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‘They were awed by Empson, like rustics.’

January 18, 2011

January 13, 2011

It is a particular delight when I come across something more than marginal notations in my cataloging of the library. Sometimes it will be an enigmatic short notation, such as “urban congestion as psychedelic anesthesia” (see previous post so-titled). Other times it will be hand-written quotes from other authors like G. K. Chesterton. Coming across something personal like the slightly-over-a-page note below, is quite rare – I’ve gone through over 600 books now, and this is the first example I’ve seen thus far.

The Cast:

Northrop Fry was a colleague of Marshall’s at UofT. They had a famous rivalry, which, as I don’t completely understand it, I won’t try to illustrate it here.

Wimsatt is William K. Wimsatt, Jr. The library contains several of his books on Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, gifts of the author with nice inscriptions, for instance in The Portraits of Alexander Pope: “For Marshall and Corinne, This accidental exercise in non-visual seeing, with affectionate greetings from Bill and Margaret, 12 April 1966”

‘Richards’ is I. A. Richards, professor at Cambridge University when Marshall attended,  the author of Practical Criticism – hugely influential in Marshall’s intellectual development and work.

Before Marshall published The Mechanical Bride, and became involved with media and communication theory, he was a literary critic. A lot of the books in his library are review copies sent by publishers or authors hopeful of a McLuhan review. Many people don’t realize what a formidable writer he was, because many people only know Marshall though sound bytes or more well-known works like The Mechanical Bride, or The Medium is the Massage.

But reviews and critical essays are where Marshall McLuhan started. Eugene McNamara edited together a collection titled: The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943-1962 (McGraw-Hill, 1969)

In his preface to The Interior Landscape, McNamara writes: “Obviously literature has mattered to Professor McLuhan. No objective survey of his writings over the past thirty years could deny that. But his probes of the new media have unfortunately drawn to him the very forces he excoriated in The Mechanical Bride. In the pop mind, he has become the archetype of the post-Gutenberg critic, a ‘Pop Philosopher’ or ‘Media Prophet.’ This present selection, one hopes, will be a step toward the rectification of a crude cartoon, and a re-establishment of a truer picture, of Marshall McLuhan as a distinguished and perceptive literary critic.”

In his forward to The Interior Landscape, Marshall writes: “Cambridge was a shock. Richards, Leavis, Eliot and Pound and Joyce in a few weeks opened the doors of perception on the poetic process, and its role in adjusting the reader to the contemporary world. My study of media began and is rooted in the work of these men.”

Without further digression, here’s what’s written inside the front cover of Marshall’s copy of Some Versions of Pastoral by William Empson (1935, London: Chatto and Windus).

“When visiting U of T in the spring of 1973 Empson
and Frye and Wimsatt and myself had dinner.
It was then that Empson told of the days when he had
began supervisions under Richards. He said that he
was in the habit of regaling his undergrad friends
after each supervision with a detailed account of
what he and they regarded as Richards’ utter absurdity.
They would literally roll on the grass, howling with
merriment as the crazy psychological and ling-
uistic ideas were reviewed. Empson said it was
more than a year before he began to detect some
sense in I.A.R.
Empson spent the year 1973 as visiting professor at York
Corinne and
being completely ignored by U of T. ^ I had him to dinner
with Claude Bissell and then came and invitation to
lecture at U of T. He gave an unforgettable lecture on
“the secret marriage of Andrew Marvell. Marvell was a
political double agent for England Holland etc., and a
hater of women. His secret marriage was motivated in
part by tax problems, partly by his getting married to
his landlady. The political complications exceeded all
varieties of ambiguity. Empson is very noticably deaf
and has a big white moustache and the florid
face of a Col. Blimp. Typically, Wimsatt
and Frye played coy at dinner, and after, having
nothing to say on any subject. They were awed
by Empson, like rustics. Wimsatt has “attacked”
Frye in print, as I have, but they were
unable to rally any social grace. Empson spoke
of his essays as “occasional raids on Eng Lit.”
Mrs. Empson is a refreshingly open and
boistrous gal socially. Very plain but vivacious.
Both urged us to visit them in London.”

Thanks for reading,


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