McLuhan vs the Walkathon in 1931

The earliest letter included in McLuhan’s Letters is from 1931 to his mother.  This is the only letter from that year (when McLuhan was 20). Here below is another 1931 letter, written by McLuhan to the editor of the Winnipeg Tribune concerning “Walkathons” (captioned in the newspaper as ‘The “Walkathon” and Other Days‘)1 

“Walkathons” were not the “pedestrianism” races which were popular in the 19th century (providing a nice example of the Gutenberg galaxy), nor were they the later fund-raiser walkathons which seem to have started in the 1950s. Instead, a “Walkathon” in 1931 was a dance marathon as described here. Although McLuhan rightly condemned these events (in terms he would later see as too valuative), he might well have seen the flip from “pedestrianism” to the “Walkathon” as typical of the switchover from the one-at-a-time linear assembly line to the electrical circuit maintaining itself between its two poles.

June 25, 1931

To the Editor of The Tribune.

Sir, — If there is one aspect of the twentieth century [for which it] claims dignity and respect for itself above preceding ages, it is that of its humanity. We pride ourselves upon our intelligence to perceive and our eagerness to correct social abuses wherever they lie. We feel confident that the historian of our times 2000 years hence will be lavish of his eulogies on this point at least, for after years of toil we have ejected the unclean spirit of barbarism.

But the people of America scarcely seem aware how serious are the incursions being made on this ultimate sanctuary of their self respect.

The unclean spirit has returned with seven others fouler than himself and their Winnipeg addresses are the Playhouse and the Amphitheatre.

The venerable fathers of the Inquisition failed to contrive any torture as exquisitely refined as the “Walkathon”. The Colosseum in its goriest days afforded no more disgusting spectacle than now goads the morbid curiosity of our citizens.

No doubt many people have been hoodwinked by the fact that the participants receive excellent care, but beneath this very thin veneer lie the hideous repulsive facts which will be all too evident four months hence.

The “Walkathon” is only a symptom of a society that is very sick indeed, but like most symptoms it aggravates the evil from which it springs.2 The occasion is one for prompt, vigorous and uncompromising action, Such action would receive the unanimous moral support of every intelligent person.

H. M. McLuhan

  1. Winnipeg Tribune, July 3, 1931, page 9.
  2. Gordon reports an entry from McLuhan’s diary from May 22, 1931 in which unemployment is called “a symptom, though like most symptoms it has aggravated the evil” (360n52).