McLuhan, Youth, and Literature: Part I

By Eleanor Cameron

In an age of television watching, I am probably, like most of you, a reading animal. It might even be that this hunger for reading, which seems to increase with age, is being sharpened by my aversion to those attitudes and practices which have called forth the ideas of Marshall McLuhan. I think that a good many persons, mostly nonreaders (and McLuhan is not one of these), feel that bookish people allow reading to take the place of experience, that we are afraid of or want something to substitute for life. But I have always found that, far from substituting for it, my reading enlarges life, intensifies the flavor of it, intensifies my seeing, that it deepens each experience by giving me echoes and reverberations and bridges, compelling me always to obey E. M. Forster’s precept, “Connect — only connect!”

For many years I have found it a pleasure to mingle the reading of children’s books with those written for adults, so that I am actually enmeshing children’s literature in the net of all literature as I believe it is enmeshed in spirit. Sheila Egoff, in a Horn Book article (April, 1970) on a Canadian’s view of current American fiction for children, speaks of two ways of reading children’s books: as children do, purely for enjoyment; and as librarians do, who seek generalizations, interrelationships, and trends of a social nature. She doesn’t mention specifically the third way — the librarian’s seeking for excellence in the conception and the writing of these books; but she indicates this concern when she says that most of America’s current children’s books will not last.

I believe that she is right, but I believe also that this must hold true for any country and not just for the United States. And I would ask as well, in reply to her statement: When in any age of the world’s history has much of any art lasted? Out of the thousands upon thousands of works constantly being produced, most sink away and are forgotten. Only a very few are powerful enough — for elusive, perhaps unexplainable reasons — to be remembered and kept alive because of a continuing spiritual and aesthetic need for them. Sappho of Lesbos speaks to us, miraculously enough, out of the beginnings of the sixth century B.C. After 2,570 years, those who read her in the original still take delight in her admirable choice of words, still feel her passion, her direct and forceful simplicity, her intensity. Who of those writing in our time will be remembered 2,570 years from now — should there be any alive to put down words with passion and intensity and simplicity?

As for those books children go on reading decade after decade, we recall that Robinson Crusoe was published in 1719, Gulliver’s Travels in 1726, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, Little Women in 1868, and Pinocchio in 1883. Will any one of the children’s books written in the past thirty years be alive and beloved one hundred years from now? It is a profoundly unsettling question for those who write with seriousness and not wholly for money. And when I have finished reading what I believe to be a really fine book for children — the kind I buy and put on the bookshelf in my study — I say to myself, “Surely this will last — surely!” And yet, who knows? Only the future — if Marshall McLuhan should, by some blessed chance, be wrong in his firm belief that the importance of the written word is over and done with, and remains only to be buried with a hurried phrase or two over the casket.

By heaven, it is not over and done with yet! But I did catch a tooth of McLuhan’s wind from the graveyard when I read the words of a reviewer of one of Eudora Welty’s novels entitled, prophetically enough, Losing Battles. The reviewer said, “Reading this book is both an exhilarating and saddening experience. Exhilarating because you are in the hands of a master, and saddening because that kind of mastery is rapidly disappearing from the world, from culture, from consciousness itself. Miss Welty’s eighth book and fourth novel finds her in such ripe maturity as a sensibility and a craftsman that she seems like a creature from another world, which indeed she is.” And the tooth of that wind was felt even more keenly when the reviewer said at the close of his review that she is one of the last of the writers who is truly a storyteller, and that her book exemplifies his belief that “the art of the storyteller is reaching its end because the epic side of truth, wisdom is dying out.” I can only say: One for whom the appreciation of writing is a precious part of life, for whom stories written with truth and wisdom are treasurable, could weep at those words, “is dying out.”

