Life and career
McLuhan was born on July 21, 1911, in Edmonton, Alberta, to Elsie Naomi (née Hall) and Herbert Ernest McLuhan, both born in Canada. His brother Maurice was born two years later. "Marshall" was his maternal grandmother's surname. His mother was a Baptist school teacher who later became an actress; his father was a Methodist and had a real estate business in Edmonton. That business failed when World War I broke out, and McLuhan's father enlisted in the Canadian army. After a year of service, he contracted influenza and remained in Canada, away from the front lines. After his discharge from the army in 1915, the McLuhan family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Marshall grew up and went to school, attending Kelvin Technical School before enrolling in the University of Manitoba in 1928.
At Manitoba, McLuhan explored his conflicted relationship with religion and turned to literature to "gratify his soul's hunger for truth and beauty," later referring to this stage as agnosticism. After studying for one year as an engineering student, he changed majors and earned a BA (1933), winning a University Gold Medal in Arts and Sciences. He took an MA (1934) in English from the University of Manitoba in 1934. He had long desired to pursue graduate studies in England and was accepted to the University of Cambridge, having failed to secure a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.
He had already earned a BA and an MA degree at Manitoba, but Cambridge required him to enroll as an undergraduate "affiliated" student, with one year's credit towards a three-year bachelor's degree, before entering any doctoral studies. He entered Trinity Hall, Cambridge in the autumn of 1934, where he studied under I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis and was influenced by New Criticism. Upon reflection years afterward, he credited the faculty there with influencing the direction of his later work because of their emphasis on the training of perception and such concepts as Richards' notion of feedforward. These studies formed an important precursor to his later ideas on technological forms. He received the required bachelor's degree from Cambridge in 1936 and entered their graduate program. Later, he returned from England to take a job as a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that he held for the 1936–37 academic year, being unable to find a suitable job in Canada.
While studying the trivium at Cambridge, he took the first steps toward his eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1937, founded on his reading of G. K. Chesterton. In 1935, he wrote to his mother: "[H]ad I not encountered Chesterton, I would have remained agnostic for many years at least." At the end of March 1937, McLuhan completed what was a slow but total conversion process, when he was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church. After consulting a minister, his father accepted the decision to convert. His mother, however, felt that his conversion would hurt his career and was inconsolable. McLuhan was devout throughout his life, but his religion remained a private matter. He had a lifelong interest in the number three (e.g., the trivium, the Trinity) and sometimes said that the Virgin Mary provided intellectual guidance for him. For the rest of his career, he taught in Roman Catholic institutions of higher education. From 1937 to 1944, he taught English at Saint Louis University (with an interruption from 1939–40 when he returned to Cambridge). There he taught courses on Shakespeare and tutored and befriended Walter J. Ong, who went on to write his PhD dissertation on a topic that McLuhan had called to his attention, and who also became a well-known authority on communication and technology.
McLuhan met Corinne Lewis in St. Louis, a teacher and aspiring actress from Fort Worth, Texas, and they were married on August 4, 1939. They spent 1939–40 in Cambridge, where he completed his master's degree (awarded in January 1940) and began to work on his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Nashe and the verbal arts. While the McLuhans were in England, war had broken out in Europe. For this reason, he obtained permission to complete and submit his dissertation from the United States, without having to return to Cambridge for an oral defence. In 1940, the McLuhans returned to Saint Louis University, where he continued teaching and they started a family. He was awarded a Ph.D. in December 1943. He next taught at Assumption College in Windsor, Ontario from 1944 to 1946, then moved to Toronto in 1946 where he joined the faculty of St. Michael's College, a Catholic college of the University of Toronto. Hugh Kenner was one of his students and Canadian economist and communications scholar Harold Innis was a university colleague who had a strong influence on his work. McLuhan wrote in 1964: "I am pleased to think of my own book The Gutenberg Galaxy as a footnote to the observations of Innis on the subject of the psychic and social consequences, first of writing then of printing."
In the early 1950s, McLuhan began the Communication and Culture seminars at the University of Toronto, funded by the Ford Foundation. As his reputation grew, he received a growing number of offers from other universities and, to keep him, the university created the Centre for Culture and Technology in 1963. He published his first major work during this period: The Mechanical Bride (1951). The work was an examination of the effect of advertising on society and culture. He and Edmund Carpenter also produced an important journal called Explorations throughout the 1950s. McLuhan and Carpenter have been characterized as the Toronto School of communication theory, together with Harold Innis, Eric A. Havelock, and Northrop Frye. During this time, McLuhan supervised the doctoral thesis of modernist writer Sheila Watson on the subject of Wyndham Lewis. He remained at the University of Toronto through 1979, spending much of this time as head of his Centre for Culture and Technology.
McLuhan was named to the Albert Schweitzer Chair in Humanities at Fordham University in the Bronx for one year (1967–68). While at Fordham, he was diagnosed with a benign brain tumour, and it was treated successfully. He returned to Toronto where he taught at the University of Toronto for the rest of his life and lived in Wychwood Park, a bucolic enclave on a hill overlooking the downtown where Anatol Rapoport was his neighbour. In 1970, he was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. In 1975, the University of Dallas hosted him from April to May, appointing him to the McDermott Chair.
Marshall and Corinne McLuhan had six children: Eric, twins Mary and Teresa, Stephanie, Elizabeth, and Michael. The associated costs of a large family eventually drove him to advertising work and accepting frequent consulting and speaking engagements for large corporations, IBM and AT&T among them. Woody Allen's Oscar-winning motion picture Annie Hall (1977) featured McLuhan in a cameo as himself; a pompous academic arguing with Allen in a cinema queue is silenced by McLuhan suddenly appearing and saying, "You know nothing of my work." This was one of McLuhan's most frequent statements to and about those who disagreed with him.
In September 1979, he suffered a stroke which affected his ability to speak. The University of Toronto's School of Graduate Studies tried to close his research centre shortly thereafter, but was deterred by substantial protests, most notably by Woody Allen. He never fully recovered from the stroke and died in his sleep on December 31, 1980.