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Contextualizing Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) December 26, 2014: No other literature professor in the twentieth century achieved the media notoriety that the Canadian Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) achieved in the 1960s and 1970s. McLuhan's most imaginative book, Understanding Media: Extensions of Man, was first published in 1964. It helped catapult him to extraordinary media attention. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its publication, I'd like to contextualize it and McLuhan's life.

My general theme centers around Marshall McLuhan's religious faith and his works. However, in my research on McLuhan's life, I have not come across any published statements in which he discusses the years in his life when he was a Protestant. As a result, I will of necessity center my attention on his interest in and conversion to Roman Catholicism. I will present the results of my research on his life in chronological order based on the chronology of his life. From time to time, I will flash-forward to mention a later development (or developments), but then I will return to the chronological timeline as indicated in the subheadings.

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Perhaps I should explain that I undertook my research on McLuhan's life in connection with my research on the life and work of the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003). I have discussed Ong and McLuhan in my book Walter Ong's Contributions to Cultural Studies: The Phenomenology of the Word and I-Thou Communication (Hampton Press, 2000; rev. ed. 2015) and in my lengthy introduction to An Ong Reader: Challenges for Further Inquiry, edited by me and Paul A. Soukup (Hampton Press, 2002, pages 1-68).

Timeline: 1934

In a posthumously published letter dated May 6, 1969, to Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic Thomist, McLuhan reports that he first read Maritain's book Art and Scholasticism in 1934 when he (McLuhan) was in graduate studies in English at CambridgeUniversity. At the end of his letter, McLuhan says, "It was a revelation to me. I became a Catholic in 1937" (Letters of Marshall McLuhan, edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye [Oxford University Press, 1987, page 371). The juxtaposition of these last two sentences suggests that Maritain's book may have contributed somehow to McLuhan becoming a Catholic in the spring semester of 1937, when he was teaching English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Before the Second Vatican Council in the Roman Catholic Church (1962-1965), many college-educated Catholics in Europe and North America and elsewhere, not just priests but also lay people, studied Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy and theology in their undergraduate education at Roman Catholic institutions of higher education. As a result, they characteristically thought of themselves as Thomists. In North America, the two leading centers of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy were St. Mike's at the University of Toronto and St. LouisUniversity, the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri.

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As we will see momentarily, McLuhan devoted the better part of his adult life teaching English at those two leading centers of Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy in North America. No doubt McLuhan considered himself to be a Thomist. However, he had no formal training in philosophy -- or in theology. In philosophy and theology, he was an autodidact. (By contrast, Ong as part of his Jesuit training was professionally trained in philosophy and theology.)

The overall spirit of pre-Vatican II Catholicism is nicely expressed in the main title of Philip Gleason's book Contending with Modernity: [American] Catholic Higher Education in the Twentieth Century (Oxford University Press, 1995). No doubt Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy was one of the ways in which pre-Vatican II were contending with modernity and its spirit of secularism. In terms of philosophy, Catholic Thomists were contending primarily with Kant and the Kantian philosophic tradition of thought. Because Kant had not studied Thomas Aquinas's metaphysical thought, Thomists rejected Kant's critique of metaphysical thought on the grounds that he had not done his homework and therefore did not know what he was talking about. But pre-Vatican II Catholics were not just contending with modernity in the realm of philosophic thought, but also in a wide range of supposedly secular matters, including movies and other aspects of popular culture and consumerism. In any event, when McLuhan converted to Catholicism in 1937, he was presumably signing on to the Roman Catholic spirit at the time of contending with modernity and secularism. McLuhan's book The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man (Vanguard, 1951) fits nicely within the Roman Catholic spirit of contending with modernity and consumerism.

Broadly speaking, certain aspects of the pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic spirit of contending with modernity and consumerism resembled the aspects of critiques advanced by the critical theory of the atheistic Frankfurt school of thought in Europe. But of course no self-respecting atheist would have anything favorable to say about papal critiques of modernity and secularism -- or about similar critiques advanced by Roman Catholic authors such as McLuhan and Ong. Conversely, no self-respecting Catholics such as McLuhan and Ong would have anything favorable to say about critiques advanced by the FrankfurtSchool authors.

In American culture, the prestige culture was dominated from colonial times down to about 1960 by white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs). Down to about 1960 when the Harvard-educated white Roman Catholic Irish American John F. Kennedy was narrowly elected president of the United States, the American WASP elite paid no attention to papal critiques of modernity and secularism -- or to other Roman Catholic authors in general. For their part, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics characteristically used the thought of the American WASP elite for target practice and critique -- not for finding points of common ground. We should not forget this cultural context when we consider McLuhan's extraordinary rise to fame after the publication of his books The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (University of Toronto Press, 1962) and Understanding Media: Extensions of Man (McGraw-Hill, 1964).

Timeline: 1936

In 1936, McLuhan published his first significant article: "G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic" in the Dalhousie Review, volume 15, pages 455-464. Chesterton was a prolific writer of books and op-ed commentaries and a well-known public speaker debater. He was a larger than life character -- and a famous convert to Roman Catholicism. He wrote poetry, biographies, literary criticism, and religious reflections. Among his many books, you will find biographies of St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi that are still worth reading today. Because McLuhan followed Chesterton's example and converted to Roman Catholicism, we should note that in his mid-twenties McLuhan was interested in Chesterton as a practical mystic.

McLuhan's essay about Chesterton is reprinted in McLuhan's posthumously published collection of essays titled The Medium and the Light: Reflections on Religion, edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek (Stoddart Publishing, 1999).

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When McLuhan was teaching English at St. Mike's at the University of Toronto later in his life, he served as the director of Hugh Kenner's Master's thesis on Chesterton. Kenner's thesis was subsequently published as the book Paradox in Chesterton (Sheed & Ward, 1947 -- with an introduction by McLuhan (pages xi-xxii).

Timeline: 1937-1944

From 1937 to 1944, McLuhan taught English at St. LouisUniversity. During this time, he continued to work on his 1943 CambridgeUniversity doctoral dissertation. As a matter of fact, he took a leave of absence in 1939-1940 to return to CambridgeUniversity to work further on his dissertation there. His unrevised dissertation was published posthumously as The Classical Trivium: The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, edited by W. Terrence Gordon (Gingko Press, 2006). McLuhan's dissertation is about the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic (or logic) from roughly the time of Cicero to the time of Thomas Nashe. (Nashe and Shakespeare were contemporaries in England.)

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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