Memorable Manitobans: Herbert Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)
Educator, media guru.
Born at Edmonton, Alberta on 21 July 1911, he moved to Winnipeg in 1915. He attended Gladstone School, Earl Grey School and Kelvin Technical High School before enrolling in the University of Manitoba in 1928. He received a BA Honours in 1933 and an MA in 1934. He then spent two years at Cambridge University (Trinity College) on an IODE fellowship. He was hired by the University of Wisconsin as a graduate asistant in 1936-1937, at which time he converted to Roman Catholicism.
In 1937 he moved to St. Louis, Missouri to take up an appointment in English at Saint Louis University, a Jesuit institution. He taught the New Criticism and began doctoral work, receiving his doctorate from Cambridge in 1943 and producing the start of a long string of academic publications on literary subjects. While in St. Louis he struck up a friendship with the English polymath Wyndham Lewis, who was living in exile in North America. In 1944 he moved to Assumption College, Windsor, and in 1946 he joined St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. He remained at the University until his death.
His early writings in literary criticism, published in the academic journals, have been much neglected. An interest in popular culture—begun to be able to communicate with students, and fostered by Harold Adams Innis—led to The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (1951). He wrote Report on Project in Understanding the New Media (1960). In 1962 he produced The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. His most influential work appeared in 1964: Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Like all his work on the media, these were discursive tours of western culture with some underlying theses. Understanding Media became unexpectedly popular, selling 100,000 copies in paperback soon after publication. McLuhan’s major thesis, that electronic media had made books obsolescent, made him a guru for the electronic age, and he became the subject of increasing amounts of academic attention, much of it highly critical.
In 1967 he went to Fordham University to take up an endowed chair in humanities for a year. While there he was operated on for removal of a brain tumour. His later books include The Medium is the Message (1967), War and Peace in the Global Village (1968), Counterblast (1969), and Culture is Our Business (1970). A number of his later works were done in collaboration, such as From Cliché to Archetype (with Wilfred Watson). He continued to expand upon his ideas in journalistic interviews. He enjoyed his fame, although he once said, “Temperamentally, I’m a stodgy conservative. If there are going to be McLuhanites, you can be sure that I’m not going to be one of them.”
He died at Toronto, Ontario on 31 December 1980 following a stroke in September 1979. A selection of his correspondence, edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye, was published as Letters of Marshall McLuhan (1987). A biography written by W. Terrence Robinson was published in 1997, and another by Douglas Coupland was published in 2009. His papers are at Library and Archives Canada and a collection of articles that he wrote while a student at the University of Manitoba is online at the University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections. In 2019, he was inducted into the Winnipeg Citizens Hall of Fame.
“Death of media sage McLuhan renews debate,” Winnipeg Free Press, 2 January 1981, page 14.
“Winnipeg virtually ignores Marshall McLuhan on centenary of his birth,” Winnipeg Free Press, 21 July 2011.
This page was prepared by Gordon Goldsborough.
Page revised: 13 July 2021