McLuhan on first meeting Innis

Although a great deal has been written on ‘the Toronto school’, little has been done on what might seem to be a prerequisite to the topic, namely, the questions of who read what by whom? And when? This post looks at the question of when Innis and McLuhan began to read texts of each other (aside from the probability that McLuhan first read Innis already in 1936 when his first published essay on Chesterton appeared in the same issue of The Dalhousie Review as an important essay by Innis).1  Previous posts have looked at the same question in regard to Innis and Havelock and Havelock and McLuhan.2

But a very great deal remains to be done in this area: these posts should be regarded only as initial approaches to its investigation.


On a number of occasions in the last years of his life, McLuhan described how he had come to meet Harold Innis thirty years before:

Harold Innis — I was very lucky to encounter him. It was through The Mechanical Bride that I met him. and when I heard he had put it on his reading list, I was fascinated to find out what sort of an academic would put a book like The Mechanical Bride on a reading list. So that’s when I went around and met him and we became acquainted for the few years of his life that remained. (Marshall McLuhan in conversation with Mike McManus, TVOntario, Dec 28, 1977)3

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. (‘The Fecund Interval’, Preface to Eric Havelock, Harold A Innis: A Memoir1982, written by McLuhan in 1979 on the basis of his talk with Havelock in memory of Innis held at Innis College, October 14, 1978.)

None of this makes sense. Innis would have been able to include The Mechanical Bride on a reading list only in the fall of 1951,4 since McLuhan’s first book was published, at last, only earlier that year. Then, after that, so even later in 1951 at the earliest, McLuhan’s memory was that he “went around and met him and we became acquainted”. In fact, however, McLuhan and Innis had met years earlier, by 1948 at the latest. In a letter to Lewis Mumford (December 28, 1948)5 he mentions having a meal with Innis and Tom Easterbrook. And McLuhan and Innis participated in a seminar together early in 1949. Further, after both The Mechanical Bride and The Bias of Communication were published in 1951, it was sadly not the case then that a “few years (…) remained of [Innis’] life”6: Innis would die the next year in November 1952.  Further yet, in a letter from early 1951,7 and or even from late 1950 (since the copy we have from March 1951 is a “rewrite” of a letter Innis answered in February and apologized for his delay in doing so), McLuhan discussed Innis’ 1950 Empire and Communications.  This was before The Bias of Communication was even published — so the latter was with certainty not the first book from Innis that McLuhan read.

McLuhan’s memory in the late 1970s of his meeting with Innis thirty years before was plainly confused. But it was not simply made up out of whole cloth.  Instead, it seems that he remembered events that were indeed very important for both Innis and himself, but he associated them with the wrong texts and, therefore, with the wrong dates.

A clue to the correct story is given in the footnote in The Bias of Communication to a passage in  ‘Adult Education and Universities’: “The advertiser has created distrust through his power of penetration in the field of education”. There is no footnote to “the advertiser has created distrust” in its original appearance in the Manitoba Royal Commission of Adult Education (1947).  But in its reprinting Innis added a reference here to McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride.  When The Bias of Communication appeared in 1951, Innis was able to add this reference to The Mechanical Bride only because McLuhan’s first book had finally appeared earlier that year after having been largely composed in the 1940s. While it is not impossible that Innis had seen parts of it in typescript through Tom Easterbrook who was a close friend of both men, he would not have been able to put such unpublished material on a reading list for a course.  But Innis would indeed have been able to assign one or both of two papers that McLuhan published in 1947 and that derived from the ongoing composition process of The Mechanical Bride

More than three decades after the event, McLuhan seems to have confused these papers derived from the composition process of his first book with the book itself. 

On his side, by the end of this same year of 1947, Innis had already published three of the nine papers which would later be collected in The Bias of Communication:

  • Minerva’s Owl (Presidential Address, Royal Society of Canada, 1947)8 
  • The English Publishing Trade in the Eighteenth Century (Manitoba Arts Review, iv, 1945)
  • Adult Education and Universities (Innis’ contribution to The Manitoba Royal Commission on Adult Education, 1947)

And a fourth of the nine was published as an appendix in the 1948 reprinting of Minerva’s Owl:

  • A Critical Review9

Two of these papers would have been particularly significant to McLuhan and Easterbrook as having been published in Winnipeg, their hometown.10 In addition, ‘The English Publishing Trade in the Eighteenth Century’ bridged their academic specialties in English and Economics.

