Passages from the Reviews of Marshall McLuhan’s Books: The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly

27Jan22

Assembled by Robert Sparrow-Downes

Publisher’s Note: This is the first of a series of approximately 15 posts, one for every published book by Marshall McLuhan, whether written by him independently or in collaboration with one or more others. These will be published here, approximately one per week, though not necessarily every week, until completion. The quotes selected from different reviews have been categorized according to their overall positive view (the Good), overall negative view (the Bad), or total dismissal (the Ugly), often derogatory in their tone and language. Taken together, they give an impression of each book’s overall reception, without having to read the more than dozen sampled reviews in full. – Alexander Kuskis

Editor’s Note: In the spring of 2021, I asked York student volunteer Robert Sparrow-Downes if he could help with a new feature I wanted to work into the script of my in-progress work, The Bio-GRAPHIC Marshall McLuhan, a graphic novelization of McLuhan’s life and thought.  The idea: after the publication of each of his books, to repeat the motif of Marshall in the robes of Lady Justice, holding scales on which sit the most positive and negative lines from reviews. The reviews for The Mechanical Bride (1951) were not uniformly for and against. Some found a middle ground. But later reviews proved so decisively for or against the work at hand that Robert’s assembly struck me as striking a nerve which still resonates. Is McLuhan’s reputation destined forever to be the subject of strong contention? – William Kuhns


The cover of the first edition (1951), published by the Vanguard Press, New York; Published simultaneously in Canada by the Copp Clark Company, Toronto. The same image of a green-coloured cylindrical gear that is on the cover of the first edition became red-coloured in a later reprint of the book in the late ’60s or early ’70s.  

1. The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951)

 The Good:

“Several writers have recently tried to bring out the meaning and trend of modern mass society through a universal survey. But no one has done it with so much verve and in so original a way as Herbert Marshall McLuhan.”
– Rudolph E. Morris. Review of The Mechanical Bride. Renascence, vol. 4, no. 2, Spring 1952, p. 217.

“It is to the author’s credit that we are thunderstruck and overwhelmed by his presentation of things we ‘know.’ His ingenious method produces this effect which may make us stop and think before it is too late . . . . he guides the reader through the nightmarish thicket of advertisements, comic strips, newspaper front pages which impress themselves upon us daily and hourly. He shows us what they mean and brings to light correlations and connections between them and other currents of thought, sentiment, and ideas we would never dream of.”
– Rudolph E. Morris. Review of The Mechanical Bride. Renascence, vol. 4, no. 2, Spring 1952, p. 217.

“We would not realize the full implication of industrialization on the human person and the life of mind and spirit if the author did not force us into seeing the paradoxical contradictions of our present ways of life.”
– Rudolph E. Morris. Review of The Mechanical Bride. Renascence, vol. 4, no. 2, Spring 1952, p. 218.

“How refreshing to see a critique of a period and of its morals avoiding moral indignation!”
– Rudolph E. Morris. Review of The Mechanical Bride. Renascence, vol. 4, no. 2, Spring 1952, p. 218.

“The Mechanical Bride, published in 1951, was his first book on media and his most bizarre. I will not dwell on it more than to say it is a collector’s item fetching upward of fifty dollars in mint condition.”
 Howard Luck Gossage. “Understanding Marshall McLuhan.” Ramparts, Apr. 1966. Reprinted in McLuhan Hot & Cool, edited by Gerald Emanuel Stearn, Signet, 1969, p. 25.

“McLuhan is here a groundbreaking folklorist of his own times, tutoring a somnambulant audience in the myths of consumer populism.”
– 
Mark Kingwell. Review of The Mechanical Bride. Saturday Night, vol. 114, no. 8, Oct. 1999, p. 22.

“. . . . it was the first major example of a critical anthropology of advertising that is now ubiquitous . . . . It’s also the best book the future guru of media ever wrote.”
– Mark Kingwell. Review of The Mechanical Bride. Saturday Night, vol. 114, no. 8, Oct. 1999, p. 22.

