Babe on Havelock, Innis and McLuhan

Robert Babe’s essays on Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan (in Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers, 2000) are undermined by his taking Eric Havelock and McLuhan at their word regarding the timing of their encounters with Innis.  Leaving aside the questionable readings he makes of the texts of these figures (to be considered in future posts), Babe’s work illustrates an ongoing general failure to come to grips with the facts, let alone with the meaning and significance, of Canada’s fundamental contributions to the social sciences and humanities.

Referring to Havelock’s statement in his Innis Memoir (1982) that he was “only on the edge of [Innis’s] acquaintence, not one of his close circle of friends” (Canadian Communication Thought, 376 n460), Babe concludes that “Havelock attested that while at Toronto he had little contact with Innis” (ibid 272). These are hardly the same thing and, significantly, this passage from Babe’s original essay from 2000 was excised when it was republished in 2011 in Media, Structures, and Power: The Robert E. Babe Collection. Indeed, Havelock’s statement is qualified in this same Memoir by his detailed description of some of his contacts with Innis beginning already in 1930.1 Moreover, Havelock’s account could have described many further contacts between the two: the fact that Havelock and Innis’s wife, Mary Quayle Innis, were contributing to The Canadian Forum, sometimes in the same issue, even before Havelock came to the University of Toronto from Acadia University in 1929; the fact that Innis himself, along with his wife, contributed to The Canadian Forum at a time when Havelock was not only continuing his contributions to the magazine, but had assumed a leadership role in its publication; the fact that, as described by Ernest Sirluck, “Innis used to dine regularly with faculty colleagues at Hart House” where “there was much discussion among classicists concerning the use of epic poetry as a technique for inter-generational communication of the ‘cultural baggage’ of a non-literate people”2 — a topic plainly reflecting Havelock’s work.

It is evident that when Havelock reported being “only on the edge of [Innis’s] acquaintance, not one of his close circle of friends”, he was not describing the extent of their contact — which was considerable — but one aspect of its quality (or lack thereof). This was especially to be seen, given Innis’s great influence with the UT administration, in the fact that Havelock, after almost 20 years at UT, was never promoted to professor despite the acknowledged expertise of his scholarship.3 In contrast, at both Harvard and Yale Havelock became not only a distinguished professor but, in turn, chairman of the classics departments at both of these great institutions.

Given the “little contact” Babe reports between Innis and Havelock during their almost two decades together at UT, and given that McLuhan came to UT just as Havelock was leaving for Harvard4, Babe accounts for the many striking commonalities in the work of the three through the postulation that only “after leaving the University of Toronto (…) Havelock developed themes parallel to those of McLuhan”5 and Innis. This claimed chronology overlooks the Sirluck anecdote cited above and, more importantly, unaccountably ignores Havelock’s published work while he was at UT.

Here is Havelock already in 1934(!):

Dramatized conversation was a traditional method of rendering abstract ideas, as examples from the poets and historians show. Hence the “Socratic Logoi“, whether of Xenophon or Plato, owe their form to literary reasons, and not to a desire to represent the historic Socrates [who, as Havelock stressed, did not write]. It is only modern prejudice and literary fashion which prevents the fact from being appreciated.6

And, at the very end of his UT career, written in 1947 in a UTQ review of E.T. Owen’s The Story of the Iliad:

[Owen] plays down the total effect of that enormous weight of tribal baggage, of lore, precept, genealogy, custom, which the [oral] poet has to drag along in his epic. To Owen, Homer the artist is everything; but Homer the encyclopaedist, the didactic recorder of oral tradition, freighted with catalogues and memories, does not exist. This, it seems to me, actually minimizes Homer’s genius, as though he were able to work within the narrower, more controllable limits of a literate method, a Virgil or Dante or Milton armed with pen, picking his themes with nicety, not a bard operating within the great straggling medium of the [oral] saga. If the Iliad is not only astonishing but unique, it is precisely because a controlling perspective, a single point of view, has been imposed upon the most intractable materials.7

It is known that unpublished manuscripts of Havelock were circulating in Toronto at this time and, to judge by I.A. Richards’s knowledge of his orality research, also at Harvard. At a guess, these would have been from his long-time work on Socrates8 (for which he was awarded a Guggenheim scholarships in 1941 and 1943) and his January 31, 1946 public lecture in Toronto, ‘The Sophistication of Homer’9. In any case, it was surely even better known in Toronto what I.A. Richards was able to report from Harvard in a BBC broadcast in 1947: “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.”