In his ‘Introduction’ to the 1964 republication of The Bias of Communication McLuhan recalled his first meeting Innis somewhat differently than he was to do 15 years later (as detailed above):  

Flattered by the attention that Innis had directed to some work of mine, I turned for the first time to his work. It was my good fortune to begin with the first essay in this book [that McLuhan was introducing, namely The Bias of Communication]: “Minerva’s Owl.” How exciting it was to encounter a writer whose every phrase invited prolonged meditation and exploration: “Alexandria broke the link between science and philosophy. The library was an imperial instrument to offset the influence of Egyptian priesthood.”

Here McLuhan does not refer to The Mechanical Bride, but to “some work of mine”, and he names the first essay he read from Innis as Minerva’s Owl — a lecture Easterbrook would have been able to share with McLuhan in any of the multiple forms in which it appeared in 1947 and 1948.11 

As seems to have been the case with The Mechanical Bride, so also with The Bias of CommunicationMcLuhan’s memory thirty years after the event appears to have confused texts later included in the book with the book itself.

On the basis of these qualifications to McLuhan’s descriptions of his first acquaintance with Innis, a reconstruction of the event may be made along the following lines.

A year after McLuhan joined the English faculty at St Michael’s (UT) in the fall of 1946, Tom Easterbrook rejoined the UT political economy department headed by Innis. Easterbrook and McLuhan were decades-old close friends from Winnipeg — the two had even toured England together in the summer of 1932 when they were still undergraduates at UM. In the middle 1930s, when McLuhan was in Cambridge, Easterbrook did graduate work in political economy in Toronto and wrote his PhD thesis there with Innis as his adviser. Easterbrook and Innis were close even then: Innis had seen to the publication of Easterbrook’s thesis by UTP with a foreword by himself (Farm Credit in Canada, 1938). On his return to Toronto, Easterbrook immediately began to work closely with Innis again, in a relationship that continued to grow until, by the time of Innis’ death 5 years later, Easterbrook was one of his most intimate friends. 

In 1947 Easterbrook must have immediately been impressed (if he did not already carry this impression with him from before) by the many parallels between the lives and views of Innis and McLuhan.12 Both had lived and worked in university communities in the US midwest, both had married remarkable American women and both had sizable families (Innis and his wife had four children, the McLuhans’ fourth child, of an eventual six, was born in 1947). Both had grown up in a Baptist environment which they had come fundamentally to question; but both remained obsessed by the spiritual and social question of what had happened to religion in the modern world. Both believed that education and the transmission of tradition were shaped primarily by culture and environment and that culture and environment, hence also education and the transmission of tradition, had been transmogrified (and not for the better) by the industrial revolution. Both had long been extremely critical of the academy. And both held that the disruptions of modernity were unavoidably reflected in internal conflict in the individual between intellect and emotion.13 Finally, both had a strong interest in business and the economy: Innis, naturally, as an economist by profession; and McLuhan through his friendships, established while he was still in St Louis in the early 1940s, with Bernard Muller-Thym, a corporate consultant in New York (at first with McKinsey & Company and later on his own),14 and with Peter Drucker, who was on his way to becoming one of the leading theoreticians of business of his generation.15 

Other themes may have been further preexisting commonalities or they may have been adopted by Innis from McLuhan.  So, for example, Innis in his 1947 ‘The Church in Canada’: 

Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is a symptom of a widespread interest in the technique of pushing people around.

Innis doesn’t further enlarge on the topic, but McLuhan, since the early 1940s, had been working on an essay, or essays, variously called ‘Dale Carnegie: America’s Machiavelli’, ‘Dale Carnegie in the American Grain’ and ‘Dale Carnegie’s Moral Arithmetic’. McLuhan was in the habit of sharing work in progress like this and may well have done so in this case with Easterbrook — and, through Easterbrook, with Innis. 

Similarly, Innis drew repeated attention in this same address to the “the basic problem of character”:

The Church is in part responsible for a tendency in the social sciences to neglect the importance of training and character. With great pretentiousness they pronounce on questions of exceeding complexity in the social sciences and belittle the necessity of a long period of intense training and the development of character essential to an appreciation of the danger of interfering in other people’s lives. (…) we would do well to follow the example of the medical profession based on centuries of experience and tradition in emphasizing the importance of respect for the individual, evident as early as the oath of Hippocrates, and to realize that decisions affecting the lives of individuals should be made only on the basis of intensive training and on character.  (The Church in Canada, 1947)

Innis certainly did not require McLuhan’s help to note the central importance of character in education and life generally.  Still, McLuhan had by this time written a sizable manuscript called ‘Character Anthology’ which he had begun while still at Cambridge and was in circulation with friends. It is quite possible that Innis knew of the work through Easterbrook and was prompted by it to revert to the issue of character, repeatedly, in his United Church address.