In view of McLuhan’s world and the increasingly desperate battle with nonreaders in all levels of schooling, it is hard to imagine what can be saved of literature in the years to come. The poet Karl Shapiro has spoken of the contempt and the staggering illiteracy of youth: “We have the most inarticulate generation of college students in history.” [1] Therefore, it would seem to me that more consciously and devotedly than ever, writers for children, librarians, and particularly parents and elementary school teachers must involve the child with literature from the moment he can be read to. I should like to say to all parents: Your small child must be read and sung the Mother Goose rhymes at the earliest age, must be read the Beatrix Potter stories and the finest of the picture books. (Go to the library and find out what they are!) He can scarcely be too young to be given his first taste of the English language in nursery rhymes and fables and stories. Remember that the poet Dylan Thomas’ father read him Shakespeare when he was four; and of this experience Thomas’ biographer Constantine FitzGibbon has said, “The effect upon the little boy, in his sickbed or before sleep, was profound and lasting. The greatest poetry in the English language, perhaps in any language, flooded into an open, receptive and above all fresh mind, for the little boy knew nothing else” [2]

I should like to travel up and down the country going to elementary schools and saying to all the teachers: Find out about the good children’s books. Believe me, it is of the most pressing importance that you leave half an hour, fifteen minutes even, to read what is best to the children in your charge, and I mean year after year from kindergarten through the eighth grade — even beyond. And the lower the ability of your group, the more you must read to them. For textbooks alone, unless they include selections of what is enduring in children’s literature, can never give, aesthetically or spiritually, the sense of what is precious in literature. We must not let stories written with truth and wisdom die out. Elementary school teachers must know what is good. They must find out what is good and read these books to their children. If they do not, it may very well be that the children will never find them, because a children’s librarian cannot do everything. In fact, what she can do is depressingly nullified by what parents and teachers do not do — by indifference or apathy or ignorance. Obviously, the future devolves upon all of us who are concerned with children’s minds and imaginations. How else can one look at the matter?

Which brings me directly back to Marshall McLuhan, who places all emphasis upon electronic media rather than upon content. Indeed, he is not in the least interested in content as being of any importance whatever: The medium itself is the message. The massage, as he puts it, for he is all out for the ear and the senses as opposed to the reading eye and the reflective mind. Now that the electronic age is upon us and, most especially, the age of television, he believes that the age of the printed symbol is largely over. The eye and the mind to him are related to one word at a time, to slowness, to the past as opposed to the exploding Now of the ear and the senses; the all-at-once drenching television pours over us so that we absorb impressions instantly through all of our pores. The youth of the future, he wrote about ten years ago, will no longer want to read and meditate and check up on facts and ideas; they will want to see and feel and act immediately. Electronic waves are what turn McLuhan on and whether we know it or not, he says, they are what turn all of us on. And so great is his joy in this phenomenon, so great is his trust in its power for good, in the computer, and in electronic circuiting, one would think that human beings had never been turned on by anything else before. He believes that what electronic waves project does not matter — that is, content doesn’t matter which is no doubt why he gets so excited about TV ads. That they do project, that we are constantly being bombarded by cool sensory impressions, is what is giving our age its character and its quality.

And in tune with what McLuhan calls the coolness of television, he himself is what one would no doubt call these days a very cool cat. He makes no value judgments; in fact, he is acidly scornful of them. He loathes philosophizing as much as he loathes having to stop and clarify his thinking for those who are skeptical of a good many parts of it: the vast overgeneralizations, the nonsequiturs, the jerry-built theories, the dogmatic assertions based on sheer error, the disorganized successions of parenthetical observations. What delights him is to comment rapidly on what he thinks is happening and what he is certain can be done with electronic circuits in order to orchestrate programs for the sensory life.

For instance, consider a culture such as Indonesia’s. It can be shaped and worked, he says, according to what we think is best for it. He doesn’t pause to reflect, apparently, upon whether the United States, or any other power in dire straits itself, might know what is best for Indonesia. He believes that we could write an ideal sensory program for Indonesia or some area of the world we “wanted to leapfrog across a lot of old technology,” if we knew, first of all, its present sensory thresholds. But who is to judge what would be an “ideal” sensory program for Indonesia? And what if the Indonesians or people in some other area of the world didn’t want to be leapfrogged but just wanted to be left alone? McLuhan doesn’t go into this. He never explains values. What one feels above all is his extreme objectivity, his brushing aside of individual preferences, his complete lack of interest in bothersome details, in the slow and painful process.

