Dating McLuhan’s “flush-profile” review of Frye

In his Comments on Renato Barilli post at New Explorations, Bruce Elder has a long footnote on McLuhan’s unpublished “flush-profile” review of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism. In what is either a simple typo or a confusion of McLuhan’s published review of Frye’s Blake in 1947 with his unpublished review of Frye’s Anatomy a decade or more later, Elder gives 1947 as the date of the latter paper. Since Anatomy was published only in 1957, and since McLuhan mentions Sputnik (which launched in October 1957), the earliest possible date for the “flush-profile” review would be the last couple months of 1957.

As indicated by Elder, McLuhan’s review is reproduced along with a discussion of it in a post, Frye-McLuhan Rivalry?, at the Northrop Frye blog, The Educated Imagination. Philip Marchand is cited there from his McLuhan bio as dating the UT panel discussion on Anatomy, for which the paper is said to have been written, to “shortly after its publication”. Here again, then, the review would date to the last months of 1957 or, perhaps, to early in 1958. But Marchand gives no source for this dating and he goes on to cite Fred Flahiff concerning McLuhan’s paper as saying that Flahiff and McLuhan “went out and walked around and around Queen’s Park” discussing it. While this is not impossible in winter in Toronto, it is unlikely.

Absent other evidence, dating the paper must rely on its vocabulary and style. Tellingly, McLuhan notes in it that “Professor Frye has devised a kind of nomadic bookcase for the cosmic man of today who is inevitably a mental D.P.” The same image of “a mental D.P.” appears in a passage in McLuhan’s address to the NAEB Annual Convention in Omaha in October, 1958, ‘Culture Is Our Business: The meaning of the new electronic media’.1 In his address McLuhan observed:

One of the great problems in pedagogy, I think, is a kind of process of translation from one culture to another culture that we are undergoing; and an extensive medium revolution, such as the electronic one, turns us all into mental DP’s. We are all displaced persons today, whether we like it or not; and we are all confronted with huge undeveloped countries of the mind where we hardly know what to do first.

Since the image of our being displaced persons is very rare2 in McLuhan’s work,3 this would provisionally date his “flush-profile” review to 1958, probably in the early fall when the university was back in session, at the same time as McLuhan was drafting notes for his NAEB convention address in October.4

  1. Published in the NAEB Journal, Volume 18:3, December 1958, 3-5 and 30-4.
  2. The topic of displacement, on the other hand, could be said to be all that McLuhan ever talked about. The Gutenberg Galaxy gives its history, Understanding Media and Take Today its present objective and subjective applications.
  3. It appears also in Take Today, 276: “The rich man becomes the displaced person” — written more than a decade after his NAEB convention address, at a time, admittedly, when the tone of the “flush-profile” review was more common than it was earlier.
  4. Flahiff’s dates in Toronto supply some confirmation to this supposition. From his obituary, it appears that he was a grad student at UT in the late 1950s before beginning his teaching career in Saskatoon in 1960. In Marchand’s recounting of the incident, “a panel of graduate English students was organized by the Graduate English Association at the University of Toronto to discuss Frye’s book shortly after its publication.  One of the panellists (was) Frederick Flahiff”. It seems certain, then, that the review was written at the end of the 1950s, following publication of Frye’s book in 1957 and before Flahiff graduated to begin teaching in 1960. The strange behavior of McLuhan reported by Flahiff, it should be noted, was that observed by a grad student who was bolted to his RVM and determined to report of Frye — and McLuhan — only what he saw in it. That McLuhan might have been trying to spark revolutionary insight in his bean, and through it perhaps also in the beans of the other panelists and their audience, never occurred to Flahiff then or later. This is the McLuhan we have ever since: an odd guy ‘researched’ by folks who know better.