Further, Innis began this same address by observing in language more typical of McLuhan than himself:

Modern civilization, characterized by an enormous increase in the output of mechanized knowledge with the newspaper, the book, the radio, and the cinema, has produced a state of numbness, pleasure, and self-complacency perhaps only equalled by laughing-gas.

Further yet, as detailed elsewhere16, it seems that Innis had seen McLuhan’s 1947 proposal to Robert Hutchins on university innovation and reform and was impressed enough by it to put forward some of the same suggestions in his 1948 address in Oxford to a conference of commonwealth university educators.17 In this Oxford address Innis remarked on “the pervasive influence of discontinuity, which is, of course, the characteristic of the newspaper” — surely reflecting one of McLuhan’s central thoughts at this time about Mallarmé and the relation of the form of the newspaper to discontinuity in modern poetry, art, music and science.18

Finally, Innis read and used in his work at least two books of Wyndham Lewis: The Art of Being Ruled (1926) and Time and Western Man (1927).19 McLuhan was a friend and admirer of Lewis and treated both of these works at length in his 1944 essay, ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’. Aside from access to McLuhan’s essay through Easterbrook, it seems very unlikely that Innis would have turned to Lewis and especially to The Art of Being Ruled.

In summary, it seems that Innis beginning at the latest in 1947 read some of the published and unpublished work of McLuhan. And by 1948 at the latest the two had become personally acquainted. But for Innis, at least, the meeting with McLuhan was not of decisive significance. He remained unconvinced for the few years remaining to him that the inevitable bias and relativity implicated in communications study could be overcome or, at least, turned to use in a new investigative discipline.  At the most, he seems to have been cheered to learn of someone in the next generation who was thinking along similar lines to his own.20 And, perhaps as a sign of this, he seems to have included one or both of ‘American Advertising’ and ‘Time, Life and Fortune’ on the reading list when he first began to offer a course in communication in the late 1940’s.

As regards McLuhan’s access to Innis’ work, beyond the published essays from the 1940s later collected in The Bias of Communication — especially the long-remembered ‘Minerva’s Owl’ — and the two University of Michigan lectures included in that book which Innis previewed in the 1949 ‘values seminar‘ (‘Bias of Communication’ and ‘Technology and Public Opinion in the United States’)21, Easterbrook doubtless prompted McLuhan to read Political Economy in the Modern State. This was the bridge between Innis’ work in political economics of the preceding decades and the communications research he would pursue in the few years remaining to him. Political Economy in the Modern State had just been published in 1946 as McLuhan arrived in Toronto. Apart from its essays on culture, media and society22, which were grist for McLuhan’s mill, McLuhan seems to have been transformatively impressed by three great topics in Innis’ book concerning the history and working of media.

First, Innis quoted in his ‘Preface’ the story of the invention of writing by the Egyptian god Theuth (now usually rendered ‘Thoth’) from Plato’s Phaedrus (274ff). As detailed in previous posts23, this same tale from Plato was then cited by I.A. Richards in discussing Havelock’s work in 1947, by Innis again in Empire and Communications (1950, but based on lectures delivered at Oxford in 1948), and repeatedly by McLuhan throughout his career.24 It was understood by all of them to illustrate not only the social and psychological effects of the introduction of writing in Greece, but also the analogous effects from the introduction of any medium of communication in any society at any time.

