Monthly Archives: September 2015

Innis and Havelock – 1930 and beyond

In his October 1978 lecture, ‘Harold Innis: A Man of His Times’1 Eric Havelock described his first encounter with Innis.2 This apparently took place at the turn of the year, 1930-1931, a year after Havelock began his career at UT in 1929:

On November 17, 1930 (…) a small group assembled itself (…) in a room of Hart House [at the University of Toronto] (…) the initiative lay with several persons of whom I was one. (…) During the next 12 months, this little body (…) held seven or eight sessions, and then quietly expired. (…) During that existence, however, it had heard and discussed seven papers by invited speakers, on various political and economic subjects. (…) The second [of these papers] on January 12, 1931, covered the topic of Economic Conditions in Canada, and was delivered by Harold Innis. (…) I seem to recall a personal responsibility for inviting him and soliciting his support.3 It was at this point [apparently towards the end of 1930] that my personal acquaintance with him began. The substance of what he read and said appeared in a paper later read before the Canadian Political Science Association [in May 1931] with the title, “Transportation as a Factor in Canadian Economic History”4. As secretary of the [Hart House] group, I remember I arranged to have reprints of the paper circulated to the members. (…) It is possible that its author felt some appreciation for the fact that I had fostered its circulation outside the circle of professional economists. (‘Harold Innis: A Man of His Times’, ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 38:3, 243-245)

Havelock especially appreciated Innis’ understanding of the complexity of social relations:

The paper read before the [Hart House] group in effect could be interpreted as giving a picture, a summary of the economic factors and forces which had controlled the development of Canada as an independent entity among the family of nations. This of course was also true of such major works of his as the histories of the CPR and the Fur Trade. (…) [Innis was] never content to select only one or two elements in a complex situation in order to build a policy or program; [he was] far ranging enough in intellect to take in the whole sum of the factors, and comprehend their often contradictory effects. (…) His brand of nationalist piety was controlled by the complications of his country’s situation. (245, 251)

In the following 17 years at Toronto, Havelock would come to focus increasingly on the transition in the Greek world from an oral society to a literate one. Although his definitive statement on the subject would not be published until 1963 with Preface to Plato, his position was already well defined by the middle 1940s such that I.A. Richards could characterize it on October 5, 1947 in a BBC radio broadcast, ‘The Spoken and the Written Word’, as follows:

Professor Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself.5

What particularly characterized Havelock’s description of these contrasting states of mind was the attention he gave to their respective roles in constituting the evolving Greek world over the half millennium after 900 BC. The guess may be made that he took Innis’ complex analysis of economic, political and social relations as a model and then asked how orality or literacy functioned in Greek society in which they were, in turn, the means of information storage in it.

Outlining his theory in 1977, Havelock himself expressed this point as follows:

the classical culture of the Greeks was (…) already in existence before the invention [of the alphabet] took effect. That culture began its career as a nonliterate one and continued in this condition for a considerable period [even] after the invention, for civilizations can be nonliterate and yet possess their own specific forms of institution, art, and contrived language. In the case of the Greeks, these forms made their appearance in the institution of the polis, in geometric art, in early temple architecture, and in the poetry preserved in the Homeric hexameter. These were all functioning when Greece was nonliterate. (…) A nonliterate culture is not necessarily a primitive one, and the Greek was not primitive. Once this proposition is taken seriously, one has to ask: in the absence of documentation in a preliterate society, what was the mechanism available for the storage of such information — that is, for the continuous transmission of that body of religious, political, legal, and familial regulation which already constituted, before literacy, the Greek way of life?6

On Innis’ side, the parallel guess may be made that he took Havelock’s analysis of the fundamental role played by oral and literate capabilities in the constitution of Greek society and applied this idea of media as a formal cause universally. Here, too, Havelock may be cited in 1977 as describing the point Innis took from his work (and from others like Milman Parry) thirty years before:

The invention of the Greek alphabet, as opposed to all previous systems, including the Phoenician, constituted an event in the history of human culture, the importance of which has not as yet been fully grasped. Its appearance divides all pre-Greek civilizations from those that are post-Greek. (…) On this facility were built the foundations of those twin forms of knowledge: literature in the post-Greek sense and science, also in the post-Greek sense.7

Innis could see a whole series of such media revolutions stretching over the 5000 years of recorded history and would begin their delineation in Empire and Communications.

McLuhan, coming to the University of Toronto just as Havelock was leaving, and just as Innis was beginning his last fervent research period prior to his premature death, would be the heir to the insights of both men.


  1. Given at Innis College, University of Toronto, and published in ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 38:3,  242-254, October 1981. Reprinted in Harold A Innis: A Memoir (1982), 11-26.
  2. Havelock was the secretary of the small group which came to include Innis. Fifty years later in his Innis College lecture his secretarial notes from the time enabled him to describe this initial meeting with Innis in surprising detail.
  3. It is possible that Havelock made his approach to Innis based on the fact that both he and Mary Quayle Innis, Innis’ wife, were frequent contributors to The Canadian Forum. Innis began her short-story contributions to the Forum in 1927; Havelock contributed poetry and impression pieces beginning in 1929. Both had contributions in the January 1929 issue.
  4. Proceedings of the Canadian Political Science Association, 1931, 166-184 =  Problems of Staple Production in Canada, 1933, 1-17 = Essays in Canadian Economic History, 1956, 62-77
  5. Prof John Paul Russo has kindly provided the information that this talk was recorded on September 17, 1947. A transcript was published in The Listener, xxxviii:977, October 16, 1947, 669-670; a slightly revised version appeared twenty years later as ‘Literature, Oral-Aural and Optical’ in Complementarities, (ed) Russo, 1976, 201-208.
  6. ‘The Preliteracy of the Greeks’, New Literary History, 8:3, 1977; reprinted in The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences, 1982, p 186.
  7. ‘The Preliteracy of the Greeks’, New Literary History, 8:3, 1977; reprinted in The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences, 1982, p 185, emphasis added.

