By way of having something of a tidy end to this collection of discoveries, I present a few thoughts on this blog – how I came to inventory Marshall McLuhan’s personal ‘working’ library – and how I got hooked into my father and grandfather’s work, and some of where it’s taken me since I last posted here….
It seems like a lifetime ago.
December 21st, 2010 – the date of my first blog entry on this website. That’s essentially five years ago. If it’s not a lifetime, it’s an age. It was in December 2010 that I began making an inventory of the personal library of Marshall McLuhan. I’ve since come to refer to it as his ‘working library’, but at the start it was a mass of books, many of them on the shelves of my dad’s library, but largely in boxes in storage in a big red barn. Little more. Incidentally, my dad’s library is in its own little barn in the rural Ontario countryside, and we call it the ‘scriptorium’. That is why I titled this blog ‘inscriptorium’, because it was in that building where, seated on one side of an old English oak refectory table, I began my incredible journey into the intellectual life of my grandfather Marshall McLuhan.
It’s always funny, and/or odd, to look back at the things I have written at a younger age. Even five years is long enough to realize how much I have changed. With that in mind, I may look back at this post after some time and think similar thoughts. How young I was. How little I knew. How much was still to come.
In the winter of 2010 I had only recently become interested in the McLuhan work – I phrase it that way, because I consider much of my father Eric McLuhan’s work to be inextricable from Marshall McLuhan’s work. Eric worked with Marshall for the last fifteen or so years of Marshall’s life, collaborated with him during that time, but also has dedicated much of his life to bringing forward Marshall’s work. I cannot speak objectively of much of this, and won’t try. Eric brought forward many works such as ‘Laws of Media: The New Science’, and ‘Media and Formal Cause’, and has worked tirelessly to champion other of his father’s works such as Marshall’s doctoral thesis, published as ‘The Classic Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time’.
My father was very much prepared from an early age to be able to do such things, though I am not sure it was quite along the lines of being groomed for succession. But my father did come to work with his father as much by his own free will as any of us have such a thing. Eric left home to enlist in the United States Air Force (he was born in St. Louis) and earned his Bachelor’s degree while down there. He went on to do further degrees, and has received an honourary one or two.
I was a poor student, uninterested in school after around grade three. My eventual goal was to graduate high school before I turned twenty, and I just managed it. (At this point in my life, I kind of wish I had gotten a Bachelor’s degree along the line, but that wasn’t to be).
I am sure that talking so much about myself is dull (though that’s never stopped me), so suffice to say that my dad and I took very different – if similar at times – paths and so we arrive at very different – if similar at times – places with regard to engagement in the McLuhan work.
My entry into the McLuhan work was as a travel companion and assistant. Eric needed someone to travel with him to Poland for a talk, and I was asked to go with him. Along with a touch of the absent-minded professor, he is a diabetic and sometimes has trouble. He needs someone with him who knows how to help him if he needs help. My mother usually went with him, but she wasn’t particularly interested in Poland (her loss – it’s an amazing place!) so when asked, I said yes. Sounded interesting, and I wasn’t up to much. It was a really great experience for me. I went on a few more trips with him and was pretty much hooked.
I had tried to dive into the McLuhan world at various points in my life, but it didn’t really stick until I started traveling with my dad. I see myself more as a curator than a collaborator. I don’t know that I’ll have much new to say about these things than my father and grandfather have already discovered, but I am passionate about helping others learn.
Traveling with my father on speaking engagements was the hook, but inventorying Marshall’s library was the point of no return.
I spent about eighteen months working with the library. That may sound like a long time, but it was a real challenge to do it so fast. There may be people who could do the job faster, but not me. I feel as if I could still be at it, five years later.
Interesting things got in the way of speed, as this blog is witness to.
I couldn’t help but pause and explore. The more I saw, the more I wanted to know. I’d call over to dad at his desk and ask what something meant, and I started a list of Marshall’s common abbreviations and their meanings. He would wander over when I brought in a new box from the barn and my desk filled with books which had not seen light of day for years. It was exciting for both of us.
At one point, I thought that some of the annotations would make for fun Twitter posts, so I started up a Twitter account:
As the posts in this blog demonstrate, many things were discovered and re-discovered, but I only scratched the surface.
There remains so much to be learned from Marshall’s library. Within the pages are all sorts of clues to his life, thought, intellectual development. There’s more than one new angle for a biographer to pursue.
Several of the books are rich with Marshall’s added annotation and material to make for critical editions, or collections of his readings on various subjects.
The possibilities are, if not endless, enormous – but, as I already stated, I do not pretend at objectivity, and so you may not share my wonder and enthusiasm.