In this general context, the January 1948 UTQ review by Havelock is particularly noteworthy in a series of ways. First, it is a kind of valediction to his time in the UT Classics department.  Just as he would later do in Festschrift essays for his former classics colleagues on the left, Gilbert Norwood and George Grube10, Havelock here celebrates a longtime older colleague (“Owen remains faithful to the Greek as against the modern mind”) who would die (on March 2, 1948) only a month’s time after the appearance of the review.  Second, Owen is the very colleague recalled in the anecdote from Ernest Sirluck cited above. It is plain that Owen did not first learn of Havelock’s oral culture theory from the review (since he did not live long enough after it to have the discussion recorded by Sirluck and since Sirluck left UT for the University of Chicago in 1947). Indeed, since it was Havelock’s practice to recall with his Festschrift essays some earlier significant event shared with the honoree11, it may be that Owen and Havelock had long gone back and forth concerning the implications of Havelock’s theory. Third, since Owen was an old friend of Innis and was to be specifically acknowledged (along with Charles Cochrane) by Innis in his preface to Empire and Communications (1950) and since UTQ was the house organ of UT scholarly life (of which Innis was now the Dean of Graduate Studies), this review could hardly have escaped Innis’s interested notice. This was, of course, especially the case when Havelock’s recent appointment at Harvard and Innis’s role in this event must have been the subject of much faculty gossip. Fourth, in this same issue of UTQ, Marshall McLuhan published an essay (‘Henry IV, A Mirror for Magistrates’, UTQ, 1948, 17:2, 152-60) so that Havelock’s review could not have escaped his notice either.

Furthermore, it may be that this review functioned between Innis and McLuhan as a kind of touchstone of their discovery of their mutual interests.  Havelock writes in his review:

If Homer be compared to a very powerful radio station, which however has to transmit to us over an immense distance, Owen allows himself to intervene as the relay station, picking up the wave length and re-transmitting it to us, so that  we can hear it. (210)

Compare the end of McLuhan’s letter to Innis from March 14, 1951 (Letters, 223):

There is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation. Using Frequency Modulation [FM radio] techniques one can slice accurately through such interference, whereas Amplitude Modulation [AM radio] leaves you bouncing on all the currents.

A contemporary (June 12, 1951) letter to Ezra Pound concludes in a comparable way:

I’m interested in such analogies with modern poetry as that provided by the vacuum tube. The latter can tap a huge reservoir of electrical energy, picking it up as a very weak impulse. Then it can shape it and amplify it to major intensity. [The] technique of allusion as you use it (…) seems comparable to this type of circuit. Allusion not as ornament but as precise means of making available [the] total energy of any previous situation or culture. Shaping and amplifying it for current use. (Letters, 224]

Future posts will detail further noteworthy contacts between Havelock and McLuhan in the 1940s.  Suffice it to note here only that it was arguably Havelock, even more than Innis, who set McLuhan on the path he was to follow into his mature work beginning around 1950.

It remains to be shown here how Babe’s mistaken chronology also distorts his assessment of the relation of Innis and McLuhan.  Babe writes:

McLuhan often referred to himself as being a ‘disciple of Harold Adams Innis.’ However, although they were for several years contemporaries at the University of Toronto, Innis and McLuhan hardly knew one another: as late as December 1948 McLuhan still misspelled Innis’s name, and only in 1951 did he begin reading anything by that great political economist. Upon learning that Innis had placed The Mechanical Bride on his syllabus, however, the future media guru12 decided he should learn more about such a person, and turned immediately to ‘Minerva’s Owl’, where he found instant recognition – so much so that McLuhan referred to his Gutenberg Galaxy as being but a ‘footnote to the observations of Innis’. (273)

Once again, Babe has happily allowed himself to be misled by testimony (this time from McLuhan’s 1964 introduction to The Bias of Communication) that was clearly not accurate.13  Facts overlooked here by Babe (and McLuhan?) include:

