McLuhan replays Elsie

He do the police in different voices…1

The City as Classroom, published in 1977 a few years before McLuhan’s death at the end of 1980, replays his early experience, growing up with the constant murmur of his Mother’s preparation of her one-woman shows. As she moved about the house Elsie would have recited passages from poems and plays, both to aid her memorization of them and to try out different voices for them. Later, when McLuhan was at Cambridge, her elocution work was a frequent topic of their correspondence.2

The City as Classroom highlights the role of sound in everyday life and describes its potential use in school, particularly with tape recorders. Here is one of its recommended exercises:

Using tape, rather than the printed page, as the means of presenting the poem (…) edit the tape for a listener. Cut out all the material that is not absolutely necessary to create the effect of the poem, or anything that detracts from its meaning and effect.
Is it necessary to change the sequence of lines or of images in order to present on
the essential effect of the poem? If you think that it is, try it.
Use sound effects both where they seem called for by the poem, and where they will help to make the poem more concise. Try this with poems written by four or five different authors of different periods. Try to translate something of each poem’s essence into terms relevant to your audience. This is a very difficult exercise, but try it at least: what you are really doing is updating an old situation for a contemporary audience. (p94-95)

Isn’t this just what was going on in Elsie’s mind as she worked around the house? And what McLuhan came to consider when he began his teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in 1936?

  1. “He do the police in different voices” is a line from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. It referred to the police news section of the newspaper as read by the orphan, Sloppy. Eliot used the line as the working title for what was to become The Waste Land. For Joyce on “the living texture” of this “unchanging unceasing murmur” see Voices in Dubliners and A Portrait.
  2. See The put-on for an extended discussion of these points. McLuhan’s title for his 1964 Voices of Literature anthology should be considered in this context.