Well. All good things, and all that.
In 2011, the centenary of Marshall’s birth in July 1911, Eric was invited to go to Porto Alegre, in Brazil, to speak at PUCRS. I went with him. While we were having dinner, I was speaking to Prof. Eduardo Pellanda about my inventory and he asked if I would present to his students about it. I had my computer with me with my photos (I took a lot, though I wish I had more) and I of course accepted. I have a hard time saying no to things like that. I spent the next day assembling a presentation of images and writing some things to say. I hope what I presented was worthwhile – I enjoyed it.
As times has gone by, and I’ve reflected more on the library and its significance, I’ve been able to speak with more confidence, and with more consideration for the library as an artifact, what it means, and its potential to scholarship – not just as a biographical interest, but as raw material of McLuhan thought which is there dormant, waiting for some light to germinate and flower.
Since my hasty first presentation in Brazil, I have presented at Crossmedia Banff; at the opening of the collection at the Fisher Rare Book Library, its new home (watch here, if you care to. Includes comments by Eric McLuhan); in my new hometown of Picton; and most recently at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg – Marshall’s alma mater. For the Winnipeg talk, I visited the collection for the first time as a researcher, to get some photos that I didn’t have. I could (and may) write another post on that experience. I hope to be able to have further opportunities to share my love of this collection with more people.
I’ve also started teaching a bit, and have led a workshop on understanding ‘the medium is the message’ (which was a good idea, but too big a topic for one sitting! If I do it again, I’ll do it as at least four separate sessions). And in the last few weeks I have taught my first classes in Toronto to elementary and high school students on some introductory media criticism subjects such as ‘figure/ground’.
The journey continues. Thanks for coming along for part of the ride!
The following is a transcript of writing on a sheet of paper tucked into a schoolbook from Marshall McLuhan’s days at the University of Manitoba, early 1930’s. The book is A Student’s History of Philosophy, by Arthur Kenyon Rogers (1923, New York: The Macmillan Company). It could be notes for a talk he would have given, in that it is typical of his method of delivering a speech or address: rather than read from a prepared text, Marshall would make notes on a sheet of paper and use those notes as talking points which he would elaborate on in front of an audience.
It could also just be a record of some thoughts he had at the time. According to Eric McLuhan, after Marshall’s first stroke in the late 60’s, Marshall had serious memory problems, and began writing more things down as they occurred to him. To me, the following seems more like talking points, or notes for an article, than a statement by the way he writes “explain…” and “mention…”
Personally, I find it a very interesting note. The reader can feel Marshall McLuhan’s frustration: “Mention McLuhan as difficult!”
“Laws of the Sits” is a reference to ‘The Law of the Situation’, attributed to management consultant Mary Parker Follett, although I’ve found none of her works in Marshall’s library The characters in square brackets are my interpretations of Marshall’s short form, question marks where I am unsure. Do feel free to add your suggestions in the comments section below the post.
P[?] Canetti as Crowds via [?] [Elias Canetti, author of “Crowds and Power” -a heavily annotated book in the library]
Media as forces as new sit[uation]s
Effects 1st [effects precede causes, formal cause]
EOM [extensions of man]
Fission followed by SC [?]
Media as subliminal
Why the obsess[ion] with transport[ation, Weaver]
theory? all various theories
ignore the Laws of the Sit[uation]s
created by each new fission
The systems hang-ups via c/m
Kant and Hegel and Marx
caught in the visual homog[?]
trap: uses vs exchange
The TV sit flip eye as ear
quote Tony Sch.[wartz] Mention Mass and
the reversal of the Am[erican] way Micro[?]
Mention McLuhan as difficult!
Is he as difficult as the prob[lem]s he tackles
Explain the futility of moral v[iew] p[oin]t as
strategy for prob – rise from [?]
[?] [?] to the tech [?]
[?] – [?]
(cont) to Kant and the Rom[antics]
revenge on 18th [century] rationalism
The need to state all hyp[othesis] in [a] way that
they can be disproved
That is my way. Only Krugman
and Lorion have tested any of
my hypoth[esis] in conventional
quant[itative] ways … etc[etera] Nobody ever
atacks my LOS, only me.
I do not use a p[oin]t of v[iew] in seeing
the laws of the sit[uation] … und[erstanding is?] not a p[oin]t of v[iew]
I do not seek agreement but
awareness and knowledge
Explain origin of moral p[oin]t of v[iew]
I never know what I will find
I don’t claim to be a scientist
ie one who uses quant[itative] methods
in a specialist area of data.