– Innis and McLuhan were introduced by Tom Easterbrook, who was a protégée of Innis in the 1930s, then his colleague in the Political Economy Department in the 1940s and finally his intimate friend.  A letter cited by Babe as evidence that Innis and McLuhan “hardly knew one another” (since McLuhan misspelled Innis’s name in it) shows them at lunch together with Easterbrook in December 1948 (Letters, 208).  Babe calls Easterbrook “a boyhood chum” of McLuhan (377 n55), but this characterization widely misses the mark.  Easterbrook and McLuhan became lifelong close friends after meeting in engineering classes at the University of Manitoba in 1928.14 Easterbrook was already in his early 20’s, McLuhan in his late teens: hardly their “boyhood”. In 1932 they then traveled in England together and at some point, variously reported as in Canada or in England, Easterbrook brought Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World? to McLuhan’s notice and thereby helped set the whole course of McLuhan’s life, both personal and intellectual.  So when both started work in Toronto (McLuhan in 1946, Easterbrook in 1947), Easterbrook would have been McLuhan’s closest friend there by far (since he, unlike Easterbrook, had no previous experience at UT). The two must have immediately resumed their lifelong habit of long walks and talks.15 And Innis and his work would inevitably have been an important topic for them given Easterbrook’s increasingly close relation with Innis and his communications work, and given McLuhan’s established interest in the topic of media and communication16.

– It was partly as a reflection of these relationships that Easterbrook, surely with Innis’s blessing and help, and probably at McLuhan’s urging17, arranged a  ‘values discussion group‘ at UT in 1949 financed by the Rockefeller Foundation. Babe seems not to have been aware of this seminar (which is not referenced even in his 2011 collection) in which Innis would never have participated, given his hectic schedule, unless it had been of special interest to him. McLuhan must have been part of that interest, perhaps its greater part. Further, given their lunching together and regular participation in the seminar, how could it be that the two “hardly knew one another”?  Or, since the seminar of April 5, 1949 saw the presentation by Innis of what would later become two important essays18, how seriously maintain that “only in 1951 did he [McLuhan] begin reading anything by that great political economist”? Far more likely, given McLuhan’s voracious reading habits, his access to Innis’s work through Easterbrook and the motivation provided by the seminar, that McLuhan knew all of Innis’s then available communications work (like ‘Minerva’s Owl’ from 1948 and the earlier Political Economy in the Modern State from 1946).

– McLuhan’s March 14, 1951 letter to Innis (Letters, 220-223) was originally written earlier in 1951 (since it was acknowledged by Innis on Feb 26) or even in 1950 (since Innis apologizes in his February letter for his late reply).19 In this letter, McLuhan comments on Empire and Communications, which he must have read in 1950 (presumably via Easterbrook).  So much for the idea that “only in 1951 did he begin reading anything by that great political economist” — especially if the first thing McLuhan read from Innis was not Empire and Communications but (as Babe notes following McLuhan) ‘Minerva’s Owl’ (which was published separately by UTP in 1948).20

Babe sums up his sense of the Innis-McLuhan relationship by noting that McLuhan was “greatly indebted to Innis, a person, incidentally, towards whom he did not feel particularly warm on a personal basis” (274). But it is Babe who has the animus. As for Innis and McLuhan, Innis begins his January 12, 1952 handwritten letter:

