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Reviewed by:
  • Jamie Lawson
Harold Innis Reflects: Memoir and WWI Writings/Correspondence. William J. Buxton, Michael R. Cheney, and Paul Heyer, eds. Lanham, md: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016. Pp. 260, US $95.00 cloths

The shifts in interest about Harold Innis vary by discipline. One debate contests his place in critical political economy (Macpherson, Drache, and Clement, Carroll, Stanford, and Kellogg). The Heraclitean fire of Canadian letters, this debate flares up each time it dies down. bc geographers used Innis to decode the bc timber crisis of the 1980s (Barnes, Hayter, and Hutton). That interesting debate was relatively brief: most then turned to other things. Still others, present editors included, pursue a history of ideas. This debate has proven relatively safe from the rancour and vagaries of the other debates. Right or wrong, they ask, why did Innis "attend to the things to which he attended"?

With Innis family support, this book includes Innis's early letters on college, war service, marriage, and career; his master's thesis, written during his postwar recovery; and his memoir that ends in 1922, written at the end of his life. In an earlier volume on Innis's northern writings (Harold Innis and the North, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2013), Buxton and his contributors qualified John Watson's image of a "marginal man" critical of metropolitan centres (Marginal Man: The Dark Vision of Harold Innis, University of Toronto Press, 2006). Watson's older Innis retained the thin skin of a farm boy amid elites, and Watson doubted Innis's later methods and originality in his media writings–the work, Watson suggested, of an over-stretched and over-reaching administrator who had not lost his curiosity.

The present volume confirms some of Watson's insights, including Innis's early rural piety and imperialism as well as the war's impact on them. But in Harold Innis Reflects, Innis not only survives this shattering loss and disillusionment but also sheds his homely diction and develops his early scholarly habits.

We see this maturation process as we contrast the different voices Innis assumes here: his earliest letters are direct and unschooled, and his thesis is a bit sophomoric, whereas the senior man of letters is an authoritative and reserved memorialist. These voices also convey complementary content. Under military censor, Innis the soldier emphasizes personal matters; Innis the memorialist avoids them. The memoir ignores his wife; his letters to and about her are warm. I was also struck by some of the minor coincidences of Innis's life that come together when these different voices co-mingle. For instance, he recalls his field hospital after being injured at Vimy: he thinks it was [End Page 818] at Étaples ("staples"); later, he recalls visiting sites not only of the recent war but also of the medieval cloth trade.

Innis the college kid and wartime letter writer is clearly a young man. He writes his relatives warmly but with a self-conscious and put-on worldliness. The editors' keen notation sharpens our horror when he breezily reassures relatives–wrongly, say the editors–that he will be relatively safe as an army signaller. We ask what so many ask about the young when they are wrong before their elders: was he naive or was he deliberately misleading?

Some continuities in the changing Innis concern his method. The editors rightly remember his later understated interest in the diary form and connect it to these early writings. But Innis the diarist is also a classic small-town networker; I left this work thinking that a knack for networks carried over into his research. The editors thought it odd that Innis overlooked some future colleagues in his letters home from college and then from the front. But to me it is more significant that he does go to college and then to war with childhood friends and neighbours and, more to the point, that he does report home about them. This pattern is evident elsewhere in this volume: Innis the memorialist later recalls a dizzying range of scholars at McMaster, Chicago, and, later, in Europe, just as he details in remarkable detail the family's Otterville networks. The hard-won editorial notes on these...


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