent. (CW 8, 606)



From “Comment” (1961):

Father Ong refers to my colleague Professor Marshall McLuhan, who is one of the few contemporary critics to realize another axiom: at no point can the criticism of contemporary literature be separated from the study of the whole verbal culture of our time, which includes, of course, the whole verbal anarchy of our time. (CW 29, 171)


From “The Drunken Boat” (1963):

In Rimbaud, though his bateau ivre has given me my title, the poet is se faire voyant, the illuminations are thought of pictorially; even the vowels must be visually coloured. Such an emphasis has nothing to do with the pre-Romantic sense of an objective structure in nature: on the contrary, the purpose of it is to intensify the Romantic sense of oracular significance into a kind of autohypnosis. The association of autohypnosis and the visual sense is discussed in Marshall McLuhan’s book, The Gutenberg Galaxy. Such an emphasis leads to a technique of fragmentation. (CW 17, 90)


From “The Changing Pace in Canadian Education” (1963) :

In a book which many of you have seen, The Gutenberg Galaxy, Professor Marshall McLuhan speaks of contemporary society as a postliterate society; that is, a society which has gone through a phase of identifying knowledge with the written word and is now gaining its knowledge from all kinds of of other media which affect the ear as well as the eye. The ability to twitch ears is the mark of the animal which is constantly exposed to danger, and Mr. McLuhan is well aware of the context to which the increase in such media brings with it an increase in panic. He quotes one or two examples of panic in contemporary writers, including some intellectually respectable ones, and remarks, “Terror is a normal state in an oral society, because everything is happening to everyone all the time.” This sense of panic is occasionally rationalized on the level of practical intelligence itself, by people who speak of commitment as though it were a virtue in itself: don’t just stand there, get yourself committed. This is the attitude which was described many years ago by H.G. Wells of the “Gawdsakers”–the people people who continually say, “For Gawd’s sake, let’s do something.”

No, we need a better answer to the question of what is the source of the authority of a practical intelligence is. One possible answer is that it is derived from some kind of overall vision of society. Every person with any function in society has some kind of overall vision of that society in the light of which he operates. One can hardly imagine a social worker going out to do case work without thinking of her as having, somewhere in her mind, a vision of a better, cleaner, healthier, more emotionally balanced city, as a kind of mental model inspiring the work she does. One can hardly imagine in fact any professional person not having such a social model–a world of health for the doctor or of justice for the judge–nor would such a social vision be confined to the professions. (CW 7, 174)


From “The Road of Excess” (1963):

I still have a copy of Blake that I used as an undergraduate, and I see that in the margin beside this passage* I have written the words “Something moves, anyhow.” But even that was more of an expression of hope than considered critical judgement. This plotless type of writing hqs been discussed a good deal of other critics, notably Hugh Kenner and Marshall McLuhan, who call it “mental landscape,” and ascribe its invention to the French symbolistes. But in Blake we not only have the technique already complete, but an even more thoroughgoing way of presenting it. (CW 16, 318)

* “What is Above is Within, for every-thing is Eternity is translucent: / The Circumference is Within, Without is formed the Selfish Center, / And the Circumference still expands going forward to Eternity, / And the Center has Eternal States; these States we now explore.” [K709/E225]


From Notebook 19 (c. 1964-1967):

The opposite of verbal perception is the presentation, the communicated message, what Marshall [McLuhan] talks about. Marshall says it’s the form & not the content of the message that’s important, which is why the nature of the medium is also important. It seems to me that the form has this importance only as long as we’re unconscious of it: to become aware of the form as a form is to separate the content. At that point the presentation goes into reverse & becomes a perception: the form comes from us then.

Such a reversal of movement. . .is of course a hinge of all my thinking. Marshall’s “extensions of man” version of it comes from Samuel Butler. A jet plane can move faster & a computer thinks faster than a man, but no machine yet invented has any will to do these things. The will is the reversal of movement from a receptive response stimuli to a Gestalt. No machine can yet make this reversal: no camera in Blake’s phrase, can look through its lens. I have a feeling that Marshall doesn’t get past the presentation at all, but I’m doubtless wrong. (CW 9, 15)