And this leads me once more to Eudora Welty before I go on to a certain children’s book I have in mind, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Knopf). As opposed to McLuhan’s enormous admiration for instantaneousness, Miss Welty’s Losing Battles took nine years to write. And as opposed to the superficial quality of most TV shows, what I was constantly aware of in it — what I am always aware of in those children’s books I put on my special shelf — was the extreme individuality of the style, the subtle, unovert way in which the characters through their dialogue gradually but forcefully moved in on me, the pervading humor in the midst of sadness, and the sharp conveyance of a special time and place by means of brief but telling images. And because of this I was compelled to go back once again to her fine little monograph Place in Fiction. In this small book Miss Welty sets forth her belief not only in the power of place in any created work but in the ways in which place exerts control over character portrayal, of how exceedingly important is explicitness of detail and a steady lucidity and uncompromise of purpose. She speaks further of how place has deeply to do with three kinds of goodness in fiction: the goodness and validity of the raw material, the goodness of the writing, and the goodness of the writer himself, his worth as a human being. And this worth is always mercilessly revealed in his writing, because there we discover his roots or lack of them, the place where he stands, his point of view or lack of it.

We come now to Charlie, that starved child Roald Dahl dreamed up to go and live forever in pure bliss in Mr. Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The more I think about Charlie and the character of Willy Wonka and his factory, the more I am reminded of McLuhan’s coolness, the basic nature of his observations, and the kinds of things that excite him. Certainly there are several interesting parallels between the point of view of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and McLuhan’s “theatrical view of experience as a production or stunt,” as well as his enthusiastic conviction that every ill of mankind can easily be solved by subservience to the senses.

Both McLuhan’s theories and the story about Charlie are enormously popular. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (together with Charlotte’s Web [Harper]) is probably the book most read aloud by those teachers who have no idea, apparently, what other books they might read to the children.Charlie, again along with Charlotte’s Web, is always at the top of the best sellers among children’s books, put there by fond aunts and grandmothers and parents buying it as the perfect gift, knowing no better. And I do think this a most curious coupling: on the one hand, one of the most tasteless books ever written for children; and on the other, one of the best. We are reminded of Ford Madox Ford’s observation that only two classes of books are universal in their appeal: the very best and the very worst.

Now, there are those who consider Charlie to be a satire and believe that Willy Wonka and the children are satiric portraits as in a cautionary tale. I am perfectly willing to admit that possibly Dahl wrote it as such: a book on two levels, one for adults and one for children. However, he chose to publish Charlie as a children’s book, knowing quite well that children would react to one level only (if there are two), the level of pure story. Being literarily unsophisticated, children can react only to this level; and as I am talking about children’s books, it is this level I am about to explore.

Why does Charlie continually remind me of what is most specious in McLuhan’s world of the production and the stunt? The book is like candy (the chief excitement and lure of Charlie) in that it is delectable and soothing while we are undergoing the brief sensory pleasure it affords but leaves us poorly nourished with our taste dulled for better fare. I think it will be admitted of the average TV show that goes on from week to week that there is no time, either from the point of view of production or the time allowed for showing, to work deeply at meaning or characterization. All interest depends upon the constant, unremitting excitement of the turns of plot. And if character or likelihood of action — that is, inevitability — must be wrenched to fit the necessities of plot, there is no time to be concerned about this either by the director or by the audience. Nor will the tuned-in, turned-on, keyed-up television watcher give the superficial quality of the show so much as a second thought. He has been temporarily amused; what is there to complain about? And like all those nursing at the electronic bosom in McLuhan’s global village (as he likes to call it), so everybody in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory is enclosed in its intoxicating confines forever: all the workers, including the little Oompa-Loompas brought over from Africa and, by the end of the book, Charlie and his entire family.

