Born July 21, 1911, Edmonton; died December 31, 1980, Toronto
Marshall McLuhan’s work is viewed as one of the cornerstones of the study of media theory. He is popularly known for the expressions “the medium is the message” and “global village”.
Life and career
McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta, to Methodist parents Elsie Naomi (née Hall) and Herbert Ernest McLuhan. His brother, Maurice, was born two years later. “Marshall” was a family name: his maternal grandmother’s surname. Both of his parents were born in Canada. His mother was a Baptist schoolteacher who later became an actress. His father had a real estate business in Edmonton. When war broke out, the business failed, and McLuhan’s father enlisted in the Canadian army. After a year of service he contracted influenza and remained in Canada, away from the front. After Herbert’s discharge from the army in 1915, the McLuhan family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Marshall grew up and went to school, attending Kelvin Technical High School before enrolling in the University of Manitoba in 1928.
McLuhan earned a BA (1933)—winning a University Gold Medal in Arts and Sciences—and MA (1934) in English from the University of Manitoba, after a one year stint as an engineering major. He had long desired to pursue graduate studies in England and, having failed to secure a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, McLuhan was accepted for enrollment at the University of Cambridge. Although he already had earned BA and MA degrees at Manitoba, Cambridge required him to enroll as an undergraduate “affiliated” student, with one year’s credit toward a three-year Cambridge Bachelor’s degree, before any doctoral studies. He entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge in the Fall of 1934, where he studied under I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis, and was influenced by New Criticism. Upon reflection years after, he credited the faculty there with influencing the direction of his later work because of their emphasis on the training of perception and such concepts as Richards’ notion of feedforward. These studies formed an important precursor to his later ideas on technological forms. He received his bachelor’s degree from Cambridge in 1936 and began graduate work. Later, he returned from England to take a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which he held for the 1936–37 academic year, unable to find a suitable job in Canada.
While studying the trivium at Cambridge he took the first steps toward his eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1937, founded on his reading of G. K. Chesterton. At the end of March 1937, McLuhan completed what was a slow but total conversion process when he was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. After consulting with a minister, his father accepted the decision to convert; his mother, however, felt that his conversion would hurt his career and was inconsolable. McLuhan was devout throughout his life, but his religion remained a private matter. He had a lifelong interest in the number three—the trivium, the Trinity—and sometimes said that the Virgin Mary provided intellectual guidance for him. For the rest of his career he taught in Roman Catholic institutions of higher education. From 1937 to 1944 he taught English at Saint Louis University (with an interruption from 1939 to 1940 when he returned to Cambridge). At Saint Louis he tutored and befriended Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912–2003), who would go on to write his Ph.D. dissertation on a topic McLuhan had called to his attention, and who would himself also later become a well-known authority on communication and technology.
While in St. Louis, he also met his future wife. On August 4, 1939, McLuhan married teacher and aspiring actress Corinne Lewis (1912–2008) of Fort Worth, Texas, and they spent 1939–40 in Cambridge, where he completed his master’s degree (awarded in January 1940) and began to work on his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts. War had broken out in Europe while the McLuhans were in England, and he obtained permission to complete and submit his dissertation from the United States, without having to return to Cambridge for an oral defense. The McLuhans returned to Saint Louis University in 1940 where he continued teaching and they started a family. He was awarded a Ph.D. in December 1943. Returning to Canada, from 1944 to 1946 McLuhan taught at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario. Moving to Toronto in 1946, McLuhan joined the faculty of St. Michael’s College, a Catholic college of the University of Toronto. Hugh Kenner was one of his students and Canadian economist and communications scholar Harold Innis was a university colleague who had a strong influence on McLuhan’s work.
In the early 1950s, McLuhan began the Communication and Culture seminars, funded by the Ford Foundation, at the University of Toronto. As his reputation grew, he received a growing number of offers from other universities and, to keep him, the university created the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963. He published his first major work during this period: The Mechanical Bride (1951) was an examination of the effect of advertising on society and culture. He also produced an important journal, Explorations, with Edmund Carpenter, throughout the 1950s. Together with Harold Innis, Eric A. Havelock, and Northrop Frye, McLuhan and Carpenter have been characterized as the Toronto School of communication theory. McLuhan remained at the University of Toronto through 1979, spending much of this time as head of his Centre for Culture and Technology.
McLuhan was named to the Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, for one year (1967–68). While at Fordham, McLuhan was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor; it was treated successfully. He returned to Toronto where for the rest of his life, he worked at the University of Toronto and lived in Wychwood Park, a bucolic enclave on a hill overlooking the downtown where Anatol Rapoport was his neighbour. In 1970, McLuhan was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1975 the University of Dallas hosted him from April to May, appointing him the McDermott Chair.
Marshall and Corinne McLuhan had six children: Eric, twins Mary and Teresa, Stephanie, Elizabeth and Michael. The associated costs of a large family eventually drove McLuhan to advertising work and accepting frequent consulting and speaking engagements for large corporations, IBM and AT&T among them. In September 1979 he suffered a stroke, which affected his ability to speak. The University of Toronto’s School of Graduate Studies tried to close his research center shortly thereafter, but was deterred by substantial protests, most notably by Woody Allen, in whose Oscar-winning motion picture Annie Hall McLuhan had a cameo role; Allen had McLuhan saying to someone “You don’t understand my work at all.” This was one of McLuhan’s most frequently expressed statements to and about those who would disagree with him.
He never fully recovered from the stroke and died in his sleep on December 31, 1980.