Dear McLuhan,
I was immensely pleased to get your warm letter…


  1. For discussion, see here.
  2. Watson, Marginal Man, 297. Watson continues: “Sirluck recalls a stimulating conversation with (E.T.) Owen on this subject, with Innis as a quiet, note-taking witness.  Since Innis had contributed little to the conversation, Sirluck was taken aback to see him that same afternoon borrowing from the library all the authorities Owen had cited. When Sirluck expressed his surprise that Innis should be interested in this area, Innis replied emphatically that he thought the subject was of fundamental importance.”
  3. As regards Havelock’s scholarship. he was awarded Guggenheim fellowships in 1941 and 1943. These were some of the earliest Guggenheims ever awarded to Canadians. As regards Havelock’s lack of promotion at Toronto, he was an outspoken activist whose social and political views were not appreciated by Ontario politicians or by UT administrators who were dependent on those politicians for their funding.
  4. Havelock’s appointment at Harvard became official in 1947. But in 1946, the year McLuhan came to UT, Havelock was already a guest lecturer at Harvard.
  5. Canadian Communication Thought , 296, emphasis added. As discussed here, A John Watson takes the same position as Babe in his Innis biography, Marginal Man.
  6. ‘The Evidence for the Teaching of Socrates’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 65, 1934, 282-295, essay abstract, emphasis added.
  7. Havelock’s review of E.T. Owen, The Story of the Iliad, UTQ, Jan 1948, 17:2, 209-211, here 211.
  8. Havelock’s work on the pre-platonics — a term he preferred to pre-socratics — went back to his studies with F.M. Cornford at Cambridge (1922-1926) and began to see the light of day with ‘The Evidence for the Teaching of Socrates’ in 1934 (cited above). His 1952 essay for Gilbert Norwood, ‘Why Was Socrates Tried?’, came from the same planned multi-volume work. (Havelock’s good friend and colleague at Victoria College at UT, Northrop Frye, noted in his diary for Sept 18, 1942: “Havelock back (ie, from his Guggenheim sabbatical) — his Socrates will run to two volumes”  (The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942-1955, NFCW Volume 8).  Havelock’s papers at Yale include work on a third volume as well.)
  9. Frye: “One of my colleagues at Victoria College was a professor of classics, Eric Havelock, who soon afterwards went to Harvard. He has written a brilliant book called A Preface to Plato. But of course he had been thinking about the ideas in this book for many years, and I remember a public lecture that he gave at Victoria (sic, University College) on Homer that impressed me deeply.” (Reading the World: Selected Writings, 1935-1976, 189) An augmented version of Havelock’s 1946 lecture was published in Richards’s 1973 Festschrift. As will be treated in further posts, there are many noteworthy parallels between the lecture and the 1948 UTQ review.
  10. For discussion, see here.
  11. For example, Havelock’s essay in the I.A. Richards Festschrift (1973), ‘The Sophistication of Homer’, was first given as a public lecture at UT a quarter century earlier in January 1946 (as recorded in the UT Monthly and in the UT President’s Report for the Academic Year for 1945-1946). This lecture in typescript was doubtless part of the package that Richards and others at Harvard received at that time for their evaluation of Havelock. In a similar way, as will be discussed in a later post, Havelock’s contribution to the Gilbert Norwood Festschrift in 1952 recalled his 1938 essay on ‘The Significance of the Sophist’.  Presumably Norwood had contributed in some way to Havelock’s thoughts in the earlier essay and it was part of Havelock’s intent to assure Norwood of his thankful memory of this.
  12. The intentionally slighting “future media guru” is amended to “McLuhan” in the 2011 republication of this chapter from Canadian Communication Thought.
  13. McLuhan was notoriously loose with facts, especially about his own work.  In 1965, he told Frank Kermode: “I remember I decided to write that book (Gutenberg Galaxy) when I came across a (1959) piece by the psychiatrist, J.C. Carruthers (sic, Carothers) on the African mind in health and disease, describing the effects of the printed word on the African populations – it startled me and decided me to plunge in. ” (‘The Future of Man in the Electric Age’, Understanding Me, 57).  In fact, McLuhan was already working on the book in 1952 (!) and sent an outline of it to Ezra Pound that year.  Carothers’ article was ‘Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word’, Psychiatry, November, 1959.
  14. Cf, Speaking of Winnipeg, ed John Parr, 1974, p 27.
  15. In his Preface to The Mechanical Bride (1951), McLuhan alludes to this ancient practice: “To Professor W. T. Easterbrook I owe many enlightening conversations on the problems of bureaucracy and enterprise.”
  16. See, already in 1947, McLuhan’s ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’, View 7:3, Spring 1947.
  17. As reflected in McLuhan’s later letter to Innis from March 1951, but as already expressed by him throughout the 1940’s, McLuhan was much animated at this time by a seemingly simple conviction. If language and intellect are at home in this world, but modernity has somehow lost this assurance, the first step towards its recovery must be the agreement of a small group of acute minds concerning the formulation of this fundament for further research. The later Culture and Technology seminar with its Explorations magazine represented both a realization of this idea and — something that has been little investigated — its disappointment.
  18. “The Bias of Communication” and “Technology and Public Opinion in the United States”, both later to appear in The Bias of Communication (1951).
  19. See the editorial note to McLuhan’s letter, Letters, 220 n1.
  20. But see Innis and McLuhan in 1936.

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