Two Biographies of Marshall McLuhan Reviewed (Again)


It seems odd to be reviewing Philip Marchand’s & Terrence Gordon’s biographies of Marshall McLuhan so long after they were first published; the former was published in 1989 & the latter in 1997, but this recent review from Canadian Literature Quarterly might be useful to those who have not read them. And it’s good to remind readers that they are still in print. 

Front Cover          W. Terrence Gordon: Marshall McLuhan - Escape Into Understanding - A Biography

Book Review    –    A Shout Out to Marsh

  • Terence W. Gordon (Author)
    Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding. Stoddart Press (purchase at
  • Philip Marchand (Author)
    Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger. Vintage Canada (purchase at

Reviewed by E. Hamilton

Marshall McLuhan is probably the most influential Canadian communications theorist, and perhaps also the one most argued over. As an academic, he was often accused of being an intellectual vampire and an idiosyncratic researcher. He was, at times, labelled a doomsayer, a rampant technophile, and a media guru. What is perhaps most astounding about McLuhan was his mobility and the consequent reach of his ideas. The “global village” sells telecommunications companies and McLuhan himself was able to find an audience in the marketing managers of GE and IBM. Finding a controversial seat in the canon of theorists labelled “technological determinists,” McLuhan’s ideas have been used to promote notions of technological progress or, in a sinister variation, death by technology. That McLuhan’s theories of media open themselves to such a polarized field of interpretation, and that McLuhan became one of the most public intellectuals of this century, has resulted in a healthy debate about both the theories and the man.

One of the main confusions about McLuhan himself revolved around his own stance towards media and technology. Much of his writing can easily be read as formalist promotion, emphasizing, technological capability in terms of form, rather than explication of content. This, coupled with his belief that personal points of view were redundant in the face of the sensory altering power of the media, contributed to the wide array of readings to which he has been subjected. Both Gordon and Marchand stress this aspect of McLuhan’s writing, while also investing their own with it to some degree. Though Gordon’s treatment of McLuhan is perhaps more apologetic than Marchand’s, and though Gordon is far less equivocal in his stance towards the “father of communications studies,” each presents McLuhan’s life and work as a tray of more or less interrelated hors d’oeuvres, deferring interpretation to their readership. As far as their presentations of McLuhan’s work goes, this seems adequate, though for those familiar with that work it might seem redundant. So little differentiation exists between the two authors’ treatment of the texts that judgements of the two are hardly necessary, though Gordon has a tendency to become bogged down in his own brand of McLuhanesque expostulation.

The differences occur in the ways the authors relate that work to McLuhan’s life. Gordon’s account gives considerably more weight to McLuhan’s pedigree and early years (pre-Cambridge) than does Marchand, and constructs the early life as a kind of frontier epic. McLuhan’s forebears are all invested with one or another (or several in the case of his mother) facet of McLuhan, a narrative feature that tends to naturalize individual development and also to glorify and romanticize the family history. This tactic becomes much more plausible when Gordon writes of the tensions between McLuhan’s mother and father, but becomes rather dodgy in the depictions of McLuhan’s more distant relatives. Marchand rarely dwells too long on matters that may not directly be connected to McLuhan’s own development, or that may be said to constitute the intellectual “surround” for McLuhan’s work at various stages. Marchand’s discussion of McLuhan’s early years places great emphasis on the relationship between his mother and father, but does not merely leave as a sidebar. He uses it as a platform upon which to build connections to the future McLuhan of “50 Million Mama’s Boys” and The Mechanical Bride, as well as to discussions of McLuhan’s home life after his marriage. The result is not only the depiction of a figure with an integral history, but with a depth of conflicting attitudes, beliefs, paranoia and superstitions. Rather than subordinating the life to the ideas, or vice versa—ideas which are, generally speaking, respected and vital long after their inception—Marchand, integrates the ideas into the fabric of a life which is not always as pleasant or as easily digestible as some readers might like.

McLuhan does not exactly come up smelling like roses in either account, though here again, Gordon seems to ally himself to McLuhan in ways that Marchand does not. Gordon certainly does not try to paint a flattering portrait of McLuhan, or to allow his readership to be entirely comfortable with him as a human being. Often, he comes off as having been petty, paranoid, somewhat gender-biased, solidly set in the intellectual cadre of his correspondent, Ezra Pound, and the New Critics. Though neither biographer attempts to pass judgement on McLuhan for his questionable beliefs or conspiracy theories, Marchand is much more successful at forcing his readership to confront these not only as quirks or idiosyncrasies, but as they inform the work for which McLuhan has become famous. For Gordon, these connections are quite loose, and there is always room for a salvage operation. But from Marchand, we learn not only that McLuhan was sympathetic to political fascism (though not necessarily to Hitler or Mussolini) and that he believed in a conspiracy of homosexuals, but that these aspects of McLuhan’s beliefs are not perhaps as inextricable from other aspects of the life as they might seem. Marchand seems to recognize and be able to reproduce the complexities that govern the shape and structure of a life, and to allow those to dictate the course of his story.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the biographies for most readers will be how various influences helped shape the thought that became McLuhan. Particularly interesting, and usually absent from a social science perspective on McLuhan’s theories, are the influences of Richards, Empson, Leavis and the New Criticism. Marchand weaves an almost seamless web of connections between the New Criticism and McLuhan’s later work on media and society, at least suggesting the logocentric and text-centred basis for much of McLuhan’s work. Gordon’s coverage also stresses these influences, though his discussion is more tentative than Marchand’s. In both cases, however, McLuhan’s literary background, and the influence of literary theory serve as a means through which researchers from outside literary studies can be pointed towards some useful resources.

Overall, while Gordon serves to points researchers towards areas of further reading, Marchand provides a framework through which McLuhan’s thought can be broadened and problematized in the context of a highly complex and often sad life. Gordon seems a little too much on side with McLuhan to present a portrait of him that could be as three-dimensional as that of Marchand. As resources for researchers looking to expand or realign an understanding of McLuhan’s theories, both texts serve as valuable touchstones. Source link: 

Philip Marchand     W. Terrence Gordon

Philip Marchand      –      W. Terrence Gordon

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