McLuhan and Winters 2

In 1948 McLuhan was in correspondence with The Hudson Review, about reviews he wrote for the new journal that appeared in its second (summer 1948)1 and fourth (winter 1949)2 issues.

Perhaps alerted in this correspondence to the scathing criticism made of him in Yvor Winters’ forthcoming essay in Hudson Review on Gerard Manley Hopkins3, McLuhan quickly drafted a counter-critique of Winters and submitted it to The Sewanee Review.

The story of this counter-critique, which was never published, may be seen in correspondence between McLuhan and the editor of The Sewanee Review, John E. Palmer.

Following the resignation of Allen Tate in 1946 from his 2-year editorship of Sewanee, Palmer had been appointed as his replacement. He held the position until 1952. The correspondence between Palmer and McLuhan concerning Winters took place in the fall of 1948, but already in 1946 in one of McLuhan’s first letters to Palmer he set out the central issue which was at stake in his criticism of Winters:

McLuhan to John Palmer, November 4, 1946
With him [Vico] the problem of intellectual growth had been imposed by the struggle to free himself from DescartesTo-day, the problem is the same. To get free of technological modes which have invaded every aspect of education, of thought and feeling.4 The Lewis piece on De Tocqueville5 illustrates the failure of a great man to face and solve that problem. Lewis has finally submitted to lick the robot’s behind.6 

Jumping ahead to the fall of 1948, the continuing McLuhan-Palmer exchange clarifies what happened to the never published Winters essay.

McLuhan to Palmer, September 21, 1948
The present [enclosed] item [on Winters] you might think better, strategically speaking, if the last five pages (in which an example of Winters at work on metaphor is presented)7 were put before the general discussion of the cause of his troubles. (…) I have no idea what you think of Winters.  He is a god for the Hudson. They are to have his things from time to time.8 But if anybody can produce more howlers per page, then S.J. Perelman had better move over.9

Palmer to McLuhan, 22 September 1948
Your Winters paper has just arrived (…) but in view of your letter I thought I had best give you an advance tip about the contents of our Winter issue: we are carrying, no less, an essay by Winters on Robert Frost.10 It has been in our backlog, awaiting publication, for well over a year, and I’ve only now been able to schedule it. Now, I carry no general brief for Winters, and the fact that I am carrying this essay will certainly not prejudice me in my reading of yours.  I am somewhat acquainted with his strange combination of the critically erratic, cantankerous, and naive.11 And the essay I am running is not altogether free from these qualities.  But it happened that in this instance I agreed for the most part with what Winters had to say, and so I couldn’t see turning him down simply because it was the work of Winters.  I’ll be interested to hear your reaction to it.

Palmer to McLuhan, 19 October 1948
How do you feel about public exchanges on such matters as you deal with in your Winters paper? I certainly don’t go in for bickering for its own sake; but I do think that where two such gentlemen as yourself and Mr. Winters can be directly confronted on such crucial terms as you have introduced, the spectacle might well prove instructive for us all. Now, I’ve written Winters to learn his attitude;  but even though he should be willing to engage, I’ll not proceed with the arrangements unless I have your consent also.

McLuhan to Palmer, October 20, 1948
Did you find Harold Rosenberg’s ‘Herd of Independent Minds’12 interesting? (…) It’s an approach not unlike mine to the Winters type of critic. Prisoners of the concept. (…) But if a writer thinks his job is self-expression, that means he sets himself the job of inventing an order for his experience.13 He must then have ruling ideas, and these will inevitably be the ones most common in his own time. But a Flaubert needed no ideas at all. Nor a Joyce. The world was enough for them.
I’ve no objection to your proposal about getting Winters to reply. Perhaps some of the semi-personal notes should be removed from my essay.
As you see, Winters is, from my point of view, only a representative of an almost universal situation.14

Palmer to McLuhan, 27 October 1948
I heard from Winters this morning, and he begs off:  “I have never been greatly interested in Kant, and I am too busy right now to study him for the purpose of arguing with McLuhan. My literary theories are largely Aristotelian and Thomistic, but did not derive from Aristotle and Thomas so much as they simply agree with them.  They derived from a careful examination of a good many hundreds of poems.”  Characteristic, is it not? Then he went on to tell how overburdened he was in his teaching, etc. And now, at the risk of appearing editorially spineless, I’m inclined to give up the project, because it would seem to me too lopsided as a one-way affair. For this decision I shall hope that to so old an editorial friend as yourself no elaborate apologies are necessary.

McLuhan to Palmer, November 4, 1948
Naturally I’m not happy to see Winters the swashbuckler suddenly putting on the wily act and so escaping unscathed. The device of running up just any old colors to the masthead has not, I hope, taken you in.  His confessed ignorance of Kant is as nothing compared to his actual ignorance of Aristotle and Aquinas. In this respect he is precisely like the Chicago “Aristotelians” who [also] adopted the colors of the Stagirite (…) The Kantianism of Winters, like that of Richards, Empson, Ransom, affects his work the more deeply for being unconscious. The only way not to be a Kantian critic is to know Kant, since his language and attitudes are universal.15
But I don’t give a hoot about Winters as such. I merely hung my paper on him for dramatic reasons, thinking how desperately we need a bit of Menckensian dash in our dreary literary reflections these days. (…) Would you be interested in the paper expanded apropos of metaphor and with Winters omitted from central focus?

