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.

Trying to sell Snow to sell the Galaxy

Marshall McLuhan (February 1, 1962, age 50).  C.P. Snow’s the bloke!

My editor at U of Toronto press, a canny Scot, came up with a great idea for the dust jacket testimonial for The Gutenberg Galaxy of which I hope to see the page proofs in the coming weeks.  We will get C.P. Snow – Sir Charles now – to write something complimentary.  Turns out he, and Lady Snow, met Walter Ong – my former student – at Wesleyan University and they had a meeting of minds.   How delightfully serendipitous are the ways of fate.  As you may know we are both Cambridge men and individually represent the opposite divides of the Two Cultures he has banged on about to great effect and acclaim.  The Gutenberg Galaxy is at heart about the making of the two cultures; two being one more than there was before the advent of printing.  I hope he agrees.  It will certainly make a world of difference to the sales of good old Galaxy if we can get the author of the Two Cultures to go to bat for me.  Must go, I have a letter to write.

Me (January 2010, age 57).  I don’t think Snow had a hard time saying no.

C.P. Snow did not write a phrase for the dust jacket of the Galaxy.  As far as I have been able to learn he did not reply to McLuhan’s letter.  In that letter McLuhan writes, somewhat obsequiously, “The Gutenberg Galaxy … undertakes, almost as a sequel to your Two Cultures, to explain the historical divergence of these two cultures, both before and since Gutenberg.  I dreamed, therefore, of seeing a phrase of yours on the jacket.”

If Sir Charles bothered to read the page proofs of  The Gutenberg Galaxy – assuming that McLuhan actually went to the trouble and expense of sending them to him as he promised in his letter –  it is difficult to believe that Snow would have seen himself as a natural dust jacket testimonial writer for the book.  The first two opening sentences alone I suspect would have had this plain speaking Yorkshire man shaking his head:  “The present volume is in many respects complementary to The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord.  Professor Lord has continued the work of Milman Parry, whose Homeric studies led him to consider how oral and written poetry naturally followed diverse patterns and functions.”

McLuhan might have found it crystal clear that Snow’s Two Cultures correspond to Lord and Parry’s “oral” and “written” “patterns and functions,” but I don’t think Snow would have found it either obvious or enlightening.

What was McLuhan thinking?  That, of course, C. P. Snow would want to be a part of the Marshall McLuhan fan club?  What should he have done differently?  (I can think of quite a few things.  For example I imagine the last thing Snow would have wanted was to see the page proofs to the Galaxy.)  Perhaps the real lesson of this story is that McLuhan was at this time totally consumed with the ideas he was creating. What do you think?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, pp. 282-284.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, January 27th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Culture, Vol. 1 No Comments

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