Havelock to McLuhan, 1970, and its background

On September 23, 1970, Havelock wrote to McLuhan:

Please look after yourself. I still carry with me the feeling that you area man who works always near the bone, pushing his nerves to the limit.  (Letters, 406, n2)

He was answering a letter from May 22, 1970, which McLuhan had dictated to his secretary from hospital following a heart attack.

It would be interesting to know what Havelock’s reference was with the word ‘still’ here. Evidently he was thinking back some years — or decades.  Indeed, it is possible that the two had met already in 1946, McLuhan’s first year at St Michael’s. Officially, that was Havelock’s last year at UT before moving to Harvard.  But Havelock was already a guest lecturer at Harvard that year and was presumably in Toronto only sporadically.  

In the intervening years, Havelock seems to have been in Toronto frequently, partly as a result of his continuing close ties with the classics department where he had spent almost two decades.  As a sign of these ties, Havelock contributed essays to the Festschrift volumes for Gilbert Norwood in 1952 (‘Why Was Socrates Tried?’) and for George Grube in 1969 (‘Dikaiosune. An Essay in Greek Intellectual History’).1

But Havelock also had important ties in Toronto outside the classics department, notably with his old progressive comrades like Frank Underhill (history) and even with less progressive former colleagues like Harold Innis (political economics). In his essay ‘Harold Innis: A Man of His Times’2 Havelock recalled a visit to Toronto to lecture in 1951 or 1952:

one morning in the fall of 1951, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I received, somewhat to my astonishment, a personal phone call from him [Innis] to come up to Toronto as soon as I could, to speak to his seminar in the old McMaster building3. (247)

Later in this same essay, Havelock describes his impression of Innis from this visit:

A fatal illness of the body overcame him when his mind was still young, superactive in the formulation of a historical theory or set of theories which he did not live to complete. He had always retained a surprisingly youthful appearance, to match the mind within. His biographer [Donald Creighton] records the memory — it is mine also — of that tragic change which overcame it in the latter days of his life. This had already occurred when I went back to Toronto to encounter him for the last time. I remember being slightly surprised — it was a few years since I had seen him — by a kind of nervous and suppressed energy which seemed to animate him. He seemed not so much to walk around the building as stride purposefully through it. I speculate that he may have sensed already that not much time was left, and that he was determined to pack the maximum of thinking, reading, and writing into it, drawing on the resources of a disciplined will; assembling all those concepts, researches, and conclusions which constitute what has been called the third phase of his scholarly journey; putting down all he could as quickly as he could often in jumbled sequences which make hard reading. (253-254)4

By this time McLuhan had participated in the 1949 ‘values seminar‘ with Innis and was now,  in 1951, in correspondence with him.5 It is very likely that McLuhan would have audited the session with Havelock and, if he did not already know him personally, have met him at that time. 

If Havelock and McLuhan did not meet in 1946 or during this 1951 (or 1952) visit of Havelock to Innis’s seminar, it is entirely possible that the two met in connection with Explorations magazine (the organ of the Culture and Communications seminar), which was, of course, centrally concerned with Havelock’s topic of orality and literacy. This could have occurred either in Toronto or Harvard6 since Jackie Tyrwhitt, an important member of the Explorations team, transferred from Toronto to Harvard in February 1955.  McLuhan mentions Havelock in his 1954 address to the Catholic Renascence Society, ‘Eliot and the Manichean Myth’, and (as will be detailed in further posts) certainly came to know of Havelock’s work on orality and literacy, but also his literary criticism, soon after he arrived in Toronto in 1946. 

  1. Havelock returned to Canada in an official capacity to present a Vanier lecture in Ottawa in 1970 (‘War as a Way of Life in Classical Culture’) and for his important series of lectures in Toronto in 1974, ‘Origins of Western Literacy’.
  2. In ETC: A Review of General Semantics, 38:3,  242-254, October 1981. Reprinted in Harold A Innis: A Memoir (1982), 11-26. The essay was originally given as a lecture in October, 1978, when Havelock and McLuhan together recalled Innis at Innis College (UT).
  3. Before moving to Hamilton in 1930, McMaster was located on Bloor Street in Toronto just north of the University of Toronto. At the time of the move, the McMaster building was sold to UT. Innis would have attended classes in this building as a McMaster undergrad forty years before his seminar with Havelock in 1951/2.
  4. This visit must have taken place in late 1951 or early 1952. As tendered in this same essay, Havelock’s overall assessment of Innis was very high: “Take him all in all, in the specific categories of his achievement, and you will not, I think, find up to this point in time his equal among his fellow Canadians. (…) I hazard the opinion that his premature death constituted a minor disaster in the long history of the human understanding.” ‘Harold Innis: A Man of His Times’, 253-254
  5. See also letters from Innis to McLuhan here and here.
  6. In a letter to Pound from June 12, 1951 (Letters 223), McLuhan mentions being at Harvard in May that year. So he and Havelock could have met then, for the first time or again.