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When Marshall McLuhan met Northrop Frye

Two of Canada’s cultural and intellectual giants were also rivals at U of T.

BY B.W. POWE | NOV 05 2014
When Marshall McLuhan met Northrop Frye
When Marshall McLuhan met Northrop Frye

They were two of Canada’s central cultural and intellectual figures. They were also colleagues and rivals “whose careers unfolded in curious harmony even as their intellectual engagement was antagonistic,” writes B. W. Powe in his new book, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy. In this excerpt, Dr. Powe begins by imagining the meeting of these two great minds.

They met in Toronto in 1946. H. Marshall McLuhan, fresh from Assumption College and Saint Louis University, had just been hired at the University of Toronto in the Department of English. H. Northrop Frye had been an associate professor in that department since the late 1930s. Fearful Symmetry, Frye’s canon-changing study of William Blake, was about to be published. McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man, would be published in five years. Frye was about to become a public critic of impressive influence. McLuhan’s stardom was to come in the 1960s. Their meeting took place at a faculty gathering in Victoria College on the campus of the University of Toronto. It was a moment of a rare convergence.

One came from Canada’s western provinces (Edmonton, Alberta). One had come from the east coast (Moncton, New Brunswick). They encountered one another in the centre of Canada, in the city – of Toronto – the country’s omphalos. An omphalos is the name philosophers give to an intellectual-spiritual centre, a site of sacred and turbulent power. They met one year after the end of the Second World War. It was almost the midpoint of the twentieth century. The Cold War was beginning.

They were introduced to one another (by whom?) at a social occasion, a welcoming to new faculty members. The two men shared spiritual pathways. McLuhan was a convert to Catholicism, but he had been born into a Methodist-Baptist family. Frye had been born into the Methodist heritage too, but he had left his fundamentalist-literalist background to become for a time an itinerant United Church minister. He was once asked what his religious vocation brought to his teaching: “I marry and bury students,” he quipped. But his sense that writing and teaching were about elevations of the soul never left him. McLuhan was asked what his spiritual hope might be: “Our only hope is apocalypse,” he said; by this he surely meant revelation and trust: new worlds will come. The two men would be colleagues in the Department of English at the University of Toronto for the next thirty-four years. […]

In a fit of premonitory inspiration, the university hiring committees had summoned the two men who would become the most formidable and influential intellectual-seers that Canada had yet produced. Their offices would be close by. They attended departmental meetings, participated in curricula discussions, shared students, debated points of theory and observation, riffed in conversation, muttered diatribes in private talk and some lectures, in letters and notebooks.  Above all they read and reread the other. They would absorb the other’s genius and intensities and use them to fire up their probes and inquiries.

I like to think that at their first meeting the sparks of brilliance between them were palpable. They may have thought: here was someone in Toronto, in the tweedy halls of the university, who could match their inner fire, their proclamations to themselves of the original flame. Frye declared in his journal (circa the mid-1970s), “I had genius. No one else in the field known to me had quite that.” McLuhan wrote in two letters to his mother, Elsie, (on 12 April 1936 and on 28 June 1936) that “My life in Canada will be a continual discontent. My task as a teacher will be to shake others from their complacency” and that he wanted to “tear the hide right off Canada some day and rub salt in it.” Did each man size up the other? Both must have intuited: this is a worthy opponent. All reports of their first meeting are sketchy. The intimations are that the first encounter was cordial. Still they were good readers of atmospheres. Here was another person who had considerable presence.

McLuhan and Frye crossed one another’s paths that day. They would do so again on the wooded campus pathways. They were to cross each other in their ideas and perceptions. When two such powerfully charismatic spirits converge, the moment is a crossroads – it is a juncture, an apocalyptic instant. Can I prove that they instantly recognized the presence of intellectual and spiritual fire in one another? No, but I can imagine what was happening: Frye spent a lifetime teaching that we recreate when we read and reread (all rereading is revisionary); McLuhan teaches that every moment thrives with influences and effects: all times are etched in the here and now.

