Preface

In truth, I only became fully aware of Marshall McLuhan and his theories in 1977 when I began work on my Master’s degree in English at the University of Toronto. I had been encouraged to go there and study with McLuhan by my undergraduate mentor at Franklin Pierce College, Nathan Cervo, who had done his own graduate work at Toronto. He told me that I was susceptible to learning from McLuhan because I had “the right kind of sense of humor.” It took me the better part of a year to understand what his words meant, but when I did understand, I realized just how perceptive my counselor was.

Because they met on the same days at approximately the same time, I was forced to choose between Northrop Frye’s graduate seminar on Milton and a graduate course called “Myth and Media: Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Yeats” taught by McLuhan. No doubt owing to my sense of humor, which was not particularly well aligned with my career prospects, I chose the latter. I have never regretted the selection. McLuhan’s seminars were scheduled for Monday and Wednesday afternoons in the carriage house on St. Michael’s College campus, but we were informed on the first Wednesday of the semester that the Monday section would meet in the evening. These meetings, it turned out, were associated with McLuhan’s famed open forums, known simply as “Monday nights.” We quickly learned that the Monday forum was the three-ring circus and that our Wednesday seminar was only a sideshow.

McLuhan’s teaching style, as many former students have attested, was not like that of any other professor. Everything about the seminars seemed to be impromptu. They would typically begin with McLuhan’s remarking that he had been thinking about something very interesting. Then he would read or recite a particularly memorable line or lucid insight culled from a worthwhile book that he had been dipping into and which he highly recommended to us. Then he would go on to another matter without a hint of transition or logical connection. This approach, I would later learn, McLuhan referred to as the “ideogrammatic method.” I don’t recall his mentioning Eliot or Yeats more than a few times, and then only to quote them without comment or analysis. I don’t recall his mentioning Pound at all. But he did spend the better part of a Wednesday afternoon reading from Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake in a rather exaggerated Irish accent. Joyce’s final masterpiece, we were to see, or rather hear, was an acoustic work meant to be appreciated as a performance.

I was, at first, dismayed by these performances; there was no way of finding one’s bearings. Of course, I had not yet learned that his technique was the content of the seminar. And yet, for all my consternation about what I was learning and how I would be assessed, I found myself being very much entertained. To my good fortune, McLuhan’s son, Eric, who was on leave from the University of Dallas to write his thesis, began sitting next to me during the seminars and, on occasion, during the Monday nights. With a word or phrase at the right time, he began to orient me to what was happening. He also recommended to me the “right books” to digest fully from the extensive reading list that his father had provided us early on in the course. These works included Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Edward T. Hall’s The Hidden Dimension, Erwin Panofsky’s Studies in Iconology, Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command, Harold Innis’s Empire and Communications, and E. H. Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, among others, including McLuhan’s own works, none of which was obviously oriented toward literary studies. Indeed, McLuhan’s books, like his lectures, when they referred to literature at all, only did so in cryptic ways.

All the graduate seminars in English at the University of Toronto were two semesters in length. By late January of 1978, I came realize that the course really should have been named McLuhan Studies; it was all McLuhan all the time, and I was hooked. We were given the only assignment I can recall in the whole of the seminar, which was to be a kind of full term paper or thesis. I decided to write on Hemingway and Fitzgerald as Romantics who worked in the tradition of using exterior landscapes to express emotion. To my surprise, some weeks after submitting the essay, Professor McLuhan asked me to read aloud from my thesis. After I read the first paragraph outlining my subject, he interrupted to say that he didn’t wish me to read what I wrote, but only the quotations from Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Although I was somewhat abashed at the time, since then this incident has served to amuse me no end. After I finished at Toronto, I decided to teach at a Massachusetts preparatory school for three years. On New Year’s Eve of 1980, I learned that Marshall McLuhan had died in his sleep following a serious stroke in September of the previous year, and I realized that I was among the last of his students.

In 1982, I was determined to pursue my Ph.D. in English and was accepted by Vanderbilt University’s doctoral program. The Mellon Chair for the Humanities at Vanderbilt in those days was held by Donald Davie, who was famous for his works on poetic diction and syntax. But he had also written, much to his colleagues’ surprise, two books on the poetry of Ezra Pound. When I and other students expressed a desire for a graduate seminar on Pound, Davie acquiesced on two conditions: it would be a small group, no more than six to eight participants, and it would meet at night at his home. That seminar was a revelation to me, opening almost as many doors of perception as McLuhan’s had years before. And when a fellow graduate student casually mentioned to me that he had seen some letters between Pound and McLuhan at the Lilly Library of the University of Indiana, Bloomington, my dissertation topic was set. Most of McLuhan’s side of the correspondence was at the Lilly; the majority of Pound’s side was housed at Canada’s National Public Archives in Ottawa. After visiting both repositories, I went to work at Yale University’s libraries. By happenstance, I found a few more of Pound’s letters in the card catalogue at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library; even the librarians and docents were unaware of their existence. All this, of course, was before the time of personal computers and the worldwide web, never mind Google. My methods were not unlike those of a detective, which I hope would have made both Pound and McLuhan proud. Although the final edition was accepted as a dissertation, the work was never published. In the past year or so, I have done a complete editing job, taking advantage of new databases and eliminating some youthful exuberance and partisanship.

Edwin J. Barton, 2021