Patterson on McLuhan’s acquaintance with Innis

Like nearly all researchers of the Toronto school, Graeme Patterson took McLuhan at his word that he

began to read the late work [of Innis] only after he was made curious by learning that The Mechanical Bride had been placed on the reading list of one of Innis’ courses in political economy. (History and Communications,1990, 29)

Patterson relies here on McLuhan’s mistaken recollection of events going back 30 years, which he made when he appeared with Eric Havelock in October 1978 at a memorial for Innis held at the University of Toronto in Innis College. The publication of Havelock’s address from that occasion, Harold A Innis: A Memoir (1982), has a short preface by McLuhan (‘The Fecund Interval’) in which he says:

My own acquaintance with Innis began when I heard that he had put my book, The Mechanical Bride, on his course reading list. It intrigued me to know what sort of academic would take an interest in this book, I read his Bias of Communication and became a follower of Harold innis from that time. (10)

None of this makes sense. McLuhan described his acquaintance with Innis as beginning with his reading The Bias of Communication (which would have been sometime in 1951 at the earliest, since the book was first issued that year).  But before this, Innis would hardly have had the time to read The Mechanical Bride (which itself was issued early in 1951) and to assign it for one of his courses. Moreover, as Patterson was well aware, McLuhan’s letter to Innis from early that year (if not from the end of 1950)1 already discusses Innis’ 1950 Empire and Communications — so McLuhan’s “acquaintance with Innis” certainly did not begin with his reading Innis’ Bias of Communication. 

Further, McLuhan had participated with Innis in a seminar in 1949 and Tom Easterbrook had brought the two of them together for a meal (and for further unattested discussions?) in 1948.2

 From McLuhan’s mistaken memory Patterson deduced that:

Long before encountering Innis [McLuhan] had written [in the Preface to The Mechanical Bride]: “Ever since Burckhardt saw that the meaning of Machiavelli’s method was to turn the state into a work of art by the rational manipulation of power, it has been an open possibility to apply the method of art analysis to the critical evaluation of society.” (History and Communications, 34) 

While some of The Mechanical Bride may indeed have been written before McLuhan came to know Innis in 1948 (or already in 1947 when his old friend Easterbrook returned to teach with Innis in the UT political economy department), its ‘Preface’ was almost certainly written after.

  1. The published letter from McLuhan to Innis from March 1951 was a “rewrite”.  Innis’ answer to the original letter was dated February 26, 1951, and apologizes for a delayed response.
  2. For discussion of the 1949 ‘values seminar’ see ‘The ‘Values Discussion Group’ of 1949′ (; for the 1948 meal, see McLuhan to Lewis Mumford, December 28, 1948, Letters 208.