Second, one of Innis’ seemingly more strictly economic essays in the volume was ‘The Penetrative Powers of the Price System‘ from 1938. The notion (better, the question) of such  “penetrative power” was to become one of the motors of McLuhan’s intellectual life for the next 30 years. Here is how he began his memorial essay on ‘the late’ Harold Innis in the year following Innis’ premature death in 1952:

Often misunderstood or ignored by those who had admired his classic study of the Fur Trade, the work of the later Innis was a shift in attention from the trade-routes of the external world to the trade routes of the mind. Technology, he saw, had solved the problem of production of commodities and had already turned to the packaging of information. And the penetrative powers of the pricing system were as nothing beside the power of the new media of communication to penetrate and transform all existing institutions and patterns of thought. (‘The Later Innis’, The Queen’s Quarterly, 1953)

The great questions were: are media the fundamental engines of historical change? are they the underlying forces which work to “transform (…) existing institutions and patterns of thought”? if so, just how does such media penetration work?25 how is it to be investigated in a collective discipline? and does such collective investigation, alone, offer a way in which the often catastrophic effects of media innovation might be ameliorated?26

Third, Innis ended the first chapter of Political Economy in the Modern State, ‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’ (originally 1942) with this admonition: 

Finally this paper is designed to emphasize the importance of a change in the concept of the dimension of time, and to argue that it cannot be regarded as a straight line but as a series of curves depending in part on technological advances. (…) The concepts of time and space must be made relative and elastic and the attention given by the social scientists to problems of space should be paralleled by attention to problems of time.

The whole rest of McLuhan’s career could be said to be a series of probes into these two sentences.  Ultimately he would come to perceive media as fundamentally multiple time-space matrices whose understanding in a relativity theory for the humanities and social sciences depended upon insight into the plurality of time and especially into the relation of diachronic history as figure to the synchronic keyboard of existence as ground:

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground. (The Global Village, 10)

Combined at just this time in the late 1940s with McLuhan’s fascination with the theory and poetry of Stéphane Mallarmé (closely connected to his on-going study of Eliot, Joyce and Pound) and his discovery of cybernetics (apparently through Sigfried Giedion), these themes from Innis (and in part also from Havelock) concerning media and their “power (…) to penetrate and transform” served to advance, decisively, McLuhan’s life’s work.  He would set out the stage he had reached at that time in programmatic letters to Innis in 1951 and to Pound in 1952 and then reach definitive clarity on the topic of ‘Understanding Media’ after a further decade in 1960.27



