CRF Blog

How to Become a Famous Media Scholar

by Bill Hayes

In How to Become a Famous Media Scholar for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jefferson Pooley profiles Marshall McLuhan.

WHEN MARSHALL MCLUHAN published Understanding Media in 1964, the Cambridge-trained literary scholar was not well known, even inside the academy. By 1967, he was on the covers of Newsweek and the Saturday Review, and the subject of an hourlong NBC documentary, all in the same month. Over three manic years, McLuhan had shot from scholarly obscurity to klieg-lit fame.

Like most celebrity ascensions, McLuhan’s was the product of a conscious publicity campaign. Handlers, press agents, and impresarios worked together to make “McLuhan” a household name. He was packaged and promoted like a promising starlet, with multimedia gusto. Understanding Media garnered a few mainstream print reviews upon publication, but McLuhan’s break came in early 1965, when a pair of San Francisco prospectors — one, Gerald Feigen, a physician, the other, Howard Gossage, an ad-agency executive — “discovered” McLuhan and promptly arranged to visit the Canadian in Toronto. Feigen and Gossage were self-fashioned avant-gardists, using profits from their business consulting firm for “genius scouting”; the doctor read Understanding Media and alerted his partner. Together they plotted a full-fledged publicity rollout, starting with cocktail parties in New York City with media and publishing figures. The pair staged a weeklong “McLuhan Festival” that summer, with nightly parties and a rotating cast of ad executives, newspaper editors, mayoral aides, and business leaders in attendance.

Tom Wolfe, not yet famous as a prophet of the New Journalism, was there too, on assignment for the New York Herald Tribune’s Sunday magazine New York. He soon published a feverish profile (“What If He’s Right?”): “Suppose he is what he sounds like, the most important thinker since Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein, and Pavlov?” Wolfe’s lead paragraph centered on McLuhan’s business appeal: “One of the big American corporations has offered him $5000 to present a closed-circuit — ours! — television lecture on — oracle! — the ways the products in its industry will be used in the future. Even before all this, IBM, General Electric, Bell Telephone were flying McLuhan in from Toronto to New York, Pittsburgh, God knows where else, to talk to their hierarchs about … well, about whatever this unseen world of electronic environments that only he sees fully is all about.”

In late 1965, the same month that Wolfe’s piece appeared, Harper’s ran its own spread on “Canada’s Intellectual Comet.” The media sluice gates had opened. Over the next two years, extended profiles of McLuhan were published by Fortune, MacLean’s, the Saturday Review, Esquire, Newsweek, and the New York Times Magazine. McLuhan himself wrote articles for, or sat for interviews with, TV Guide, Family Circle, Mademoiselle, Look, Vogue, McCall’s, and Glamour. He appeared for lengthy segments on the BBC, NBC, CBC, NPR, and the Voice of America. The New Yorker ran its first cartoon on him (“You see, Dad, Professor McLuhan says …”), and a version of McLuhan’s new book, The Medium is the Massage, was released as an audio LP by CBS Records, the same month (March 1967) as the Newsweek cover and NBC documentary. McLuhan was famous. [more]