Media as crowds depre[ceates?] private
ident[ity] and increase pub[lic] id[entity] etc[etera]
Watergate as revenge for inflation
one behind every Milhouse
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Apologies for not having posted anything yet this new year. Though 2011 is over, some seem to think that Marshall McLuhan’s centenary is also over. It is not! Marshall’s hundred-and-first birthday would have been this coming July 21st. So I will continue, albeit at a slower pace, to post more library finds – in my way, celebrating his life and mind and work.
My posts will be less frequent, mostly because my work cataloging Marshall McLuhan’s working library is pretty much finished – at least, the initial run through. This blog is actually the fruit of my diversion from that task, taking a few moments here and there to exceed my catalog mandate and document a bit further some individual books and their additional contents.
This catalog, with its 5,953 entries, has been an amazing and highly rewarding task. Later on, I might take some time to share with you, dear reader, some of my thoughts on the working library as a whole and its scholarly and biographic implications – which are tremendous.
That said, thanks for reading, and stay tuned for more.
I thought I would share some of Marshall McLuhan’s signatures with you. Marshall signed his name in many of his books. Early on, in his time at the University of Manitoba, and also at Cambridge, he would include more information:
In his university days, he generally included additional information such as school and program, and (more often in England) the place he bought the book. Sometimes a bookseller’s invoice is tucked in between the pages.
I suspect there were several reasons Marshall put his name in the books he purchased. He would lend them out on occasion, so he wanted to make sure people knew whose book it was. I’m sure also some sort of pride of ownership played a role.
It is very convenient for me, and future researchers, that Marshall McLuhan’s handwriting changed over the years. Because of that, we can ballpark-date much of his annotation/marginalia; because of that we can track his changing interests, his intellectual development.
For example, we can look at a book which he purchased in England in 1935 and made notes in over the years. Marshall’s was a Working Library. He went back to his books, and made new insights each time. So we can see what was notable to him in the 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s, etcetera.
Indeed, sometimes he would write a note about this change. In one volume, he wrote in the early 1930’s a few short sentences on morality, and added a postscript a few years later with some embarrassment for his earlier thought.
As I am almost at the end of my initial catalog of the library, and have a fairly good sense of the artifact as a whole, so many implications are becoming clear which I would not have imagined, such as being able to get a sense of intellectual development – and many other things which I hope to post about and share in the future.
Thanks for reading,
As a post-script, last week I was in Porto Alegro, Brasil, for a conference with Eric McLuhan, and was asked to give a small presentation on the work I’ve been doing with Marshall’s library. Though I had to throw it together last-minute, I spoke for over an hour about the experience and implications for scholarship. It was very satisfying for me personally, and I’d like to thank the amazing people at PUCRS: Eduardo Campos Pellanda, Carlos Gerbase, Magda, Julliana – all the other staff and students who welcomed us and were so accommodating.
I am hoping to make more presentations in the future to share this resource, and to fund further my research. If your institution would be interested in having me present, do get in touch.
In The Demanding Age: An Anthology of Assorted Contemporary Literature (1970 Toronto: McGraw-Hill Book Company of Canada Limited), edited by Ronald Side and Ralph Greenfield, there is a letter to Marshall McLuhan with curious notes on the back. In the volume is reprinted The Reversal of the Overheated Image.
The letter is from Irma Coucill, of Toronto, who was apparently connected with the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, according to Eric McLuhan, and reads:
Dr. Marshall McLuhan
3 Wychwood Park
I am not a cyclops, nor a one-eyed
You’ve hurt my feelings, sir.
391 Broadway Ave
Turd that turned hairy in idend (identity?) quest
(?) Mrs. Smog-butz went into retrograde (?) and turned turtle
(?) for somatic somnabules in dumpest mud of
The sesquapalan bog of the labyrinth
New grammar for new garbage
Thanks for reading,
Tucked in the back of ‘Living in the Present’ by John Wain are a couple of letters, and, typically, a few New York Times clippings relevant to the volume. There are many of Wain’s books (most, if not all) in the library, and almost all are signed to McLuhan from Wain. Many also have letters which show a warm relationship between the two based on mutual admiration (I have to assume the admiration was mutual, as I have only seen the letters from Wain to McLuhan). I don’t think any of the letters have been seen by ‘the public’.
The following is a transcript of a letter from Wain to McLuhan postmarked March 23 1955 from Wain / 25 Florida Court / Reading to H. M. McLuhan Esq 29 Wells Hill Ave. Toronto 10 CANADA.
