Childhood & Early Life
Marshall McLuhan was born Herbert Marshall McLuhan, in Alberta, Canada, on July 21, 1911, to Elsie Naomi and Herbert Ernest McLuhan. Both his parents were born and raised in Canada. Marshall grew up with a younger brother named Maurice.
His mother, Elsie, was a Baptist schoolteacher who later became an actor. His father initially had his own business of real estate and was a hardcore Methodist. His children grew up in a highly religious household. Thus, religion later became Marshall’s field of philosophical scrutiny.
His father’s business failed with the onset of the First World War. Ernest then got drafted into the ‘Canadian Army’ to fight in the First World War. After a year of service, his father contracted influenza and returned to Canada. He took his family to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and began to live there. Soon, Marshall joined the ‘Kelvin Technical School.’
In 1928, after graduating high school, Marshall enrolled at the ‘University of Manitoba’ to obtain his engineering degree. However, with time, he became disinterested in engineering and changed his majors to BA. He won a ‘University Gold Medal in Arts and Sciences.’ He then obtained an MA degree in English from the same university.
One reason that led him to pursue a master’s degree in English was the affection that he had gained for literature. His in-depth study led him to question his religion, and he became an agnostic.
He had the desire to study in England and was accepted by the ‘University of Cambridge.’ He worked under scholars such as IA Richards and FR Leavis and studied the theories of New Criticism deeply. Following the completion of his term at ‘Cambridge’ and failing to secure a job in Canada, he started working as a teaching assistant at the ‘University of Wisconsin–Madison.’
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From 1937 to 1944, Marshall was an English professor at ‘Saint Louis University,’ and by that time, he had become a devout Catholic. He also studied religious works. Most of his later achievements were accredited to his in-depth study of religion.
He completed his PhD on Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts. As the Second World War had begun by the late 1930s, he requested the university allow him to complete his doctorate program in the US. In December 1943, he was awarded a PhD.
He then started teaching at the ‘Assumption College,’ Ontario. In 1946, he moved to Toronto to teach at the ‘St. Michael’s College’ of the ‘University of Toronto.’ In the early 1950s, he began organizing communication and culture seminars at the ‘University of Toronto,’ all of which were funded by the ‘Ford Foundation.’
As a scholar, Marshall was a grammarian who focused his research on the linguistic and perceptual biases of the media. He was also a pioneer of the “mosaic approach” of writing.
In 1951, his much-revered book ‘The Mechanical Bride’ was published and attracted a lot of attention. In his book, Marshall spoke about the mass media and analyzed and commented on many aspects of persuasion that the mass media promoted. He also focused on the difference of perception between the print media and the electronic media in terms of acceptance of information.
The book ‘The Mechanical Bride’ consisted of many short essays that were not arranged in any particular order. He named it the “mosaic approach” of reading a book, which became quite famous over time. Every essay had a newspaper clipping or an advertisement on top, and Marshall provided his in-depth analysis on them.
In 1962, he published another book, ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man.’ The book offered an in-depth study of oral culture, print culture, media ecologies, and culture studies. The book had Marshall studying human history from a time when typography did not exist and bringing them to electronic media.
He acknowledged the fact that the print media had played a decisive role in the advent of democracy, Protestantism, capitalism, and nationalism in the western world.
In the early 1960s, Marshall focused on the significance of a “global village.” He noted that with the advent of more forms of mass media, the human population would go into a collective zone of “electronic interdependence,” as opposed to the individualism of visual culture. He also coined the term “surfing” and defined it as a process of a rapid and multidirectional movement through some sets of knowledge or a set of documents.
In 1962, his book ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’ was awarded with the highest Canadian literary award, the ‘Governor-General’s Award for Non-Fiction.’
In 1964, he wrote the book ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man,’ in which he explained why the medium itself should be studied more than the information that it provides. This book is now considered to be a pioneer work in the field of media studies.
In 1967, Marshall published yet another book, ‘The Medium Is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects,' which remains, to this day, his most popular work. The book showcased several interesting ideas about how any change in the media causes a change in public perception. ‘Columbia Records’ obtained the rights for the audiobooks of Marshall’s works.
In 1970, Marshall wrote another book, ‘From Cliché to Archetype,’ for which he collaborated with popular Canadian poet Wilfred Watson. The book featured Marshall defining “clichéd” as normalization of a particular subject and its continuous usage that makes the public eventually become unaffected by it.
He also composed a book during his final years. It was titled ‘The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century’ and dealt with the rise of a strong worldwide network. It was released posthumously, in 1989.
Family & Personal Life
Marshall McLuhan married Corinne Lewis, a drama and speech teacher and an aspiring actor, in August 1939.
The couple had six children: two sons and four daughters. In order to support his family, Marshall worked more in advertising and arranged frequent speeches and seminars.
In September 1979, Marshall suffered from a stroke, which made him unable to talk. He never quite recovered from the stroke and died in his sleep on December 31, 1980, at the age of 69.