Theall on Innis, Havelock and McLuhan

Virtual Marshall McLuhan by Don Theall, 2001:

McLuhan first read Innis in 1951, some three years after the initial publication of Empire and Communication (…) One can speak loosely of the existence in the late 1940s (…) of a “Toronto School of Communication” — since Eric Havelock (who was beginning his studies of orality and literacy), as well as Innis and McLuhan were all at Toronto. However, there was little actual contact between Havelock, Innis, and McLuhan, even though they were aware of one another’s work. (…) From my personal contact with McLuhan, which began three years prior to the seminar [on Culture and Communication, 1953-1955], I learned that (…) he was not personally close to Innis — which was clearly confirmed on two or three occasions at which I was present when Marshall conversed with Innis. (49)

In the space of a few sentences here, Theall makes a whole series of factual errors. Since these must have resulted from his “personal” recollection, they throw in some doubt those matters where his recollection is the only basis of their veracity.

It is not the case that “McLuhan first read Innis in 1951”.1 He commented on Empire and Communications in his letter to Innis which was first written either at the end of 1950 or very early in 1951.2 So McLuhan must have read Empire and Communications in 1950, the year of its publication (and not, as Theall, says, 1948, ie, “1951, some three years after the initial publication of Empire and Communication“). In fact, McLuhan recorded that the first thing he read from Innis was ‘Minerva’s Owl’  (which was published by UTP in 1948) which would accord with his participation with Innis in the Values Discussion Group of 1949.

Further, the title of Innis’ book was Empire and Communications, plural, not Theall’s Empire and Communication, singular. Further still, it is not the case that Havelock, Innis, and McLuhan “were all at Toronto” together “in the late 1940s” — or ever.  Havelock left Toronto for good in 1947 and in 1946, McLuhan’s first year at UT, Havelock was a guest lecturer at Harvard. Finally, Innis’ letter to McLuhan from January 12, 1952 — which begins, “I was immensely pleased to get your warm letter” — might serve to qualify, at least, Theall’s recollected impression that McLuhan “was not personally close to Innis”.3  

In a more concentrated look at ‘The Toronto School of Communications‘ Theall offers this synopsis:

The foundation of the Toronto School begins with Havelock and the way he interpreted Aeschylus’s play, Prometheus Bound, [= The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, 1951] as a commentary on the dilemma of the rise of technology and its creation of a new sense of space, time and memory in a post-technological world dominated by a shift from orality to writing –- an argument he was later to develop at great length in a book McLuhan praised highly, The Preface to Plato. Innis openly admitted Havelock’s influence on his own work with his interest in communication technologies and the shift in biases toward time and space which resulted, [as manifested] in [works in] various media. McLuhan’s early work in his Cambridge doctoral thesis, Thomas Nashe and the Learning of his Time, and his first book, The Mechanical Bride, provided him with a unique access to Havelock’s work, presenting possibilities of reinterpreting, expanding and critiquing many of Havelock’s, and later Innis’s, insights. McLuhan was able to use the history of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric and their impact on shaping (…) and directing learning from Greece to Elizabethan England to extend Havelock’s history of Greek culture to that of the history of culture from the Roman Empire to the Reformation.

Theall certainly errs here in observing that “the foundation of the Toronto School begins with Havelock” in 1951. By that time, Havelock was already deeply engaged in his orality research and was long gone from Toronto, Innis had published his major contributions in communications (Empire and Communications and many of the essays included in The Bias of Communication), and McLuhan had published The Mechanical Bride. Despite this, however, the synopsis offered here is illuminating and demands close consideration. Particularly Theall’s well-founded specification of “a new sense of space [and] time” in Havelock and Innis is important in light of McLuhan’s investigations of spaces and times throughout the 1950s, culminating in his relativity theory of human experience sometime around 1960.

  1. As discussed below, this avowal is made by Babe and other historians of the Toronto school. Its effect has been to excuse researchers from looking into the facts of the matter before this time.
  2.  The copy in Letters (220-222) is dated March 14, 1951, but is identified as a “rewrite”.  In Innis’ February response to the original letter, Innis apologies for his late reply.
  3. Theall arrived in Toronto in the fall of 1950. This letter from Innis to McLuhan, written a little more than one year later, could not have fallen too far out of the time frame of the “two or three occasions at which I (Theall) was present when Marshall conversed with Innis”. Theall’s recollection here, going back 50 years, might have been colored by, eg, Robert Babe, who also maintained that the relationship of Innis and McLuhan was “not (…) particularly warm on a personal basis” (see here). Babe’s influence on Theall’s recollections may be suspected as well from Babe’s faulty contention, again to be found in Theall, that “only in 1951 did he (McLuhan) begin reading anything by that great political economist” (ibid).