McLuhan and Father Gerald Phelan 1934-1936

The biographers all agree.  McLuhan’s article on Chesterton just happened to appear in The Dalhousie Review in Halifax, then just happened to catch the eye of Fr Gerald Phelan in Toronto, who, “oddly enough”, just happened to be a friend of McLuhan’s mother1.

Here is Philip Marchand in Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger:

In 1936 [McLuhan] wrote an article on Chesterton for a quarterly published by Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Father Gerald Phelan, the president of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto and a friend, oddly enough, of Elsie McLuhan, admired the article and wrote to its author. There followed a correspondence between Phelan and McLuhan that finally nudged McLuhan into becoming a Catholic. On his Christmas visit to his mother in Toronto in 1936, McLuhan met Phelan, and the priest examined McLuhan about the state of his beliefs. It was a satisfactory examination for both parties. On Holy Thursday, March 25, 1937,  McLuhan was received into the Church. Thereafter he never failed to note the anniversary of this epochal event. (50-51)

Similarly from Terrence Gordon in Escape Into Understanding:

In Toronto Elsie approached Father Gerald Phelan, at St Michael’s College, about the prospects for a position for her son after learning from him that he had received a letter from Phelan expressing his appreciation of the Chesterton article in The Dalhousie Review. (…) McLuhan made contact, once again, with Father Phelan at St Michael’s College [by letter in November 1936], and told him to wished to become a Catholic. Visiting Elsie in Toronto over the Christmas holidays [in December 1936], he had several meetings with Phelan, who put questions to him about his faith and satisfied himself that McLuhan could be a candidate for reception into the Church (…) It was Elsie who had been apprehensive about her son’s career if he converted to Catholicism (…) and yet it was Elsie who had made the first contact with Father Phelan that led both to McLuhan’s conversion and support for his Saint Louis [University] appointment. (61, 71, 76)

Similarly again from Judith Fitzgerald (but with her chronology very mixed up) in Marshall McLuhan Wise Guy:

McLuhan settles into a routine of sorts at Wisconsin [beginning in September 1936!] (…) [and] resolves to make the best of what turns out to he a disappointing situation. He turns his hand to honing his writing skills and penning articles for various academic and literary journals. In these, he eloquently discourses on subjects such as the importance of the thought of recent Roman-Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton, the respected English author of the sleuth/priest Father Brown series of novels (…) When McLuhan’s Chesterton piece appears [in January 1936!] in a quarterly published by Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University, Father Gerald Phelan, the University of Toronto’s president of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at St. Michael’s College (and, incidentally, a friend of McLuhan’s mother), impressed by its contents, writes the first of several letters he sends to the young Turk. It is the correspondence between them — bolstered by a very satisfactory [December] 1936 meeting the pair enjoyed during McLuhan’s Christmas holidays spent in Toronto with Elsie and Red — that convinces McLuhan he must do what he must do… (45)

And finally from Douglas Coupland in Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, whose chronology is also confused, apparently following Fitzgerald:

And so there was a lonely young Marshall in a foreign city [Madison], teaching students he considered space aliens. He knew that seven hundred miles away, his family was in the final stages of disintegration; whether by choice or by fate, he was still single and had nobody with whom to share his life. It was at this point that a letter arrived from Father Gerald Phelan, president of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Phelan had read an article by Marshall on Chesterton that had appeared in a university quarterly. The two began a correspondence, and, during Christmas 1936, while visiting Elsie in Toronto, Marshall met with Phelan, who was,  coincidentally, an acquaintance of Elsie’s. Her motherly Geiger counter must surely have been bleeping off the dial to see her religion-hunting son Marshall falling into the clutches of the Catholics. In any event, his meeting with Phelan must have gone well. The lonely young man returned to America and, on Tuesday, March 30, 1937, was received into the Church. (60-61)

All these reports go back to an editorial note to a letter from McLuhan to Elsie April 12, 1936 (Letters 82) in which he comments on her speaking to Phelan, perhaps concerning whether he might help McLuhan find a job:

Father Gerald B. Phelan (1892-1965), whom Elsie McLuhan knew, was at this time Professor of Philosophy at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, and in the School of Graduate Studies. He was President of the Pontifical Institute of Studies from 1937 to 1946, the year he moved to the University of Notre Dame. On 29 January 1936 (diary) McLuhan had been “immensely gratified by a note of appreciation (of my GK article)” from Phelan. Elsie McLuhan had perhaps offered to speak to Father Phelan about the possibilities of a teaching position for Marshall after he graduated from Cambridge. Later in the year Phelan would have a preliminary role in McLuhan’s conversion to Roman Catholicism — a goal towards which McLuhan was moving when he wrote this letter. To his brother Maurice he had written on 11 April [1936]: “Had I come into contact with the Catholic Thing, the Faith, 5 years ago, I would have become a priest, I believe.”

These accounts don’t entirely accord with each other or with the facts of the matter. It is certainly not the case, for example, that “In 1936 [McLuhan] wrote an article on Chesterton”, as Marchand says, since by January 29 of that year McLuhan, in Cambridge, had already received “a note of appreciation” from Phelan in Canada about its appearance in DR (as recorded in the Letters editorial note above). It was, in fact, written in 1935, in Cambridge, certainly not in Madison as Fitzgerald unaccountably suggests. Nor is it the case that Phelan was then “the president of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at St. Michael’s College” (as Marchand, Fitzgerald and Coupland all have it) since the Institute did not become Pontifical until 1939 and Phelan did not become its president until that same year (not 1937 as in the Letters note).

Furthermore, and more importantly, none of the accounts considers how it was that McLuhan’s article came to appear in The Dalhousie Review in the first place. Clarification of this question works to throw light on McLuhan’s conversion, which all of the accounts situate in this context of the Chesterton paper and Phelan, but do little to illuminate.

As set out in ‘Autobiography – encountering Chesterton‘, McLuhan and Elsie were already corresponding about a Chesterton paper for Canada during McLuhan’s first term in Cambridge in 1934: 

My head is teeming with ideas for the GK article which will be written on a sudden shortly. I have kept jotting down separate notions as they came from all sorts of reading I have been at lately, so the longer it waits the better it will be. I intend to send it to the mgr of GK’s Weekly before sending it to Canada, to have any criticism or suggestion he can offer. (December 17, 1934, Letters, 48)

So McLuhan’s paper was written in 19352 for a destination in Canada and that destination must have already been The Dalhousie Review in Halifax, where it appeared only a year after this letter (lightening speed to go from “ideas” to published copy, especially for a first-time author).3 McLuhan must have been given to understand that publication was assured — if he put together a decent essay. So, unlike most first-time authors, McLuhan did not write his paper on spec in the hope of publication somewhere after the usual review process (first of the idea, then of the paper itself). Instead — as seen by the timing McLuhan’s paper in fact experienced (finished in the late spring of 1935 and in print a little over a half year later, in an era when submissions, queries and corrections could be communicated between England and Canada only by ship post) — the interest of The Dalhousie Review must already have been secured, along with the mechanics required for its immediate publication.

The question is: how was it that McLuhan’s article came to appear in The Dalhousie Review in this rather exceptional fashion?

The answer seems to be that it came to DR through Father Phelan.  Since McLuhan’s paper did not undergo the usual submission process and was published almost instantaneously upon receipt at DR, it must be that this was arranged by someone with excellent connections to the Review.  Phelan had such connections4 and is cited by all the bios as having come into contact with McLuhan through this DR paper. Further, Phelan helped to arrange McLuhan’s jobs at SLU in 1937, Windsor in 1944 and Toronto in 1946. And he may have helped to place McLuhan’s 1943 UTQ paper on Hopkins as part of the stepped move from SLU to Toronto. In any case, it seems that it can only have been Phelan who organized McLuhan’s appearance in 1936 in DR. He was from Halifax, was an old friend of the DR editor, Herbert Leslie Stewart 5 and was himself a contributor to the Review.6

Admittedly, all that is known with certainty is that by December 1934 McLuhan and his mother could already discuss an offer to arrange publication in Canada of an article on Chesterton. But such an arrangement could not have been put in place, absent anything on paper from McLuhan, except by someone with enough knowledge of Chesterton to judge that McLuhan’s take on “GK” was accurate enough and interesting enough to warrant publication. Further still, such an arrangement could be put in place at DR only by someone whose judgement of McLuhan’s views on Chesterton was accepted there without question.  Only Phelan fits this complex description.

Supposing McLuhan’s appearance came though Phelan, then, it remains to wonder how this process got started.  Since Phelan had no cause to contact McLuhan prior to the appearance of his Chesterton paper in 1936, any contact with him in 1933 or 1934 must have originated with Elsie (who was living in Toronto after September 1933) or McLuhan himself (who came through Toronto on his way to Cambridge in the summer of 1934).

It is possible that one or both of them heard (or heard of) a Phelan lecture on Chesterton:

He [Phelan] had an interest in the careers of men who put intellect at the service of the Church: Kenelm Henry Digby, Virgil Michel, Hippolyte Delehaye, Cardinal Newman, St. John Eudes, Jacques Maritain, Alexander Joseph Denomy, and G.K. Chesterton on the last of whom he produced an often-delivered, but never published, paper with the subtitle: “Confessor non-Pontiff.” (Arthur G. Kirn, ‘Introduction’ to G. B. Phelan: Selected Papers, 1967, 10)

The Phelan papers at St Michael’s have notes and incomplete drafts for this lecture. The fragmentary draft for the version delivered in New York on November 24, 1936, begins: “Twelve months ago a young Canadian author, writing in The Dalhousie Review, said this about G. K. Chesterton: ‘He has become a legend while he yet lives. Nobody could wish him otherwise than he is’.” This “young Canadian author” was, of course, McLuhan.

Another indication of Phelan’s interest in Chesterton is the fact that he quoted him three times in Phelan’s short 1937 book Jacques Maritain (which had originated in another lecture of his). So McLuhan was discovering Maritain in Cambridge just when Phelan was lecturing on Maritain and putting together a book on him. If McLuhan and Phelan were indeed already in contact, as seems highly likely, it may be guessed that it was Phelan who prompted this attention to Maritain (a close personal friend of Phelan and a sometime colleague of his at St Michael’s).7

The usual story of McLuhan’s conversion is that he was thinking about it more or less on his own until he came into contact with Phelan, in 1936, through his Chesterton paper. All the biographers (with the exception of Gordon) attribute some importance to McLuhan’s conversion a year later to the continuing correspondence with Phelan that resulted from this contact initiated by Phelan.  The suggestion here is that their dialogue probably began much earlier and was initiated by McLuhan and/or his mother. In this view, McLuhan and Phelan were already in contact by 1934, at the latest, such that Phelan became a, or the, great influence on the process of McLuhan’s thinking leading up to his decision to convert two years later. This influence would have been due both to Phelan’s broad knowledge of Catholic thought, medieval (especially Thomas, whom he translated) and modern (especially Maritain, whom he also translated), and to his decided but wide-ranging and open personality.8  Indeed, surely it was Phelan whom McLuhan had in mind as a model when he wrote to his brother Maurice from Cambridge on April 11, 1936: “Had I come into contact with the Catholic Thing, the Faith, 5 years ago, I would have become a priest, I believe.” (Letters, 82n)

  1. Elsie McLuhan moved to Toronto from Winnipeg in 1933. See ‘Elsie McLuhan Leaving To Take Toronto Post‘, Winnipeg Tribune, September 9, 1933, p4, with discussion here.  A year or two later Maurice McLuhan joined her there to attend UT. That both knew and were friendly with Fr Phelan is attested in a 1946 letter from McLuhan to Elsie where he describes a visit with Phelan at St Mike’s just prior to his move there from Windsor: “Phelan delighted me.  Asked much about you and Red.” (Letters 181)
  2. Other letters cited in Autobiography – encountering Chesterton‘ record its progress.
  3. It is remotely possible that “Canada” refers to Father Phelan in Toronto with the expectation of publication in some journal through him.  As the ex-president (1931) of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, a central figure at St Michael’s and its Mediaeval Institute and the author over 20 academic papers by 1935, Phelan had the connections necessary to place McLuhan’s paper in a variety of publications.
  4. See the following note.
  5. Phelan and Stewart were among the small handful of teachers of philosophy in Halifax after WWI (Stewart at Dalhousie, Phelan at St Mary’s, but Phelan was also working at Dalhousie with Stewart where he founded its Newman Club and regularly lectured on ethics) and had a mutual interest, originating with Stewart, in the relation of philosophy to psychology. (Stewart’s book Questions of the Day in Philosophy and Psychology was published in 1912, immediately before he began his long career at Dalhousie.) Phelan would go on from Halifax to do advanced graduate work in Stewart’s area, philosophical psychology, in Europe (he was based in Louvain from 1922 to 1925, where he obtained his PhD) and became a recognized expert in the field.
  6. The first item in the January 1936 issue of DR, immediately before a paper by Harold Innis, was ‘Fifteen Years Of The Review‘ by the editor, H.L. Stewart. In it he observes that the review’s “catholicity of interest is illustrated by the appearance, within a short space, of critical papers on Bertrand Russell and Cardinal Mercier”. The Mercier article (DR 6:1, 1926, 9-17) was one of Phelan’s contributions. A more recent Phelan article was ‘The Lateran Treaty‘ in DR 9:4, 1930, 427-438. Since Phelan was regularly publishing in Journals like New Scholasticism and Philosophical Review, it appears that he regarded DR as a publication for writing that was not strictly theological or philosophical — like his piece on Cardinal Mercier or McLuhan’s on Chesterton.
  7. Phelan was the translator of a series of books by Maritain and even one by his wife.
  8. “Gerald Phelan’s interest in art and the philosophy of art reflected, not only his own abilities (he was an accomplished musicologist), but also a number of close personal friendships with artists (notably Arnold Walter and Eric Gill), and is attested by several articles. (…) As a man, he impressed me as one of those rare people to whom Providence has granted the power to look the emptiness of his own success in the face.” (Arthur G. Kirn, ‘Introduction’ to G. B. Phelan: Selected Papers, 1967, 11)