Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
A very private man, Sinclair Ross was reticent about his personal life and preferred to let his art speak for him. It is possible, however, to piece together at least the outward facts of his life. Born January 22, 1908, in northern Saskatchewan, James Sinclair Ross was the third child...
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- Critical Essays
A very private man, Sinclair Ross was reticent about his personal life and preferred to let his art speak for him. It is possible, however, to piece together at least the outward facts of his life. Born January 22, 1908, in northern Saskatchewan, James Sinclair Ross was the third child of Peter and Catherine Ross, who met and married in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, in 1897. Peter had been born on an Ontario farm to Scottish parents, and Catherine had been born in Scotland. When he was three, Ross’s parents separated, his mother taking custody of him, and his father taking the two older children. After the separation, Mrs. Ross found employment as a housekeeper on several farms. Ross assisted with farm chores and learned the vagaries of horses and men as well as the daunting effects of landscape and climate on the prairie dwellers. He retained strong memories of his isolation in those years.
After he graduated from high school in 1924, Ross went to work for the Royal Bank of Canada, his sole employer until his retirement in 1968. In 1933, the bank rewarded Ross’s stints in several small Saskatchewan towns by sending him to Winnipeg, Manitoba, where he remained until 1946, except for World War II military service, and finally to Montreal. Upon retirement from the bank, he lived in Greece for three years and then moved to Spain in 1971. Culture and climate (he suffered from arthritis) influenced Ross’s decision to live by the Mediterranean Sea. Competent in Spanish and French, somewhat less so in Greek, Ross read the original versions of the literatures of these languages. Living abroad, he noted, gave him a stronger sense of his Canadian identity. Although the pattern of Ross’s life was one of gradual withdrawal eastward from the pioneer prairies toward older, more cosmopolitan cultures, his true subject and setting remained the Canadian prairies, specifically rural Saskatchewan and its people.
Few of Ross’s colleagues at the bank knew him as a writer, though he was always a self-described “compulsive scribbler,” despite having had “so little success.” Given his isolation from any real literary community, some of Ross’s determination to write, mostly at night after long days at the bank, must be credited to his mother, the strongest influence in his life and a model for some of the women in his fiction. Ever conscious of her moral and intellectual refinement (her father had studied theology at the University of Edinburgh, taught at Oberlin College in Ohio, and eventually been ordained a Unitarian minister), Catherine encouraged her young son to take piano lessons, experiment with oil painting, and read widely. In particular, Ross remembered reading Sir Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, and Thomas Hardy, whose The Return of the Native (1878) may well have influenced him, though he noted that he was never aware of any literary influences. For many years Ross had to support his mother as well as himself in the succession of small towns and cities to which she followed him, making it impossible for him to resign from the bank to devote his full energy to writing.
Ross’s most productive period was the 1930’s. Many of his best short stories were published then; one of them, “No Other Way,” won third prize in a competition for unpublished writers. In 1941, As for Me and My House appeared. Ross had already destroyed the manuscripts of two earlier, unsatisfactory novels, and he would later destroy another, a possibly autobiographical story of a Canadian soldier from Manitoba written during World War II.
Discouraged by the reception of As for Me and My House, Ross did not publish his second novel, The Well, until 1958, but it was greeted with even less enthusiasm than his first. The Well was influenced by his negative reaction to Montreal, where for twenty-two years the ascetic Ross lived largely within himself, avoiding the “literary swim,” as he called it. Much of his third novel, Whir of Gold, was also written in Montreal, then completed after his retirement. Written in Europe, his last published novel, Sawbones Memorial, is a forgiving reminiscence of the prairies as Ross knew them in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Bearing an obvious kinship to its predecessors, it is nevertheless a more mellow novel, striking a better balance between humorous detachment and bitterness, rejection, and grudging nostalgia.
In 1992, Ross’s work was recognized by his home nation when he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. In 1996, he died in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he had lived in a nursing home for many years.