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Marshall Mcluhan: Escape into Understanding

by W. Terrence Gordon

The approaching millennium will bring with it the 20th anniversary of the death of Marshall McLuhan, a prophet still widely misunderstood in his own country. Genius, seer, or fast-talking media huckster? The image of the communications guru spinning off ideas like a catherine wheel even now tends to eclipse McLuhan’s serious scholarship. This new biography (the first with the imprimatur of the McLuhan family) by Terrence Gordon, a professor of French linguistics at Dalhousie University, sets McLuhan in the context of the intellectual currents that spawned him, and seeks to evaluate his legacy.

While within reach of the general reader, this is a more scholarly book – evidenced by the extent of the footnotes alone – than Philip

Marchand’s lively biography, published in 1989. Gordon, once a student of McLuhan and still a fan, tracks the early influences on his subject’s life: the gentle father who sparked his interest in religion and philosophy, the elocutionist-actress mother who made manifest the effects of language. The figure of McLuhan is grounded in the early years in Winnipeg, love and intellectual romance on the prairies, heady years at Cambridge, a fledgling academic career, courtship, family life.

In the late 1960s and 1970s the pace of McLuhan’s life grew frenetic as he took on pop icon status, doing media makeovers for political stars like Trudeau and Jimmy Carter. Gordon describes McLuhan traversing the globe, speaking, reading, teaching, writing – all the while denying symptoms of serious health problems. In a 24-hour period, he and his wife, Corinne, flew from Switzerland to New York (visiting a daughter), to Toronto (dropping in on a late neighbourhood party), and headed off to Dallas in the morning. It was about this time that McLuhan conceived of an airport university, with ongoing seminars for travellers awaiting planes.

Through interviews with Corinne and Eric McLuhan and access to McLuhan’s private papers, Gordon makes us privy to much intimate detail, yet the man himself often slips out of frame. Gordon’s association with the McLuhans, while invaluable, undoubtedly imposed constraints of tact and politesse, and his portrait of a group whose raison d’être is to facilitate the family industry – Dad – seems somewhat sanitized. The book’s strength lies in its demonstration of the breadth and penetration of McLuhan’s scholarship, from triviums to five-part divisions, through the Bible, G.K. Chesterton, McLuhan’s doctoral thesis on Nashe, his early books, and his connections and friendships with such men as I.A. Richards, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Northrop Frye. The book concludes with an assessment of McLuhan as linguist, structuralist, (post)modernist, and major influence on the century’s thought.