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Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis

by Alexander John Watson
525 pages,
ISBN: 0802039162


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Preeminent Scholar
by Clara Thomas

Alexander Watson's biography of Harold Innis is a sequel to and extension of his Ph.D. thesis written many years ago. The product of years of intensive research and thought, it is a study written primarily for scholars; the many other readers who honour Innis's memory and seek to know more about the life and work of this enigmatic man will have to wait for another biography, one that will satisfy their need for a detailed yet accessible work, and one in which they will not be buried in scholarly opinion and debate. However, there is no mistaking the care and the depth of research that has gone into Marginal Man. It is, for example, absolutely necessary to read carefully Watson's introduction. He clearly states his purpose there: "I trust that by using the communications works as a window into his intellectual biography, I have produced a book that leads to a more profound understanding of Innis himself."
Innis was born in 1894 on a farm in the Scots-Irish settlement of Otterville, Ontario. In Watson's understanding, this start¨far from centres of learning and culture, colonial, and impoverished¨is the root of his "Marginal" status. There were many such settlements. I was born a generation later in another one quite close by and absolutely everything Watson says about the Otterville area, its people, its educational conditions, and Innis's upbringing as a Baptist, is as familiar to me as my own home and family background. The founding and importance of McMaster University, and the combination of high idealism and fundamentalist rigour, were landmarks in my life as well. The scholars for whom Watson is writing are now removed by more than two generations. They require his painstaking explication of place and circumstance, which at times becomes ponderous.
Watson describes the young Innis as having been a "precocious child character." He was like other boys or girls who excelled and were destined for one of the professions, usually teaching, the ministry, or medicine¨a source of pride to his family and community. Innis's father hoped he would teach, but his mother hoped he would become a Baptist clergyman, and in 1913, after an outstanding scholarly career at the Woodstock Collegiate Institute, he began studies at McMaster, the recently founded Baptist university in Toronto.
As an undergraduate, he flourished. He was a particularly enthusiastic debater in an environment that stressed public speaking and philosophic enquiry. When WWI became Canada's prime concern, his Canadian nationalism and his Christian convictions led him to volunteer: "If the Christian religion is worth anything to me [enlisting] is the only thing I can do." He went overseas as an artillery private in the fall of 1916. He was wounded seriously in July of 1917 and sent home in March of 1918. The war made a lasting impact on Innis's mental health and on his subsequent thinking. For the rest of his life he talked of his experiences in the trenches seldom and unwillingly. His son, Donald, expresses it thus: "The war was a test of his physical and mental resources such as he found nowhere else and could have found nowhere else. That he passed this test meant a great deal to him and I think would be difficult to understand for anyone who had not gone through it. In passing it he joined a fraternity that is unseen and unspoken but exists nevertheless."
The war did not, however, put a stop to his education. He benefited from the newly founded Khaki University, designed to enable service men to study extramurally. While he was convalescing from his wound he worked on his McMaster degree, and when finally back in Toronto in the spring of 1918, he was granted an M.A. As a returned veteran he was also eligible for assistance in further education. Advised by McMaster mentors, he enrolled for Ph.D. studies at the University of Chicago and proceeded to write his doctoral thesis on the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway. There he met Mary Quayle, a student in the English department. They were married in 1921, the year after the successful completion of his postgraduate work. From that time on Mary Quayle Innis gave him the constant support and encouragement that his talents and temperament required. She managed the household and, largely, the raising of their family of four, leaving him free for the total academic involvement and research that were the all-engrossing obsessions of his career. Mary Quayle Innis, also a scholar and a writer, was well remembered as an editor and a Dean of Women at U.of T.'s University College in the 1950s.
In 1920 Innis was appointed a lecturer in the department of political economy at the University of Toronto. He had decided not to pursue a career in either the ministry or law, but to become a scholar and teacher. From the beginning, Innis's ideas and goals in research were vast in scope, flexible, and seemingly diverse. He was brilliantly and doggedly productive: by the early '30s he had published four books, The History of the Canadian Pacific Railway (1923), Selected Documents in Canadian Economic History, 1497-1783(1929), Peter Pond Fur Trader and Adventurer (1930), and The Fur Trade in Canada (1930). He had a core belief in what he called "dirt research", which to him meant a willingness to dig to the very basis of the matter under investigation, both in archives and through extensive travels and conversations with people who were involved in his concerns. The phrase "dirt research" was imported from his rural background, for Innis never lost respect for the values he was taught in his youth.
Innis was the consummate research scholar. At the same time he was constantly active in academic concerns because he believed in the prime role of the university as a civilising and potentially powerful engine of intelligent progress. He was the dynamic force behind the founding of the Social Science Research Council and many other professional scholars' associations. As Watson understands him, "when Innis returned to Canada in 1920, it was with a sense of mission bound firmly to the idea of an intellectual project . . . The key lesson learned by Innis at Chicago was that knowledge is always socially situated." He goes on to broaden his explanation of Chicago's essential influence on Innis:

"First, each system of knowledge must depend on a social hinterland that fosters it. Second, a mature system of knowledge or paradigm becomes a self-referring realm that can be effectively criticized (or renovated) only by being subjected to a basically different 'philosophical approach' that in turn is dependent on another social hinterland. Third, this means by extension that the colonial intellectual, his institutions, and his society are central to the continued cultural vitality of Western civilization."

When he started his career in the social sciences they were just beginning to gain a foothold in Canadian academic structures. At that time, the University of Toronto's political scientists were largely British-educated. Innis campaigned vigorously from the start for Canadian personnel. By the mid-30s he was so obviously the most distinguished Canadian scholar in his field that the entire university was concerned with keeping and fostering his services. He was anything but collegial, and he had no compunction at all about using the threat of resignation to force decisions in favour of his opinions or his candidates. In fact he became notorious for that very gambit. At the same time, he was steadfastly against academics becoming active in public or political causes. Such exporting of their learning and research into the public field would, he believed, fatally weaken their value and influence, which should be jealously guarded from such contamination. Irene Biss, a young protTgTe, close friend, and scholarly apprentice deserted him and his project to marry Graham Spry, a promising young scholar who was active in the founding of the League for Social Reconstruction (the nascent C.C.F. party). Innis was so affected by what he considered to be a betrayal that he completely cut her off, never again communicating with her, or even acknowledging her existence.
Watson's term, "practical nationalism", describes the combination of Innis's research goals and attitudes towards the university and its policies. The early "staples research", including his ground-breaking work on the fur trade and cod fisheries, was much appreciated by scholars who understood his core beliefs and came to see him as an enormously influential pioneer in the Canadian branch of the discipline. As his research fields broadened, however, his ultimate goals became less easy to comprehend and his reputation as reclusive, difficult, and constantly at odds with his colleagues grew exponentially: "He began to conceive of the university as the secularised heir to the monastic tradition that had kept Western culture alive during the Dark Ages." Though he recognised how difficult these principles made family life ("[I] should have been a monk"), he continued to subject others to his ideals of service. Watson's intention is to demonstrate the essential unity of what eventually became Innis's vast research project, and to persuade his readers of its validity. He is a powerful advocate, showing, in the succession of chapters, how the evolution of Innis's scholarly work became in its maturity "communications research", and how this came to include investigation into all human interaction, especially the oral and the classical traditions. It is not easy for a lay person to follow the depth and density of Watson's text, but it is both challenging and rewarding to follow the winding threads of his impeccably recorded argument.
Above all, it becomes increasingly impossible not to share Watson's admiration for the essential idealism and total lifelong commitment of Harold Innis. The mission, the vision, and the "dirt research" of the "precocious" boy from Otterville persisted for a lifetime. The benefits of this work are with us today.
I cannot imagine that we are likely to have a more thorough and sympathetic study of Harold Innis, though I would hope for its simplified version someday, perhaps without the hurdles of its intensely detailed scholarly apparatus. ˛
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