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Ross, Sinclair (1908–96)

James Sinclair Ross is considered one of Canada’s greatest literary artists—the first native-born Saskatchewanian to be so considered, with the possible exception of W.O. MITCHELL. Certainly his first novel, As For Me and My House, has become a standard text in Canadian studies here and abroad, and several of his stories have been adapted for film and television. Ross was born on January 22, 1908, on a farm near Shellbrook. He attended first grade at Wild Rose School before his parents, Peter and Catharine Ross, permanently separated; Catharine took young “Jimmy” with her to the Indian Head district, where she worked as a housekeeper for farm families. Jimmy Ross was remembered in Indian Head as a precocious student and reader. He left high school in Grade 11 to work at the Union Bank of Canada in Abbey, Saskatchewan. That bank was taken over by the Royal Bank of Canada, where Ross spent the rest of his working life. He transferred to branches in Lancer (1928) and Arcola (1929). In Arcola, he began writing short stories under the name of Sinclair Ross, and started work on As For Me and My House . (The fictional town of Horizon bears some resemblance to Arcola.) At that time, he also travelled to Regina for a term in the Conservatory of Music at Regina College, taking advanced music studies. He was an accomplished pianist and organist, playing in the churches of various communities.

In April 1933, Ross transferred to a bank position in Winnipeg, and moved there with his mother. That year, he won third prize (worth £20) in a major literary competition in London, England, the Nash’s Short Story competition, with a short story called “No Other Way”; it was published in the October 1934 issue of Nash’s Pall-Mall. In 1935 his short story, “A Field of Wheat,” was published in Queen’s Quarterly, the first of a dozen Sinclair Ross stories to appear during the 1930s and early 1940s in QQ. This period marks his finest output as a creative writer, for it included the short stories “The Painted Door,” “A Lamp at Noon,” “Cornet at Night,” and other tales which have become widely anthologized in Canada and translated abroad.

Ross sent his first novel, As For Me and My House, to Reyal and Hitchcock in New York, where it was published in 1941 to scant and unenthusiastic reviews. A psychological portrait of the wife of a small-town church minister, the novel also illustrated the relentless despair of life in a prairie community at the depth of the “Dirty Thirties.” It takes the form of a diary written by Mrs. Bentley, the otherwise unnamed wife of Philip Bentley, a failed artist and church minister. The novel was ignored by a readership looking for wartime escapism, and Ross himself perceived the novel as a failed venture. Nevertheless, As For Me and My House was reprinted in paperback and eventually recognized as one of the finest novels of modern Canadian literature. Many writers, notably Margaret Laurence, Lorna Crozier, and Robert Kroetsch, have cited its influence on their work.

Ross enlisted in the Canadian Army in 1942 and was sent overseas with the Ordnance Corps; he was stationed in London until 1946. He said in a later interview that he was grateful for the war, for he lived in cosmopolitan London for four years, taking in theatre, opera, music and art for the first time in his life. After the war, Ross returned to Winnipeg and the Royal Bank. Later that year he was transferred to the bank’s Montreal office, where he worked in the public relations division. McClelland and Stewart republished As For Me and My House in 1957 in its New Canadian Library series, and the novel began appearing on university literature courses across the country. A second novel, The Well, was also published in 1957, and in 1968 the paperback The Lamp at Noon and Other Stories. This was the Canadian public’s first encounter with Ross’s stories, and the publication generated much critical interest in his work. A later novel, Whir of Gold, appeared in 1970, and his final literary effort, Sawbones Memorial, in 1974. The latter, a short novel of 138 pages, is a tour de force of narrative construction that examines the complex social relationships of a Saskatchewan town called Upward in 1948. The central character is Doctor “Sawbones” Hunter, a 75-year-old family doctor with a troubled history in the town; the entire book takes place during the evening of his retirement and birthday party. It has a sense of humour and warmth uncharacteristic of Ross’s earlier work.

Upon retirement from the bank in 1968, Ross moved to Athens to finish his writing career as an expatriate. He had always been private, even reclusive, disheartened by the public response to his later work. He relocated to Málaga, Spain, in 1973, just before the appearance of Sawbones Memorial. He later returned to Canada in ill health to live in Vancouver, where he resided until his death on February 29, 1996. The following year, Saskatchewan artists and readers erected a monument to Sinclair Ross in Indian Head, featuring a bronze statue by Regina sculptor Joe Fafard.

Ken Mitchell

Print Entry

Further Reading

McMullen, L. 1979. Sinclair Ross. Boston: Twayne Publishers; Mitchell, K. 1981. A Reader’s Guide to Sinclair Ross. Regina: Coteau Books.
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