Easterbrook on Innis

In 1978 Tom Easterbrook participated in the University of Toronto oral history project, completing 4 roughly one-hour tapes between November 27 and December 8 that year.

The Easterbrook tapes are very disappointing, not only because the quality of the recordings is often poor, but especially because the questioner seems to have been more interested in the minutiae of the administration of the Political Economics department than in Easterbrook’s incomparably more important relations with Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan. Easterbrook’s intimate interactions with Innis in the 1951-1952 period, when Innis was dying, are mentioned only in regard to Easterbrook taking over Innis’ course on communications.1 And the 1953-1955 Ford seminar on culture and technology, where Easterbook worked with Ted Carpenter, Carl Williams, Jacky Tyrwhitt and McLuhan, is hardly touched upon in passing. 

Both Williams and McLuhan were decades-long friends of Easterbrook from the University of Manitoba and Easterbrook and Williams were grad students at UT at the same time in the mid 1930’s when McLuhan was at Cambridge. The three were then colleagues at the University of Toronto for around 30 years beginning in the 1940s until Williams left UT to become president of the University of Western Ontario. Information from Easterbrook about the relations of the three friends over the 1930-1978 period would have been priceless, especially concerning the dynamics of the Ford seminar. 

The eight-minute passage transcribed here from the first tape2 gives an abbreviated overview of Easterbrook’s relation with Harold Innis. Innis was Easterbrook’s PhD thesis adviser in the mid 1930s and arranged the 1938 University of Toronto Press publication of that thesis, Farm Credit in Canada, with a ‘Foreword’ by Innis himself. Easterbrook’s observations have been edited for clarity here, but can easily be checked against the original via the link given in the second footnote below.

Then something [happened] that changed my whole life (…) I had heard about a guy named Innis, who (…) had an awful lot to say if you cared to listen. So I went along to a class (…) and watched this (…) figure walk in with some scrappy looking notes and stand in front of the class. He seemed to be completely unaware that anyone was present. Pedagogically this was a disaster. He read this stuff and, you know, that seemed to me heresy. I’d been raised in what seemed to me the oral tradition where, if you knew your stuff, you spouted it and you kept people alive [to the flow of the lecture]. 

I don’t think he was ever really aware of the size of an audience or cared very much [about it]. There was a story that during a blizzard he arrived in a great hall (…) and I think three people had arrived out of a hundred or so [enrolled students]. I was told that he [nevertheless] gave the full lecture. 

On the other hand, what caught me was that this was an exploring mind at work and this was his own work. Now this was something new to me. For years I’d been listening to professors spouting about the work of others. [In contrast], this [from Innis] was hard rock mining in Canadian scholarly areas of research. When he talked, it was his work. And the lessons he drew from seemingly minor incidents, you know, like how steam points in the Klondike revolutionized the [gold mining] industry up there and then [could be] traced through the whole effects of what was a much more massive change than I’d realized because I’d had no historical background at all. I’d avoided history as poison in Manitoba because of my high school experience where you memorized kings from now to kingdom come (…).

So I was caught. 

Now there was a problem. I talked to him and while he never talked much, for a man who was such a communications expert in his field it was very hard to engage in dialogue with him. (…) He’d say, ‘it’s interesting’ or something — but l don’t ever remember the kind of spontaneous open discussion that I had with McLuhan and several others over the years. It never worked [with Innis]. On the other hand, when you left him, you were fired up [to get on with your work]. (…)

So I began very intensive studies of Canadian economic history right from the beginning, the French period and all the rest of it, and discovered that Innis had a helluva lot to say and that he had the most revealing mind I’ve ever encountered. He could take a simple fact like the contrast between drying [salted ashore] and green [salted onboard] fisheries. They had the most physical difference and the most profound effects on the trading systems of two empires and their relationships with the new world. He saw a whole set of interrelationships from what often seemed to be a very simple proposition into quite a network of change with a definite sense of pattern to it. It was exciting. I tried to tell students who didn’t read his Fur Trade, they ought to read it just to see how you have the whole thing laid out. That’s why it’s such an interesting book. You have tremendous massing of evidence, [the details of] quintal [weights, and so on] — and then [you have] the purple passage, the pulling [everything] together. It’s just like raising a curtain on the whole thing. A whole set of revelations appears in just two or three paragraphs and then you’re back into the sifting, the turning over, [of further details]. His processing seemed to be to sift, turn over, work with material until, intuitively, a sense of pattern emerges, in which he could relate a whole series of elements in terms of their interactions against the background of change regarded in the Gestalt sense.3

[Lately] I’ve been trying to absorb some of this in a course in the physics area, and I’m astonished how many of the findings that they regard as very modern in modern science involve a methodology that is very similar to the one [Innis] adopted.4 (…)

[In my grad work in the 1930s] I carried on doing a bit of statistics on banking and then [got] going into Innis and doing something on early farm finance. (…) My whole interest had shifted to Innis.5 (…) I swung completely over [to him]. So then followed nearly three years [~1934-1937] of intensive work [by me] largely devoted to Innis’s preoccupations… 


  1. This may be one more nail in the coffin of McLuhan’s account of his meeting Innis. For discussion see McLuhan on first meeting Innis. But if Innis gave over his communications course to Easterbrook, presumably in 1951, McLuhan’s account falls apart completely.
  2. William Thomas James Easterbrook (oral history, part 1) — 27 November, 1978, 32.10–40:10.
  3. Easterbrook’s appeal to Gestalt here, and to the similarities between methodologies in the humanities and modern sciences, doubtless reflects the influence of McLuhan. Since 1964, when he first read Wolfgang Köhler‘s Gestalt Psychology, McLuhan had been talking incessantly about the Gestalt relation of figure and ground. Meanwhile, since meeting Sigfried Giedion in 1943, and reading Giedion’s work as a result, McLuhan had come to share Giedion’s view that the hidden ‘orchestration’ of the methodologies in the humanities and modern sciences needed to be brought to light and investigated in a ‘Faculty of Interrelations’. For discussion see Sigfried Giedion — A Faculty of Interrelations and Faculty of Interrelation in Toronto.
  4. See the previous note.
  5. A contemporary review of Farm Credit in Canada begins by indicating its Innisian methodology: “The eighty-five pages of notes which supplement the 169 pages of text indicate the character of this book”.