A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

McLuhan was no gentleman.

Marshall McLuhan (1934 or 35, age 22/24). Tonight I crossed swords with Gertrude Stein.

Gertrude Stein came to Cambridge today to speak on the subject: “I am I because my little dog knows me.”  Naturally, I could not help letting the remark slip, rather loudly I admit, that this is a prime example of the infantile nature of her prose style.  She was not amused.  Stopping mid (child-like) sentence she fixed me with a look, grabbed her umbrella, and made her way through the crowd to where I was standing.  “What,” she said, “are people like you doing here at Cambridge?”  “My dear woman,” I said …

Me (August, 2010, age 58)  What did McLuhan say next?

Unfortunately, we do not know what Marshall McLuhan said next. And it is not clear that this is actually how he found himself crossing swords with Gertrude Stein.

Philip Marchand tells the story this way in his biography of McLuhan.  But Terry Gordon in his biography of McLuhan tells the story very differently.  According to Gordon, McLuhan did not boorishly interrupt Stein’s address.  Instead, Stein spoke boringly and without interruption for an hour.  McLuhan, irritated, waited till the question period to ask what Stein thought of Wyndham Lewis’s thoughts about “the subject of time,” suspecting that it might well get a rise out of Stein because of the length of her talk and her well-known sensitivity to Lewis’s poisonous criticisms of her writing style.

No matter, whoever is more clearly the injured party – McLuhan in the Gordon version, Stein in the Marchand version – McLuhan proves himself to be no gentleman.  And either way, we can still speculate as to what McLuhan might have said next.  Two come-backs come to mind:  “My question exactly;” and “You mean my fallacy is all wrong?” 

What do you think Marshall might have said?

Cordially, Marshall and Me


Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, 1989, p. 46.

W. Terrence Gordon, Marshall McLuhan:  Escape into Understanding, 1997, p. 62.

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Michael Hinton Friday, August 6th, 2010
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Communication, Vol. 1 1 Comment

1 Comment to McLuhan was no gentleman.

  • I know Gertrude’s niece, and she wouldn’t DARE behave that way. of course I don’t believe she bakes brownies, either.

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