Two souls had met. A story had begun. Henceforth what they lived would be what they had dreamed for themselves: epic quests of discovery, intellectual journeys that would alter the spirit of their age and the one to come. […]

Let us move ahead from 1946 to the 1960s and 1970s when McLuhan and Frye were at the height of their fame. McLuhan had become a joke on Rowan and Martin’s frenetic TV show, Laugh-In: in 1968 Henry Gibson would say on that show, “Marshall McLuhan – what are ya doin’?” On the University of Toronto campus this piece of doggerel verse about Frye was published in a local student paper: “Norrie Frye – what a guy / He’s read more books / Than you and I.”

McLuhan and Frye would be at odds by then. The congenial first meeting in 1946 eventually gave way to a trenchant public conflict (agon). I posit that this clash is the central Canadian visionary dynamism. McLuhan opposed literary specialization – in fact, any fragmenting specialization whatsoever. “The specialist is one who never makes small mistakes while moving toward the grand fallacy,” he announced in The Book of Probes (2003). Frye dismissed media studies. “Global village my ass,” he wrote in his Notebooks. To McLuhan, Frye had become a solitary heretic whose grandiose theoretical archetypes were frozen in unusable pictorial stasis. Frye was the prototypical bookworm, unaware of the effects of the technological shifts in the world, periodically and predictably censorious about the electronic revolution. To Frye, McLuhan had become the media guru, the apostle of electric junk, avatar of corporate interests, betrayer of the printed word, a sacrificial figure to the combustions of celebrity.

But the initial cordiality, the welcome at that Victoria College gathering, would sometimes reappear in their public statements of those subsequent decades. In 1967, when McLuhan was giving the Marfleet Lectures at Convocation Hall on the University of Toronto campus, he digressed to call Frye “extraordinary, with his frontiersmanship between the world of literature and the unconscious.” Frye had a “world position, and it is very much a frontier activity.” To be on the frontier means to be an explorer. Explorers do not take the map for the territory. Frontiers are stark places of identity-shifting originality. People on frontiers make a pact with revelation: whatever is hidden or overlooked, buried or forgotten must be disclosed. Frontiers can be badlands, harsh and unforgiving (under the wilderness stones, poisonous snakes curl up, waiting to strike); but these edge-sites have their codes and signs. In 1980 Frye called McLuhan a great “improviser,” the best he ever heard. (I note that Frye’s praise came after McLuhan’s death in 1980). In an extensive interview with David Cayley, published posthumously in 1992, Frye inextricably linked himself with Harold Innis and McLuhan in the Toronto School of Communication Theory. […]

Years after their deaths (McLuhan on New Year’s Eve, 1980, Frye in 1991), their meetings and engagements had been honoured in the geography and cultural symbolism of their city. Their names were encoded by Toronto city planners on the university campus. There is Marshall McLuhan Way, once just called Saint Joseph Street, a street running east and west (or west and east, depending on your entry point): there is Northrop Frye Hall, a building that straddles the north-south mapping of the city’s circle at Queen’s Park. This junction is our axis mundi, a meeting of two intellectual and spiritual streams, the crossing enshrined in raucous streets. Their conjunction – and their differences – are visible in the naming.

The naming of a street and a building can guide us and move us. It helps us to remember twin geniuses and their invaluable creation of a legacy of insight and vision. McLuhan and Frye are with us in spirit, when we walk or drive down these city streets. From 1946 on, after their first meeting, they entered the sphere of converging apocalyptic thought. They heard eternity’s footsteps on Toronto’s Philosopher’s Walk. We need the two for our imaginations, for our perceptions: their conflict brings recognitions of how complementarities govern dynamism; they are central to the Canadian soul – and I will argue to the global theatre (which we should no doubt now call the global pulsing membrane) – in their bold originalities. Through their writings and teachings they transformed generations of students and readers. The two met and created an essential dialogue. Their debates persist, in often unacknowledged ways, suffusing twenty-first-century culture.
They continue to summon us and to mentor us.
They were my teachers.
The sparks of their meetings enflame us.

This is a shortened and edited version of the original text, excerpted from Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy, published by University of Toronto Press, 2014. Dr. Powe is an associate professor and the creative writing program coordinator in the department of English at York University.

B.W. Powe
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