T.S. Eliot in Winnipeg

But in 1930 in Manitoba, it was as if Joyce, Eliot, and Pound did not exist. It is possible that their books were not even in the university library at the time or in any of the bookstores in Winnipeg. (Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 23-24)

Marchand’s bio of McLuhan is excellent. But on this point, the question of just how provincial Manitoba and its university English department were during McLuhan’s years there (1929-1934), he is mistaken. On this page from The Manitoban, the UM student newspaper, from March 16, 1934, McLuhan’s 2-column article, ‘An Interview with Dr Johnson’, is on the left.  But on the right is another 2-column article by F.H.D Pickersgill on — T.S. Eliot.

Frank Pickersgill (1915–1944) was born in Winnipeg and attended the same high school as McLuhan, Kelvin. He majored in English at UM, like McLuhan, and the two are reported in the bio of Pickersgill to have taken classes together.1 Pickersgill’s short life ended in execution in Buchenwald in 1944. With several other Canadians he had served with the French resistance during the German occupation and had been arrested. In a remarkable illustration of second sight, Pickersgill’s Eliot article describes the weapons we have against the sort of “limitation” (as he says) portrayed in The Waste Land:

First we must be able to give up all to a cause — without any other stimulus but a generous impulse.

As regards Eliot at UM , Pickersgill’s article compares very favorably to the work McLuhan was doing at the time (and McLuhan was almost 4 years older). He cites all of Eliot’s major poetry to that date — Prufrock, Sweeney, Waste Land, Hollow Men, Ash Wednesday — and ends by bringing Eliot into connection with Chesterton (who is frequently discussed in the letters included in his biography). Eliot’s [Anglo-]Catholicism is broached repeatedly.

There can be no doubt that McLuhan knew Pickersgill’s article and little doubt that Eliot (and likely other early twentieth century literature as well) was avidly discussed in the UM English department — at least among the students. This background would have been one more thing (along with an unusually broad knowledge of English literature) that the relatively mature McLuhan brought with him to his second undergraduate course of study when he entered Cambridge later in the fall of that same year, 1934, as a 23 year old.

Here is McLuhan to Nina Sutton forty years later:

I first encountered the work of I.A. Richards at Manitoba University (…) at first it was shattering. I thought it was the end. 

McLuhan went to Cambridge in 1934 with an agenda. Namely, he had to find a way forward that had ground. But it had to be ground that somehow included the possibility of “shattering”.

  1. The author of the Pickersgill bio, George H. Ford (1914-1994), was another Winnipigeon and a fellow English major with Pickersgill at UM a couple years behind McLuhan. Ford went on to become a distinguished academic and, as his University of Rochester biography has it, he was “an internationally known Dickens scholar and authority on Victorian literature”.  The materials for the Pickersgill bio were assembled by his brother, J.W. (Jack) Pickersgill, who was later a federal cabinet minister in the Pearson era.  On May 25, 1967, McLuhan and Jack Pickersgill were together awarded honorary degrees by UM as reported in the Manitoban here.