Marshall McLuhan

47

Marshall McLuhan : biography

July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980

Life and career

McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta, to Elsie Naomi (née Hall) and Herbert Ernest McLuhan. His brother, Maurice, was born two years later. "Marshall" was a family name: his maternal grandmother’s surname. Both of his parents were born in Canada. His mother was a Baptist schoolteacher who later became an actress. His father was a Methodist and had a real estate business in Edmonton. When World War I broke out, the business failed, and McLuhan’s father enlisted in the Canadian army. After a year of service he contracted influenza and remained in Canada, away from the front. After Herbert’s discharge from the army in 1915, the McLuhan family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Marshall grew up and went to school, attending Kelvin Technical School before enrolling in the University of Manitoba in 1928.Gordon, pp. 99–100.

At Manitoba, McLuhan explored his conflicted relationship with religion and turned to literature to gratify his soul’s hunger for truth and beauty,Marchand (1998), p. 20.Edan, Tina (2003). , p. 10. Retrieved 2010-06-27. later referring to this stage as agnosticism.Edan (2003), p. 11. After spending one year as an engineering major, McLuhan earned a BA (1933)—winning a University Gold Medal in Arts and SciencesGordon (1997), p. 34Marchand (1998), p.32—and an MA (1934) in English from the University of Manitoba. He had long desired to pursue graduate studies in England and, having failed to secure a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, McLuhan was accepted for enrollment at the University of Cambridge.

Although he already had earned BA and MA degrees at Manitoba, Cambridge required him to enroll as an undergraduate "affiliated" student, with one year’s credit toward a three-year Cambridge Bachelor’s degree, before entering any doctoral studies.Gordon, p. 40; McLuhan later commented "One advantage we Westerners have is that we’re under no illusion we’ve had an education. That’s why I started at the bottom again." Marchand (1990), p 30. He entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge in the autumn of 1934, where he studied under I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, and was influenced by New Criticism.Marchand, p. 33–34 Upon reflection years afterward, he credited the faculty there with influencing the direction of his later work because of their emphasis on the training of perception and such concepts as Richards’ notion of feedforward.Marchand, pp. 37–47. These studies formed an important precursor to his later ideas on technological forms., a virtual museum exhibition at Library and Archives Canada He received the required bachelor’s degree from Cambridge in 1936 Gordon, p. 94. and entered their graduate program. Later, he returned from England to take a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that he held for the 1936–37 academic year, being unable to find a suitable job in Canada.Gordon, pp. 69–70.

While studying the trivium at Cambridge he took the first steps toward his eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1937,Gordon, p. 54–56. founded on his reading of G. K. Chesterton.Lewis H. Lapham, Introduction to Understanding Media (First MIT Press Edition), p. xvii In 1935 he wrote to his mother: "[H]ad I not encountered Chesterton, I would have remained agnostic for many years at least".McLuhan, Marshall. "Letter to Elsie McLuhan", September 5, 1935. Molinaro et alia (1987), p. 73. At the end of March 1937,Gordon, p.74, gives the date as March 25; Marchand (1990), p.44, gives it as March 30. McLuhan completed what was a slow, but total conversion process, when he was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. After consulting with a minister, his father accepted the decision to convert. His mother, however, felt that his conversion would hurt his career and was inconsolable.Marchand (1990), pp. 44–45. McLuhan was devout throughout his life, but his religion remained a private matter.Marchand (1990), p. 45. He had a lifelong interest in the number three Gordon, p. 75 —the trivium, the Trinity—and sometimes said that the Virgin Mary provided intellectual guidance for him.Associates speculated about his intellectual connection to the Virgin Mary, one saying, "He [McLuhan] had a direct connection with the Blessed Virgin Mary… He alluded to it very briefly once, almost fearfully, in a please-don’t-laugh-at-me tone. He didn’t say, "I know this because the Blessed Virgin Mary told me," but it was clear from what he said that one of the reasons he was so sure about certain things was that the Virgin had certified his understanding of them." (cited in Marchand, p. 51). For the rest of his career he taught in Roman Catholic institutions of higher education. From 1937 to 1944 he taught English at Saint Louis University (with an interruption from 1939 to 1940, when he returned to Cambridge). At Saint Louis he tutored and befriended Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912–2003), who would go on to write his Ph.D. dissertation on a topic McLuhan had called to his attention, and who also would later become a well-known authority on communication and technology.