BOOKS

The guru of pop culture

LETTERS OF MARSHALL McLUHAN Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan and William Toye

NORMAN SNIDER December 21 1987
BOOKS

The guru of pop culture

LETTERS OF MARSHALL McLUHAN Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan and William Toye

NORMAN SNIDER December 21 1987

The guru of pop culture

BOOKS

LETTERS OF MARSHALL McLUHAN Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan and William Toye

(Oxford University Press,

562 pages, $1+5)

Despite the controversy that still surrounds his reputation, it is now beyond argument that Marshall McLuhan was one of the most original and provocative thinkers that Canada has ever produced. His letters, selected by his former agent, Matie Molinaro, and his widow, Corinne— and ably annotated by William Toye— represent the most extensive revelation of a personality that was as quirky as it was brilliant. After sampling some of McLuhan’s stimulating and absorbing outpourings to correspondents ranging from Ezra Pound to Woody Allen, the reader may well conclude that he was a figure straight out of the pop lexicon: the eccentric genius.

McLuhan’s letters from 1931 to 1936—which record his student years at the University of Manitoba and, later, at Cambridge University—reveal a prim prairie youth of impressive intellectual capacity and application. “I shall have a 1st or burst,” he wrote to his family from England. He admitted no distractions: “I wish my sex instinct was nil,” he claimed. Paradoxically, the

straitlaced McLuhan was a young rebel whose revolt against his upbringing took a religious turn. In 1936, when he was 26, McLuhan converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, writing to his mother that he believed “everything that is especially hateful and devilish and inhuman about modern industrial society is Protestant in origin.” Added to the mix of piety and rebellion in his character was a strong sense of his own superiority and personal destiny. “I have just refused tea at Downing Street with Mrs. Neville Chamberlain,” he wrote from Cambridge. “Not the least bit interested.” And on a more prophetic note: “I am going to tear the hide right off Canada some day and rub salt in it.”

But when he returned to North America in 1938, he led the life of a conventional academic. He taught English literature at such institutions as the University of Wisconsin, St. Louis University and Assumption College in Windsor, Ont. He tried to help Wyndham Lewis, the indigent British novelist, painter and pioneer philosopher of popular culture, to become established in St. Louis. McLuhan published his own first study in popular culture, an essay on the comic strip Blondie, in 1944. But he concentrated on using writers he admired as vehicles for his

own ambition. “I am solving my own problems parabolically by tackling yours, ” he wrote to Lewis. Still, in a letter to Pound, his own ambitions came to the fore: “I am an intellectual thug who has been slowly accumulating a private arsenal with every intention of using it.”

It was only after 1946—and especially upon the publication of Understanding Media in 1964—that McLuhan made good on his threat, becoming a controversial sage and international oracle. The correspondence shows that he compulsively offered advice to such notables as then-president Jimmy Carter, journalist Tom Wolfe and pianist Glenn Gould. But the continuing correspondence with Pierre Trudeau is perhaps the most remarkable exchange between philosopher and statesman to take place in modern times. “You are immeasurably the greatest Prime Minister Canada ever had,” wrote McLuhan, who was not averse to a little judicious flattery. He then proceeded to explain to Trudeau why the Canadian public perceived him as arrogant. For WASP Canada, McLuhan suggested, to be ruled by a French Catholic represented a reversal of nature. “As long as you were content to ‘put on’ your public by playfulness and ‘clowning,’ it was felt that they did not have to take you seriously. As soon as you ‘play it straight,’ the WASP public feels abused, since it alone has the right to assume the mask of serious corporate power.”

The McLuhan of the 1960s and 1970s was by turns brilliant, outrageous, repetitious and opaque. “Not only is my work hard to understand,” he wrote to senior Washington, D.C., bureaucrat Nicholas Johnson, toward the end of his life, “[but] the media are even harder to understand.” Some of the observations in his later correspondence were extraordinarily prophetic. McLuhan foresaw the decline of his reputation among the yuppie generation, even though that social phenomenon was barely under way at the time of his death in 1980. “Now that the TV generation is squaring up again,” he wrote American historian Marshall Fishwick, “they no longer feel the same satisfaction in zapping the establishment via McLuhan. I just continue to engender academic rage while the TV kids are running for cover.”

It is a measure of the importance of McLuhan’s ideas about the media and society that many of the observations that were once considered dramatically revolutionary now seem staggeringly obvious. As well as revealing a singular personality, the letters ensure that posterity will know the full extent of Marshall McLuhan’s dazzling intellect.

-NORMAN SNIDER