Very hastily, because I have a lot of other things to do just
now, I send you this to acknowledge having got your parcel. Actually
I have already devoured a lot of the contents, but my brain works
seasonally, as it were – sometimes it seems to welcome critical work,
and do it easily, and at other times it just recoild from it. Just
now, I am deep in a novel, and it seems as if the resources of my
mind are all going into the effort of identifying with the characters,
and I just can’t do critical thinking at all – your simplest article
defeats me, though I get a hedonistic pleasure from reading your
prose. So if you don’t mind, the thing may have to wait a few weeks
before I do anything very strenuous, but if i am, I just can’t do it yet. My
first impression, for what it’s worth, is that you would make a
more unified and more useful initial impact if you wrote out your
basic ideas in the form of a short book, not much longer than a pamph-
let; I say ‘initial’, not that there aren’t a great many people in
England who know and follow your work (I met one only last night,
who it seems used to read you in something called View, a man named
Alloway), but because this would be your first introduction to the
English reading public at large. I do have the impression that the
essays could hardly be grouped in a way that wouldn’t make a bitty
impression; wouldn’t it be best for me to show them to an intelligent
publisher (I think there are some) and use them to engage his
interest so that he will then be the more easily persuaded to
commission a short book from you?
That’s what I think now, anyway. I’ll let you know/developments,
Best wishes, yrs, John Wain
P.S. Would you have any objection to one
of your essays appearing in a magazine
called Mandrake? It doesn’t pay but
is very chic
Thanks, as ever, for reading,
I am now approaching my four thousandth entry into my catalog of the personal library of Marshall McLuhan. More than a task, this journey has been filled with excitement and discovery with every box I open – I never know what I will come across, and some of what I have come across has been truly astonishing. I’ve found a typed letter from Ezra Pound tucked in a book; pictures of Marshall and his family from years gone by; postcards and mementos from trips abroad; notations which speak to intellectual progress from the University of Manitoba to the last years of the Centre for Culture and Technology; name tags and folders from conferences; strange, incomprehensible things mailed from admirers. In the process I have learned much about so many subjects; seen a bit into the way a brilliant mind worked; began to have an understanding of McLuhan’s work; and had the amazing opportunity to learn all this about my grandfather, an opportunity which few ever have. In short, it’s been an honour which I will never forget.
My only regret with this project is that I don’t have the time or the resources to thoroughly document each volume of interest (perhaps 90 percent of them), but that would be more of a lifetime’s work. I estimate that I have maybe another thousand books to catalogue, and when I get to the end, so will this weblog reach its end. In the meantime, there’s more to share with you, faithful reader:
The volume is “Andrew Marvell” by M.C. Bradbrook and M.G. Lloyd Thomas and it contains the invoice from Cambridge University Press to Marshall McLuhan, Esq, Dept. of English, University of St. Louis, Missouri, U.S.A. dated 29 October 1940.
Tucked between pages 46-47 is an ‘air letter’ addressed to Professor H.M. McLuhan and originally c/o The Vanguard Press Inc., 424 Madison Avenue, New York 17 N.Y., but that’s crossed out and it’s been re-addressed to 81 St. Mary’s Street, Toronto, Canada and has a postmark from Cambridge, and a New York postmark dated May 19 1952.
The letter is typed with some pen corrections and begins:
16.5.52 Girton College, Cambridge
Thank you so much for The Mechanical Bride. I enjoyed it immensely and so did my students. Didn’t the Advertisers mind their stuff being used in this manner?
Yesterday I had a letter from a firm which does duplicating which began without any preamble “a negro was walking along a Chicago street when he was attacked by a tough. He prayed ‘O Gawd, don’ let dis tough get me’ and a piece of cornice at once fell off a roof and brained the tough: whereat the grateful negro exclaimed ‘Lawd, dats what I call Service’
Just like that: and then they go to their avertising matter. I have never seen anything so shocking.
You seem to be managing to put in quite an incredible amount of work: how is it done? I find myself getting slower and slower: and this year a couple of articles have gone near to squeeze all the energy out of me: one for the year’s work in English studies and one for Shakespeare Survey. In 1950 over 300 books, articles and notes on Shakespeare saw the light. He is overstudied. Academics should be allowed to publish only under license, when he is their subject (this of course is Envy).
I believe Basil Willey is going back to the U.S.A. for a short visit next year, and Tom Henn is also going over. The Bennetts have been in Chicago for six months and I think they have greatly enjoyed it.
What are the chances of your coming to England? We are flooded with Fullbrights but see so few Canadians.
Also included in the volume are a card “With the author’s compliments (Miss M. C. Bradbrook) and a postcard, which on the reverse Marshall wrote “Back of Girton College from Miss Bradbrook who also gave us our copy of Bayes’ Rehearsal”.
There is only one notation inside the back dust-jacket: “p17 Parker’s attack on Camb Platonists”.
Thanks for reading,