Sirluck on Innis, Owen and Havelock

In an interview with A. John Watson for Watson’s bio of Harold Innis, Marginal Man, Ernest Sirluck, a successor of Innis as Dean of Graduate Studies at UT and later President of the University of Manitoba, supplied the following anecdote:

At this period (circa 19461), 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. 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. (297)

Watson uses this anecdote to suggest that Havelock (clearly the source of the research described by Owen) may have influenced Innis through such “oral channels” (298). He is forced to this suggestion of oral influence since, in company with other Innis scholars like James Carey and Robert Babe, he holds in regard to “the timing of his [Havelock’s] scholarly publications that deal with themes of interest to Innis” that “only one of these appeared before Innis’s death [namely] Prometheus Bound, 1950″ (ibid). As detailed in other posts2, however, Havelock published a great deal while he taught in Canada and the topic of oral vs literate communication had long been present in his work.

As a result of this general research failure (apparently following Havelock’s own faulty memory instead of looking into the documents), the history of communication theory in Canada has been fundamentally skewed. For example, Watson comes up with the following fantastic conclusion concerning the Innis-Havelock relation that has no other basis than his failure to consult the articles Havelock wrote in Canada between 1927 and 19473:

It is not an exaggeration to say that Havelock’s work is the equivalent of a detailed extension of Innis’ treatment of Greek civilization. At the risk of simplification it seems that Havelock picked up Innis’ concept of media supersession as a focus for looking at Greek literature and society.  (300)

No, as further discussed in Innis and Havelock – 1930 and beyond and in What Havelock knew in 1938, it was Innis who took up Havelock’s insight into information storage as an illuminating focus in social analysis comparable to (and doubtless influenced by) Innis’s own staple theory. Watson was correct, however, to suspect mutual influence between the two during Havelock’s time in Canada — even when he did not consult the texts necessary to discern when and how this took place.

  1. Sirluck’s anecdote concerns Eric Trevor Owen, b 1882, longtime professor of classics at UT, who died in 1948. Sirluck himself served in WW2 and left Toronto for the University of Chicago in 1947. The potential timespan for the anecdote is therefore late 1945 to early 1947.
  2. See
  3. Leaving aside unpublished texts and lectures which seem to have circulated in typescript, like Havelock’s 1946 public lecture at UT on ‘The Sophistication of Homer’, also his important literary publications (which included his full monograph from 1939, The Lyric Genius of Catullus) and most of his frequent contributions to The Canadian Forum, these were: ‘The Evidence for the Teaching of Socrates’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 65, 1934, 282-295; ‘The Significance of the Greek Sophist’, The School (Secondary Edition), 1938, May 782-785 and June, 874-877; ‘The Philosophy of John Dewey’, The Canadian Forum, July 1939, 121-123; ‘The Riddle of Plato’s Politics’, The Canadian Forum,  April 1941, 15-19; and his review of E.T. Owen, The Story of the IliadUTQ, Vol. 17:2,  Jan 1948, 209-211.

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