Roman Catholic education has always been summa-centred, for obvious reasons. In Newman all humanism & individual-centred education has to be sacrificed on the summa altar, or else. Hence Catholic intellectuals go in for great co-ordinating patterns, but are too timid & anxiety-ridden to try to get beyond this point. Or else, like Marshall [McLuhan], they work out their own line on the assumption that the summa is in the background ready to take care of it. (CW 9, 28)

I think my body-and-extensions of body might be a central theme in the McMaster lectures, in view of the importance of abstract extension in Canadian landscape and (McLuhan) thought & culture. (CW 9, 34)

I haven’t yet read Marshall’s “the medium is the message” book, but. . .there is something magnifying in an address to the ear alone, something that reduces scale on a purely visual level. Hearing Hitler’s 1939 speeches was a terrifying & hideous experience. . . .but I wonder if he could have survived television. For in television you can turn the sound off, & that would reduce Hitler to Charlie Chaplin in no time. (CW 9, 38)

Marshall [McLuhan] says everything we do today is a potential item in a computer information file: cf. archaeology, & some history, which shows so obviously an apocalyptic perspective on the fast. (CW 9, 65)

Two things to get rid of. It’s no use saying I like resemblances more than discriminations: literature is an art & identity, and resemblances are positive. Again, it’s no use saying my genres are a false analogy to biology just because it’s impossible to work out an a priori theory that things must be so. Even if you start with a completely chaotic view of art, like McLuhan’s view that art is anything that A can put over on B, the next step will tell you that putting over involves the conventionalizing of what you say, & so genres arise. (CW 9, 95)


From “Speculation and Concern” (1965):

I speak of course of the arts in the plural because there is a group of them: music, literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, perhaps others. The dance, for instance, is in practice a separate art, though in theory it is difficult to see it as anything but a form of musical expression. It seems inherently unlikely, at the time of writing, that we have yet to develop a new art, despite all the strenuous experiment that there has been, some of it in that direction. Marshall McLuhan says of the new media of communication that “the medium is the message,” and that the content of each medium is the form of another one. This surely means, if I understand it correctly, that each medium is a distinctive art. Thus the “message” of sculpture is the medium of sculpture, distinct from the message which is the medium of painting. But, as McLuhan also emphasizes, the new media are extensions of the human body, of what we already do with our eyes and ears and throats and hands. Hence they have given us new forms or variations of the arts we now have, and the novelty of these forms constitutes a major imaginative revolution in our time. But though distinctive arts they are not actually new arts: they are new techniques for receiving the impression of words and pictures. (CW 7, 248-9)

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2 Responses to “Northrop Frye on Marshall McLuhan: A Compilation”

  1. Hi. I’m the guy who runs the Northrop Frye website. I was very glad to find you because I’m trying to gather citations regarding McLuhan on Frye. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that you put up my Frye/McLuhan posts. Two things, though: first, could you provide a direct link to our site with each reposting on your end? We would, of course, like people to have a look at us because we are loaded down with resources in our library and journal; second, the Frye on McLuhan compilation you put up yesterday had not been thoroughly proofed, and there are some incidental errors that have since been corrected, so you might want to repost it.

    This might also interest you: we’re posting a documentary on McLuhan on Saturday night, and we’ve been putting up a lot of McLuhan and McLuhan-related video your readers might want to see. So by all means let them know.

    Stay in touch. Can you send me an email address? I intend to do some deep reading into McLuhan and would appreciate your advice.

    Michael Happy

    • Hi Michael. I do provide a link back to your site every time I re-publish a short piece or post the initial portion of a longer piece, like your last one, the Compilation. But I always shorten lengthy URLs using the service provided by . The link back to your site is at the bottom on my postings. I have also listed your site under my blogroll on the right side. I’m pleased that you are publishing a Frye blog and excerpting what he had to say about MM. These 2 great thinkers had a complex relationship and mixed views about each other’s work; some of their differences result from the fact that MM attended Cambridge, whereas Frye was at Oxford. There has been a longstanding debate between the professoriate and graduates of these 2 ancient universities, based on their different cultures and approached to scholarship. My friend Bruce Powe has been exploring this as well, notably in his York U doctoral dissertation, which will be published as a book, this winter I think. You can email me at . Thanks for contacting me. And yes, let’s keep in touch. Next year is the centenary of Northrop Frye’s birth and I hope he gets a measure of the worldwide recognition MM has been receiving this year………Alex Kuskis

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