Randy Boyagoda reviews Elaine Kahn's historical nonfiction book Been Hoping We Might Meet Again
Randy Boyagoda is a literary critic, English professor, novelist and The Next Chapter columnist. He will chair the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize jury.
Boyagoda discusses Elaine Kahn's book Been Hoping We Might Meet Again, a historical look at the correspondence between late prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and media philosopher Marshall McLuhan.
"In April 1968 when Pierre Trudeau was still justice minister — before he had formally become prime minister — Marshall McLuhan wrote wrote him a letter. It was a kind of cerebral fanboy note, acknowledging Trudeau's success and wishing him all the very best for the work ahead as prime minister. I'm sure Trudeau would have received many letters like that, but he made a decision to reply to McLuhan. That led to a 12-year correspondence that only ended in 1980 with McLuhan's death."
Navigating the new media world
"What Elaine Khan says in the book is that nowhere else in her research has she found an example of Trudeau so clearly and explicitly asking someone else for help. That's what you notice in one letter. With the rise of new media, people were experiencing the world around them in radically different ways.
"Trudeau was hoping, because of McLuhan's work and ideas, that McLuhan could help him make sense of that. The letter ends, 'Can you help me?' For anyone who knows Trudeau, a famously self-confident and self-contained person, it's notable that he turned to McLuhan like that."
The media savvy leader
"McLuhan repeatedly praises Trudeau for being such a media savvy and media aware politician. He says that Trudeau is the perfect politician of the television age. He means this as a compliment. He says Charles de Gaulle looks like a cartoon on the screen, and that people like Nixon seemed faded out by comparison. He felt that Trudeau fit in a very natural way that really made sense. McLuhan was very taken with that."
Randy Boyagoda's comments have been edited for length and clarity.