“Like any great critic, McLuhan here makes the reader feel as if he or she has embarked with the author on a great adventure . . . . Whether merely sententious or as gripping as a thriller, hectoring or satiric, the book never reads as dated. And that’s partly because McLuhan, gearing up to slay the dragon of brainwashing, propaganda, and fascist-capitalist mind control, is having so much fun.”
– 
Greil Marcus. “Twentieth-Century Vox.” Artforum, vol. 51, no. 1, Sept. 2012, p. 462.

“It is clear that this trained person, who appears throughout the book in different descriptions, the one who can crack the code, break the spell, and begin the climb from media slavery to human liberation, is McLuhan himself.”
– 
Greil Marcus. “Twentieth-Century Vox.” Artforum, vol. 51, no. 1, Sept. 2012, p. 466.

“Joyce is not only the greatest modern artist . . . . he is also the great liberator of the twentieth century—and what Joyce did in the first half of the century, McLuhan will do for the last.”
– 
Greil Marcus. “Twentieth-Century Vox.” Artforum, vol. 51, no. 1, Sept. 2012, p. 466.

The Bad:

“Righteous anger has its uses, but it is here often abused to the detriment of the author’s thesis that we are wallowing in vulgarity and shabbiness of values. A passionate no-sayer, he is sometimes carried away by his anger.”
– 
David L. Cohn. “A Touch of Humor Wouldn’t Hurt.” New York Times Book Review, 21 Oct. 1951, p. 26.

“Too often, however, his own voice is lost amid his voice shouting to be heard.”
– 
David L. Cohn. “A Touch of Humor Wouldn’t Hurt.” New York Times Book Review, 21 Oct. 1951, p. 26.

“The idea of the book is excellent, its purpose admirable; unfortunately the effectiveness of the work is all but destroyed by an inflated and professorial style and by the author’s predilection for positively blood-curdling puns.”
– 
Unnamed Author. Review of The Mechanical Bride. The New Republic, 26 Nov. 1951, p. 21.

“The Mechanical Bride is very like Mrs. Leavis’ Fiction and the Reading Public, another book which doesn’t argue well and is in the end historically false, but one which looks incisively at popular culture and which did precipitate some thinking. And yet the most important point against McLuhan is precisely that his antics are enough to give media studies a bad name.”
– 
Christopher Ricks. “McLuhanism.” The Listener, 28 Sept. 1967. Reprinted in McLuhan: Pro & Con, edited by Raymond Rosenthal, Pelican, 1969, p. 103.

“Can we escape or not? Is the Mechanical Bride as transfixing as the Iron Maiden? McLuhan makes a lot of play with Perseus’ mirror (‘the mirror of conscious reflection’) as the only protection against Medusa—but Perseus’ mirror wouldn’t have been very much use if he’d forgotten to bring along his sword.”
– 
Christopher Ricks. “McLuhanism.” The Listener, 28 Sept. 1967. Reprinted in McLuhan: Pro & Con, edited by Raymond Rosenthal, Pelican, 1969, p. 105.

“The maelstrom of commercial culture is wittily charted, but there are no very convincing hints about how to escape from it. On the contrary, the idealization of twelfth-century philosophy, the sneers at coeducation, feminism, and working mothers, the dubious assertion that the rich were once more socially responsible than they are now, and the rather Victorian attitude toward corsets, brief skirts, and high heels would depress the Bride to the level of silly Tory propaganda if they were anything more than digressions from the main concern of the book.”
– 
Neil Compton. “The Paradox of Marshall McLuhan.” New American Review, vol. 2, Jan. 1968. Reprinted in McLuhan: Pro & Con, edited by Raymond Rosenthal, Pelican, 1969, p. 112.

The Ugly

“As it is he is nearly always as solemn as Nazi propagandists who told Germans that we were a decadent people because we had tree-sitters, marathon dances and jazz bands: that our young men, ‘drugstore cowboys,’ were too soft to fight”
– David L. Cohn. “A Touch of Humor Wouldn’t Hurt.” New York Times Book Review, 21 Oct. 1951, p. 26.


The Gingko Press Edition, 2001


%d bloggers like this: