Kaye Rowe’s “Intimate look at Marshall McLuhan”

Kaye Moreland (1910-1995) was an English department classmate of Marshall McLuhan at the University of Manitoba.  She relocated to Brandon with her husband G R Rowe and began a career in Journalism as Kaye Rowe with the Winnipeg Free Press and (especially) the Brandon Sun. Her 1974 portrait of Marshall McLuhan is online and supplies interesting details of his life in Winnipeg, Cambridge, St Louis and Toronto. The fact that he took part in an unofficial Monday night seminar in Winnipeg in the early 1930s, long before his famous Monday night seminar in Toronto (also unofficial), is a further indication of his enduring attachment to his early two decades in the Manitoba capital.

Rowe’s style is wonderfully western Canadian, both depreciating and sharp: “The Grand Guru of our culture, at once its couch and its analyst…”

An intimate look at Marshall McLuhan by Kaye Rowe1

Brandon Sun – February 02, 1974 – Page 3

Most controversial intellect of the century stamped Made-in-Canada

The Grand Guru of our culture, at once its couch and its analyst

TORONTO: The name — McLuhan — threw its own meteor into the English language; a “McLuhanism” for the book-and-thought diggers carries a reference as specific as does the word, “Kafkaesque.” An aeon or two ago we shared a small honors English seminar with Marshall McLuhan. The course spanned a survey of the Giants of World Literature beginning with the Greek tragedies and moving through the Norse legends, the two Fausts, Don Quixote and other mighty tomes. Five of us decided to trample more wine from the rich grapes with preparation prior to each lecture. We met every Monday evening at Stewart Robb’s2 father’s apartment. The quartet consisted of Eileen Hemphill, who married Dr. Joe Downey of Brandon; Judith Evelyn, who became a Broadway star; Stewart Robb, an academic and the world’s leading authority on Nostradamus; your Brandon Sun writer; and the man who keeps throwing grit into the gears of commercialism — Marshall McLuhan.

Unofficially the Thinker-in-Residence of the University of Toronto, his bailiwick is the Centre for Culture and Technology on campus. Located some 50 yards back of a Queen’s Park Crescent mansion, the stone building is a converted coach-house. The main room holds in semi-circular arrangements a class of 18 evening students, mainly young people on post-graduate courses. Eager and quick, they hang on his utterances, laugh at his witticisms on the last word of a line, knowing the shape of an idea a second before the last word is thrust into place. Spare-framed, six-foot-one, the face is creased in the ruts of a million thought-routes a year. He talks easily, relaxed in his play with ideas and concepts, with words and allusions that rove across the globe, push through the thickets of the centuries. Ten minutes of McLuhan sets the synapses crackling. Everyone sits alertly, no slump, no yawns! He rises and pulls a drawstring on a curtained area. The action reveals a wall painting six feet by five feet. In cool neutrals the busy teaser reveals masses of snarled pipes, gesticulating humanoids and a rectangular central frame. (The painting is by René Cera, originally of Provence, France, a dead-ringer for Picasso at 65; almond-eyed, skin like tight parchment over a well-shaped head, almost Yul Brynner dome-shine. The artist is the husband of our friend Elizabeth Hay3originally of Virden.) “René Cera calls it, Pied Pipers All4,” Dr. McLuhan says. “It’s the boob-tube as the trap for our children. Exposure to its allure for 10 years saps the mental pith. Children are easily influenced. I’m reminded of the Children’s Crusade . . . the first activists’ group! Thousands of them decided they wanted to do their part in winning back the Holy Land from the Infidel. They marched across Europe, became an instant legend. They were pounced upon by the Moslems, sold into slavery, never heard of again.”

Before the class breaks at 10:10 p.m. he takes care to introduce his guests. We lift the dropped jaw back into place as he announces, “She’s a journalist and a speed skater … I remember chasing her around the rink at United College . . .she was wearing a green tam and a green scarf. . . .” All these years Marshall McLuhan has a memory picture with the wrong name attached. We never skated on the United rink; never owned a green tam. It was Katie Taplitsky he was chasing and never caught. But that’s an old story with many memories! We remain silent. He will never know the mixed identities.

An invitation is extended to come upstairs to his office for something warm. The office is triple locked. Souvenir hunters, he discovered, had begun to denude the premises. It is his son Eric who unlocks the door, attends to the tea kettle, clears chairs of books. At 31 Eric, former college lecturer, competent actor, is father’s right-hand man. He serves as chauffeur, looks after the audiovisual materials for lectures and discussion groups, splices, cleans and supervises screenings. Clear-eyed, efficient, his dedication to his father’s work and purposes is a rare and impressive servitude. We wrap chilled hands around the warm cup. Despite the carpeted floors, the old coach-house is full of mean drafts on an early January night. Eric announces a new taping that father might like to hear, an opera with words and music by Ezra Pound done in Gregorian chant technique, the words in French. Reverential listening for 10 minutes until Marshall McLuhan notices that the moon is full. “Do you realize that all human activity doubles at full moon time! More crime, more hospital emergencies, more creativity! I’ve always been pleased that I’m a moon child, [born] on the cusp of July 21, between Leo and Cancer. . . .”

He takes a pill vial from his coat pocket, uncaps and proffers it. “Snuff!” he says. “They tell me it tends to ward off colds. . . .” He uses the 18th century technique for a pinch of snuff, begins to talk about the influences on McLuhan. “My first influence was Jacques Maritain, contemporary French philosopher. At Cambridge I discovered the mysticism and the structuralism of the Jacobeans. John Donne, ‘No man is an island.’ I did my doctorate on Thomas Nashe who traced the dialectic method — this is structure, too — back to 5th century Athens, then on to the rhetorical-historical aspects of the Renaissance. All of which led me to James Joyce, prime example of a structuralist. . . . When I came to Toronto, my great influence was Harold Innis. The economists revered his research into the staples of the Canadian economy: his history of the fur trade, cod fishing, the CPR, pulp and paper. But I was the first to pursue Innis’ communication studies through pulp and paper which led directly to the newspaper as communication. . . . Innis’ focus on forms of communication and their effects on people began with clay tablets and papyrus, the effect of the medium in delivering the message. I used his approach: the effects of media on people. . . .”

St. Louis, Mo., his second university experience after graduation (the first was Madison and the U. of Wisconsin, Dr. Lloyd Wheeler’s alma mater)5 that brought him into contact with several intellectuals whose impact had lasting effect on McLuhan’s thinking. He named Sigfried Giedion and Bernard Muller-Thym. The latter was a lecturer in philosophy and latterly in management. A violinist and a symphony conductor, Muller-Thym turned McLuhan’s mind to the structural aspects of management. The Missouri years also brought close association with two creative people: T.S. Eliot, who drew him into the structuralism of modern poetry, and Percy Wyndham Lewis, artist and war-time Toronto refugee. At McLuhan’s invitation, the Wyndham [and Froanna] Lewis couple found more congenial reception [in St Louis] than parochial Toronto and its disinterest in an original artist who happened to be a stranger. “You must remember that I began as an engineer, switched to philosophy and English. Structural operations were always at the core of my pursuit whether in philosophy, modern poetry or in management. . . .”

A shining brass plaque sits topside of a filing cabinet, safe in its massiveness from the light-fingered souvenir-hunter. Freshly-etched as of November, 1973, is the legend of preservation: “The United States and Canadian Education Association’s award to Marshall McLuhan for his exceptional contribution to communication.”

  1. Rowe’s spelling of many of the names in her report has been silently corrected.
  2. Robb became an IODE scholar in England like McLuhan, but at Oxford, not Cambridge. In his McLuhan bio, Escape into Understanding, Gordon notes that “McLuhan remained in Cambridge until the end of June 1935, meeting then with his Winnipeg friend Stewart Robb, a student at Oxford, and sailing (with him) from Harwich for Belgium” (58). For details see Stewart Robb.
  3. In her column for the Brandon Sun, ‘People Watching’, for April 3, 1976 (p 12), Rowe wrote of Elizabeth Hay (Betty Trott / Liz Cera):
    New name Liz Cera blinked as in neon lights from the masthead of Maclean’s magazine when the year was a babe. Editor of Crafts, Elizabeth Hay Cera was born and grew to her university age at Virden, Man. where father was town clerk. Her sister, the late Lillian Hay, despite the semi-invalidism occasioned by a drug-prescription error, was the most brilliant of book reviewers in the history of the Winnipeg Free Press. During Liz Trott’s (first marriage name) Toronto years, she taught English and art in assorted high schools and raced the pavements doing stories for a financial magazine. Married to art display director, René Cera, of Eaton’s Toronto for the past decade, they had retired to his Lenox, Mass. home in the heart of the Tanglewood-Birkshires country. Every Toronto social occasion of recent years when Liz Cera appeared, she carried a tote containing knitting, crocheting, macrame-knotting. Her page in Maclean’s, by curious coincidence, contains directions for fancy knitting, crocheting and macrame-knots. From around the world, Liz Cera has sent her spontaneous combustion poems written in the contemporary idiom with apologies to Japanese Haiku. One that grows wistful over her Prairie beginnings is:
    FLAT VERSE curious how i had forgotten this need for the full bowl of the sky
  4. Strangely, it emerges from a letter McLuhan wrote his mother on January 22, 1952 (Letters 230) that Kaye Rowe’s friend, Elizabeth Hay (Betty Trott) was the person who introduced him to René Cera long before she and Cera were married in 1966: “Cera just left. (…) Betty Trott, his friend who introduced us, came to supper. She has just left too. The children love her. So does Corinne.”
  5. Rowe and McLuhan knew Wheeler from the UM English department.  In 1936 it was Wheeler who helped McLuhan get his first job at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. See his memory of Wheeler in Speaking of Winnipeg.