To McLuhan, as Harold Rosenburg has pointed out, man appears to be a device employed by the television industry in its self-development. Just so does Charlie seem to be employed by his creator in a situation of phony poverty simply a device to make more excruciatingly tantalizing the heavenly vision of being able to live eternally fed upon chocolate. This is Charlie’s sole character and being. And just as in the average TV show, the protagonists of the book are types, extreme types: vile nasty children who are ground up in the factory machinery because they’re baddies, and pathetic Charlie and his family, eternally yearning and poor and good. As for Willy Wonka himself, he is the perfect type of TV showman with his gags and screechings. The exclamation mark is the extent of his indivuality.

But let us go a little deeper. Just as McLuhan preaches the medium as being the message — the sensory turn-on — so Charlie and the Chocolate Factory gives us the ideal world as one in which a child would be forever concerned with candy and its manufacture, with the chance to live in it and on it and by it. And just as McLuhan seems to have lost sight of the individual and his preferences and uniquenesses, so Willy Wonka cares nothing for individual preferences in his enthusiasm for his own kind of global village. Just as McLuhan puts before us the question of leapfrogging Indonesia into whatever age we think best for it, so the question is asked why Mr. Wonka doesn’t use the little African Oompa-Loompas instead of squirrels to complete certain of his processes. Brought directly from Africa, the Oompa-Loompas have never been given the opportunity of any life outside of the chocolate factory, so that it never occurs to them to protest the possibility of being used like squirrels. And at the end of the book we find the bedridden grandparents being snatched up in their beds and, though they say that they refuse to go and that they would rather die than go, they are crashed through the ruins of their house, willy-nilly, and swung over into the chocolate factory to live there for the rest of their lives whether they want to or not.

What I object to in Charlie is its phony presentation of poverty and its phony humor, which is based on punishment with overtones of sadism; its hypocrisy which is epitomized in its moral stuck like a marshmallow in a lump of fudge — that TV is horrible and hateful and time-wasting and that children should read good books instead, when in fact the book itself is like nothing so much as one of the more specious television shows. It reminds me of Cecil B. De Mille’s Biblical spectaculars, with plenty of blood and orgies and tortures to titillate the masses, while a prophet, for the sake of the religious section of the audience, stands on the edge of the crowd crying, “In the name of the Lord, thou shalt sin no more!”

If I ask myself whether children are harmed by reading Charlie or having it read to them, I can only say I don’t know [3]. Its influence would be subtle underneath the catering. Those adults who are either amused by the book or are positively devoted to it on the children’s level probably call it a modern fairy tale. Possibly its tastelessness, including the ugliness of the illustrations, is, indeed (whether the author meant it so or not), a comment upon our age and the quality of much of our entertainment. What bothers me about it, aside from its tone, is the using of the Oompa-Loompas, and the final indifference to the wishes of the grandparents. Many adults see all this as humorous and delightful, and I am aware that most children, when they’re young, aren’t particularly aware of sadism as such, or see it differently from the way an adult sees it and so call Charlie “a funny book.”

Copyright © 1972. by Eleanor Cameron.

Read Part II

Read In Protest, editorial by Paul Heins describing
an anonymous response to part I of Cameron's article.

Read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: A Reply,
Roald Dahl's response to Part I of this article.


1. In a speech given at a pre-conference session of the California Library Association in San Francisco. Excerpts appeared in Human Events, July 11, 1970, pp. 9-10. [Back]

2. Constantine FitzGibbon, The Life of Dylan Thomas. Boston: Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1965, P. 33. [Back]

3. “The author of a work of imagination is trying to affect us wholly, as human beings, whether he knows it or not; and we are affected by it, as human beings, whether we intend to be or not.” T. S. Eliot, Essays Ancient and Modern. New York: Harcourt, 1936, p. 102. [Back]

Eleanor Cameron based her article on material first presented at the First Conference on Children's Literature at Mount St. Mary's College, June 24, 1970, and later given at a special meeting of the New England Round Table of Children's Literature, March 24, 1972. Her book A Room Made of Windows (Atlantic-Little) received the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award for excellence of text in 1971.

From the October 1972 issue of The Horn Book Magazine
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