Monday, May 3, 2010

Memoir: One Who Inspired McLuhan and Helped Define Canada

I seem to be posting about the Canadian experience a great deal. No surprise there I'm Canadian myself so consider me biased. Up next is the memoir of a Canadian intellectual giant.

It's interesting to come across a memoir that, until recently, no one knew about. Even more interestingly the writer of the memoir is the subject of several biographies. I'm not sure whether even the recent biographers had access to this memoir as they wrote.

In 2004 the Canadian Journal of Communication published Memoir of Harold Adams Innis: Covering the years 1894-1922. Innis lived until 1952 and was writing his memoirs at the time of his death. Memoirs which were only known to his family until their publication. This may be a unique chance to compare what biographers have come up with and what the subject himself said.

The subject in question is Harold Innis. A Canadian scholar who wrote some important works on economics and on the media. He looked at the Canadian experience in economic and technical terms. He wrote about the Canadian Pacific Railway and its impact on the country. He wrote the seminal work on the economic history of the fur trade. The trade that helped establish Canada.

His work on the media predates and heavily influenced Marshal McLuhan. McLuhan took Innis' ideas on writing and print and extended them into his own more expansive ideas. McLuhan didn't come up with his ideas in a complete vacuum. "If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants" if I may quote Isaac Newton.

An overview of Innis' work and its relation to the work of McLuhan is at the Library and Archives of Canada. Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan is a good place to read about some of the most important intellectual ideas of the 20th century.

The Canadian Journal of Communication also published an essay about Harold Innis' memoir by one of his biographers. Paul Heyer's History from the Inside is a fascinating read in its own right that gives additional insight into the memoirs.

Harold Innis didn't complete his memoirs. He managed to cover his early years and his experiences in the WWI. Including some details about the attack on Vimy Ridge which was a turning point for Canadian nationalism. Regardless of how Vimy is looked upon by history it's important to remember it was a battle. A bloody battle. The Great War had a profound influence on Innis. His memoirs describe much of the war in simple matter of fact terms. He spares us the horrors of war and yet here and there he reminds us that it was a war. During his description of the attack he writes simply that:
At first, when the barrage lifted, the skyline was filled with a line of men who had gone over the top and were in the German trenches before the Germans had a chance to recover from the effects of the barrage. Small groups of German prisoners began almost immediately to filter back, as did groups of the wounded and of course the dead were to be found scattered over the whole area, both German and ours. The advance continued steadily as the second and third lines of German trenches were taken. The barrage lifted and the dugouts either mercilessly bombed and the men inside killed or the men allowed to come out and be taken prisoner.

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