Elsie on the move

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

My mother (…) travelled from coast to coast from year to year putting on plays and acts. (McLuhan interview with Nina Sutton, 1975)

Like her father, Henry Hall, Elsie Hall could never stay in one place for long. After she followed her family to Alberta from Nova Scotia in 1907, she married Herbert McLuhan in 1909 and then moved to Edmonton with him in 1911 — six months or so before Marshall would be born there in July of that year.

During the war, when Herbert was in service, she took her two young boys back to her relatives in Nova Scotia for a year. Then she moved to Winnipeg where her mother lived and where Marshall would start his schooling.

After the war beginning in the early 1920s she began her stage career and for the next decade toured Canada, from Victoria to Halifax, putting on her single woman show as an elocutionist and impersonator.

Elsie left the family home in Winnipeg for good in 1933 and set up shop in Toronto. Sometime in the middle of that decade she moved to Detroit where, in 1939 she was living at 616 Pallister (Letters 117). She was in Pasadena for the summer in 1938, of course, where she introduced Marshall and Corinne. And for a brief time that decade, between stints in Detroit, she lived and worked in Cleveland. A letter to her from Marshall from September 24, 1938 ends:

Cleveland is probably a vast improvement on Detroit — Best luck there Mother. (Letters 97)

Another from June 1939, however, asks:

What do you plan on? Is Cleveland a dead issue? (Letters 111)

It was while she was back in Detroit again from Cleveland that she was instrumental in bringing McLuhan and Wyndham Lewis together in 1943.

In the middle 1940s she was in Pittsburgh. Marshall’s letters to her from Assumption College in Windsor (where he was from 1944 to 1946) indicate that she was not just across the river in Detroit. But her time in Pittsburgh did not work out. Here are the concluding lines of a letter from Marshall to her from May 14, 1946:

Wish you could get out of Pittsburgh before it gets you down entirely. Your fatigue is owing to suppressed anger. (Letters 185)

She later (in the late 40’s and early 1950s) lived and worked in New Jersey in association (among others) with the Perkins School of the Blind. Apparently she directed plays for fund-raising events as a self-styled “promoter” (as she appears in the 1948 ‘Oranges Directory’).1

In 1941 she had done at least one previous show of this sort in Lansing, outside of Detroit, for the Leader Dog League for the Blind:

Perhaps it was this experience in Lansing which got her into this line of ‘promotional’ work.2

Elsie returned to Toronto in the 1950s to be near Marshall and his family and died there in 1961.



  1. This ‘city directory’ covered the western suburbs of Newark. Elsie is listed as a “promoter” working in Newark but with her residence at 430 New England Terrace in Orange.

  2. Lansing State Journal, June 15, 1941. McLuhan would have followed Elsie’s work with the blind with several different actual and developing interests in mind, beyond that of his filial concern and love. In the first place, his notion of the world was that it was increasingly blind in the sense of being asleep, senseless, directionless, stumbling ‘blindly’ into disaster. The world was blind in an entirely negative sense, unable to gather its wits and reason as it could do — but refused to do. How to wake the sleepers to their external and internal environments was a constant theme in McLuhan’s work from very early on. Secondly, against this negative notion of blindness there was another which Elsie’s work with organizations dedicated to the advancement of the blind may have first sown the seeds. As explicitly first captured in the phrase “acoustic space” in 1954, McLuhan only slowly came to understand the standing potential of radically different sorts of human orientation (which he had always known about theoretically through anthropology, psychology and, indeed, through literature and the humanities generally — but not genuinely comprehended as competing existential possibilities). In the last decade of his life, furthermore, his standing reference to these competing possibilities was the remarkable book of the blind by Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1971) And There Was Light (translation 1963, original Et la lumière fut. Romanciers d’audjourd’hui, 1953). In the third place, and most important of all, McLuhan had to come to internalize the understanding that blindness is not only negative as the stultification of the world, nor decidedly positive as described by Lusseyran, but is also, and essentially, a never-to-be-obviated aspect of all individual and collective experience. It is a limitation — but one that is constitutively revealing. That is, the inexorable blindness to all human experience is what at the same time illuminates — a difficult and inexhaustible notion! Now the importance to McLuhan of these interrelating insights can hardly be overestimated. So just as Elsie had done in introducing Marshall to literature as a young boy, and in introducing him to Corinne as a rather stilted bachelor, so in her work with the blind she may have covertly, but decisively, nudged him along his way.