  1. Of course, Innis might have read McLuhan on Chesterton at the same time.
  2. See Innis and Havelock – 1930 and beyondSirluck on Innis, Owen and HavelockNef on McLuhan’s proposalHavelock, Innis and Richards in 1947 , “The formula of Virgil’s poetic chemistry” and The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land.
  3. Transcribed as ‘Violence as a Quest for Identity’, Understanding Me, 265-276, here 273.
  4. But did Innis even offer courses this late in his lifetime? He probably knew by the fall of 1951 that he was dying and would certainly have wanted to dedicate what time he had left to his work aside from the classroom. Further, in his oral history recollections, Tom Easterbrook mentions that he took over Innis’s communications course. This must have been in the fall of 1951. Since Easterbrook and McLuhan were decades-old and very close friends, McLuhan would certainly have remembered any role played by him in this history — if it had happened.
  5. Letters  208
  6. McLuhan continued his conversation with Mike McManus (cited above) by specifying: “He (Innis) only had about three years to live at that time.” Since Innis died in November 1952, this would place the events described by McLuhan in 1948 or 1949 — years before either The Mechanical Bride or The Bias of Communication were published.
  7. McLuhan’s early 1951 (or late 1950) letter would, on McLuhan’s 1977-8 narration of when he met Innis, have been written to someone he had not yet met. And the Deutsch offprint discussed in that letter, and in Innis’ reply, would somehow have been shared in the same fashion. Neither of these makes any sense, of course.
  8. This lecture was published in 1947 by the Royal Society of Canada both in its Proceedings and in a separate offprint. The UT Press then reissued it in 1948. In the 1948 printing by UTP, furthermore, another text that would later be included in The Bias of Communication,  ‘A Critical Review’, appeared as an appendix.
  9. See previous note.
  10. The Innis paper in the Manitoba Arts Review undoubtedly owed its presence to Roy Daniells who had taught at Victoria college (UT) for years before replacing E.K. Brown as the head of the English department at the University of Manitoba. As described in the Daniells biography, Professing English by Sandra Djwa (2002), Daniells was actively involved with the Manitoba Arts Review (first published in 1938) during his whole tenure at UM from 1937 to 1946. McLuhan and Daniells knew each other, apparently from meetings of various English associations, and exchanged a few letters in the mid 1940s, which are now in the Roy Daniells papers at UBC.
  11. See note 8 above.
  12. Such parallels should not be taken to exclude deep differences. Marchand and others, particularly among Innis researchers, are not wrong in noting fundamental divides between Innis and McLuhan regarding, eg, the Catholic church and the civil war in Spain. As must have struck Innis at some point, however, this did not mean that McLuhan was less liberal or less tolerant than him.  On the contrary, McLuhan’s Catholicism was compatible with a much wider range of individual intellectual and personality type and of cultural expression from advertising, comics and baseball to modern film and art than Innis was able to relate to. Contemporary research on both men continues to dodge this truly basic issue, however, since it is just as incapable of understanding it, and for the same reasons, as was Innis.
  13. Innis refers to “the inability to secure a proper agreement between desire and intellect” in his ‘Preface’ to Political Economy in the Modern State’ (1946, p. x); McLuhan, also in 1946, in a Christmas letter to Clement McNaspy, S.J., refers to the “emotional and spiritual economy denied to the confused secular mind” and goes on to state in regard to the University of Chicago: “Hutchins and Adler (…) are emotional illiterates. Dialectics and erudition are needed, but, without the sharp focussing of training in moral sensibility, futile.” (Letters 180).
  14. Muller-Thym was a philosophy professor at SLU from 1938 until 1942. During these years, he and McLuhan became very close friends. Muller-Thym was the best man at the McLuhans’ wedding in 1939 and the Godfather of their first child, Eric, and of Mary, one of the twin girls born 2 years after Eric. Muller-Thym and his wife, Mary, with their large family of eventually eight children, provided a prototype of the Catholic family for the McLuhans. Corinne McLuhan would follow Marshall’s 1937 conversion with her own in 1946, greatly influenced in that direction by her intimate friendship with Mary Muller-Thym.
  15. Peter Drucker’s books were already recommended in a Christmas 1944 letter (Letters 166) to two of McLuhan’s Jesuit friends from SLU, Walter Ong and Clement McNaspy. McLuhan’s friendship with Drucker should be seen in the context of his friendships with other great European intellectuals like Sigfried Giedion, Wyndham Lewis, Etienne Gilson and Karl Polanyi. Ezra Pound, as an elective European, could be added to the list. So where North American intellectuals, busying themselves somewhere along the tenure track, look down their noses at McLuhan, Europeans appear to have noticed something else in him. Indeed, there is no comparison between the European and North American receptions of his work. The latter remains unimaginably shallow to this day.
  16. See Nef on McLuhan’s 1947 proposal.
  17. A Critical Review’, address before the Conference of Commonwealth Universities, 1948.  First published as an appendix to Minerva’s Owl (1948) and included in The Bias of Communication (1951).
  18. See ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ (1954), an essay composed years earlier in 1950 or 1951.
  19. Innis referenced The Art of Being Ruled in ‘A Plea for Time’ (included in The Bias of Communication, 1951) and in ‘Great Britain, United States, and Canada‘ (included in The Changing Concept of Time, 1952). Time and Western Man is cited in ‘A Plea for Time’.
  20. See Innis to McLuhan January 12, 1952: “I was immensely pleased to get your warm letter particularly as it is the first I have had which indicated that the reader had taken the trouble to understand what it (= The Bias of Communication) is all about.”
  21. By the spring of 1949, therefore, McLuhan had probably been exposed to six of the nine essays later (in the middle of 1951) published in The Bias of Communication.
  22. Political Economy in the Modern State begins with six essays on the interface of culture and the economy: ‘The Newspaper in Economic Development’ (1942), ‘An Economic Approach to English Literature in the Nineteenth Century’ (1945), ‘The Problem of Rehabilitation’, ‘A Plea for the University Tradition’ (1944), ‘The University in the Modern Crisis’ (1945) and ‘On the Economic Significance of Cultural Factors’, (1944).
  23. See ‘McLuhan and Plato 6 – Theuth‘ and ‘Havelock, Innis and Richards in 1947‘.
  24. Research is needed on the question if it was through McLuhan in his 1953 ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (in the first issue of Explorations) that this story in Plato came to assume its enormous importance for Jacques Derrida (variously said to have been a subscriber or at least a reader of Explorations).
  25. See McLuhan’s ‘Foreword’ to the 1972 reprinting of Empire and Communications: “The mere classification of the innumerable patterns of energy arising from specific human organizations such as speech and writing and weaponry, as well as all the means of accelerating work and travel, avoids the effort of understanding the actual processes involved.”
  26. See McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  27. For his 1952 position, see  The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy; for 1960, see McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough and  McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.