Palmer to McLuhan, November 15, 1948
I’m sorry to say that I still don’t take too strongly to the suggestion.  Not that I don’t see in it all sorts of likely possibilities; but I’ll have to tell you frankly that I’m leery of committing myself in advance to any piece designed to exhibit a Menckensian dash.  Such I think are quite all right now and then, as a break in the routine. But permit me the liberty to urge you, for your sake as well as for our own, not to continue to work indefinitely in this rare a vein.16



  1. ‘Tradition and the Academic Talent’, a review by McLuhan of Elizabethan and Metaphysical Imagery: Renaissance Poetic and Twentieth-Century Critics by Rosemond Tuve, Hudson Review 1:2.
  2. ‘Encyclopaedic Unities’, a review by McLuhan of two books, one by his friend and mentor, Sigfried Giedion (Mechanization Takes Command), and the other by Giedion’s longtime close friend, the late László Moholy-Nagy (Vision in Motion), Hudson Review 1:4.
  3. See McLuhan and Winters 1. Winters’ essay on Hopkins appeared in consecutive Winter and Spring 1949 issues (1.4 and 2.1) of The Hudson Review.
  4. In a note to Palmer from December 9, 1949: “to get out of the wire cage (…) Vico provides both the techniques of observation and exegesis as well as the only method of escape.”
  5. De Tocqueville and Democracy’, The Sewanee Review 54:4, 1946, had just appeared.
  6. It may be that Palmer found it unseemly for McLuhan to castigate Lewis to him in this fashion. For the article by Lewis appeared in Sewanee itself and only months into Palmer’s editorship of the journal. Furthermore, it had been McLuhan who first broached the idea (to Allen Tate) of publishing Lewis in Sewanee. In any case, relations between Palmer and McLuhan did not work out well. When McLuhan submitted ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ to him in 1951, it had to wait for a new editor, Monroe Spears, before appearing at last in 1954 (in Sewanee 62:1). And Palmer turned down ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’ as well in 1951, leading McLuhan to publish it later that year in Renascence (4:1).
  7. McLuhan’s bracketed insertion.
  8. This aside seems to reflect  correspondence between McLuhan and Hudson Review as muted above.
  9. McLuhan began this note: “What a pity that the Hudson is selling out so stodgily.”
  10. Yvor Winters, ‘Robert Frost’, Sewanee Review, 56:4, 1948.
  11. Palmer was, of course, referring here to Cleanth Brooks’ discussion of Winters in ‘Cantankerous and Other Critics’ (The Kenyon Review, Spring 1944). In fact, Brooks was an old friend of Palmer — the two of them had worked closely together on the Southern Review at LSU.
  12. Rosenberg’s ‘Herd of Independent Minds: Has the Avant-Garde Its Own Mass Culture?’ appeared in Commentary for September, 1948.
  13. McLuhan considered the idea of “inventing an order for (…) experience” to be crazed. And yet it was “universal”! Among other questions that needed to be addressed to it, how could “an order for (…) experience” be ‘invented’ without the inventing subject already having instituted some such “order”? In this light, modernity was a gigantic case of a question, or questions, gone begging. A decade in the future, McLuhan would begin the put his critique in terms of the deficiencies of ‘light on’ from us as contrasted with ‘light through’ toward us. As McLuhan immediately noted here to Palmer, the supposed inventor of an “order for (…) experience (…) must then have ruling ideas, and these will inevitably be the ones most common in his own time.” The inventor thinks he is freely initiating ‘light on’, but in fact is unconsciously only reflecting ‘light through’!
  14. In a later note to Palmer from December 9, 1949 McLuhan referred to this “universal situation” asa mechanistic juggling with identical counters.”
  15. In a note from April 27, 1953 to Monroe Spears, Palmer’s successor as editor of Sewanee, McLuhan wrote that the “the model basis is indispensable” — an early version of “the medium is the message”. McLuhan agreed with mentors like Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg and Harold Innis in Toronto that it is not possible for human beings to think and experience aside from some or other model. What might be termed ‘model-dependence’ is “universal”. But he disagreed with Innis that this necessarily led to solipsism. Instead, “the key” to human freedom was to dis-cover the structure of models so that they might be subject to open collective research — and thereby to retrieve sustaining relation with the world.
  16. A later exchange between Palmer and McLuhan had this criticism from Palmer: “You’ve again brought together too much in too little space, with resulting moments of confusion and oversimplification.” (November 27, 1950) McLuhan’s reply: “Trouble is I make so many discoveries and have so few outlets, that when I write ‘em up I can’t help cramming much into one essay.  If I could publish an essay once a week (not once in 3 months or 3 years) I could spread the stuff thinner and achieve some degree of transparency.” (January 15, 1951)