The Sum of an Infinite Series

Malcolm Ross, The Impossible Sum of Our Traditions: Reflections on Canadian Literature, with an Introductory Essay by David Staines. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986, 211 pp.

Malcolm Ross is indisputably one of the fathers of Canadian literature. His early commitment to Canadian writers and his support of Canadian literature gave impetus and validity to a young literature at a time when it was very much in the shadow of British, European, and American literatures. For five decades Ross has made his beliefs in Canadian literature and culture heard: as a teacher at the universities of Manitoba, Queen's, Toronto, Dalhousie, and Edinburgh; as a critic; and as an editor and anthologist. In these capacities, Ross has helped shape and define Canadian literature and culture. The Sum of Our Traditions, a collection of Ross's writings selected by Ross and introduced by David Staines, covers a period of thirty years and offers an overview of Ross's ideas on Canadian literature and culture.

     Ross began taking his ideas on Canadian literature outside the classroom when he joined the Department of English at Queen's University in 1950, and assumed the editorship of Queen's Quarterly. As the editor of Queen's Quarterly, Ross was known for promoting and publishing new Canadian writers, as well as for disseminating Canadian literature to a larger audience. His hope of introducing Canadian literature to an even larger audience became a reality when he convinced McClelland and Stewart of the need for a paperback series of Canadian works. In 1958, McClelland and Stewart launched the New Canadian Library series, a project that has helped to take Canadian literature into the classrooms of schools and universities across Canada and beyond its borders. For twenty-five years, Ross was the general editor of the NCL; he also wrote several of the Introductions to works in the series.

       During this period, Ross continued to write on Canadian literature and culture. In 1954, he put together Our Sense of Identity, a collection of essays by Canadian writers on Canadian writing, a collection, he says in his introduction, which shows "there is a North Americanism which is Canadian and not 'American'." In 1958, he was asked to put together The Arts in Canada, a chronicle of Canada's arts at mid-century; and in 1960, he published Poets of the Confederation, an anthology which, he says, is to remind us that we possess a poetic tradition of considerable merit and of recognizable character — a tradition which endures because, as Canadians, we cannot and should not want to escape the conditions which shaped it and us."

     In The Impossible Sum of Our Traditions, Ross continues his interests in Canadian literature, its tradition, and the conditions that shaped it. He has chosen a wide selection of his own writings from a variety of sources between 1954 and 1984: essays, speeches, papers, and introductory pieces written for the NCL series. The selections cover diverse subjects ranging from short critical introductory essays on such works as Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and The Incomparable Atuk, through a reflection on Bishop Medley's contributions to Fredericton and its cultural heritage and a study of Goldwin Smith, the Victorian political philosopher, to a denouncement of Northrop Frye and thematic criticism and essays concerning Canadian nationalism and regionalism and the threat of American domination of Canadian culture. Despite the range in subject matter, Ross's underlying concern with Canadian culture and his vision of Canadian regionalism and nationalism unify the collection.

     There is a recurrent acknowledgement on Ross's part in these selections of the diversity and excellence of writers in Canada. He continues to voice his belief that there is "a North Americanism which is Canadian and not 'American,' " as well as his belief that Canada is a series of regions that finds its identity in the collective sum of its diversity. The very survival of Canada as a nation lies, he believes, in this cultural diversity. To define Canadian cultural identity and nationalism, Ross moves deftly between the political and social forces that have shaped Canada and the literature and culture that have been shaped by these forces.

     Ross begins his collection with essays that deal with specific people who directly or indirectly contributed to Canadian culture and to Ross's own way of thinking about it. Bishop Medley, for instance, who came to Fredericton from Britain in 1845, constructed a cathedral, and generally brought with him a love of beauty, antithetical to the prevailing Puritan consciousness. By doing so, he influenced the poets Charles G.D. Roberts, Bliss Carman, Francis Sherman and their love of aesthetic beauty ("A Strange Aesthetic Ferment," 1976). His personal defence of his admiration for Carman's poetry, despite opposing contemporary judgements, asserts his belief in the importance of understanding and respecting Canada's own cultural traditions ("Bliss Carman and the Poetry of Mystery: A Defence of the Personal Fallacy," 1984). His interest in the contradictory personality of Goldwin Smith stems from an attempt to understand a man whose mind he admired, yet whose political opinions were so antithetical to his own. Smith's belief that Canada should annex itself to the United States allows Ross to question the meaning of Canadian nationalism and to ask why it was so slow to evolve from loyalty to the crown ("Goldwin Smith," 1957). Contrary to Smith's views were those held by the Confederation Poets, who were nationalists in search of a nation, and who created a poetic tradition that is still with us ("Poets of the Confederation," 1960).

     Ross's concern with the domination of Canadian culture by that of the United States is a recurring theme in his writing. In a talk presented to an American Symposium and reprinted in this collection, Ross asserts his pride in a blooming individualistic Canadian culture that is easily identified by its multi-culturalism and by the strengthening of the artistic use of the regional to express the multi-cultural dimension of its national life ("American Pressures and Canadian Individuality," 1957). He also acknowledges the enormous effect that American culture has had on Canadian culture; yet Ross optimistically maintains that, despite this pressure (and other pressures of Quebec nationalism and western alienation), Canadian culture has its own integrity, the source of which resides in the fact that Canadians are becoming aware of the intrinsic value of their own culture ("Canadian Culture and the Colonial Question," 1982).

     Ross is clearly committed to the ideal of multi-culturalism and regional diversity; he sees the design of Canadian culture emerging through the forces of historical and geographical circumstances to create a pattern of opposites in tension a federal-regional tension, an American-Canadian tension, a French-English tension, and economic tensions between Canada's different regions. Ross claims that these tensions give Canadian nationalism its unique character, a character which commits Canadians "to refashion [our] political and economic structures to the needs and aspirations of a nation of peoples" ("The Imaginative Sense and the Canadian Question," 1977). Ross also claims it is this tension created by the multiple aspects of the national that creates the dominant literary device found in Canadian literature irony.

     Ross's attempts to define Canadian nationalism lead him to challenge statements made by both E.K. Brown and Northrop Frye regarding Canada's lack of an autonomous culture. He opposes Frye's suggestion that Canadians have inherited "a garrison mentality," one that is reflected in the literature, and persists in the sectarian diversification in Canadian towns and cities, with the assertion that the regions find their identity only in the totality that is the nation. He strongly rejects Frye's belief that Canada will eventually be absorbed by the United States ("Canadian Culture and the Colonial Question," 1977). Ross believes that the hope for Canada as a nation, and the hope for an autonomous culture, rests in Canadians' ability to embrace the regional while transcending it "for the larger sense we begin to have of ourselves in all our diversity." Ross demonstrates how the regional reveals universal concerns in his essays on Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Such as My Beloved.

      Ross also takes to task Frye and his mythopoetic followers (as well as thematic critics John Moss and Margaret Atwood) for perpetuating ideas that ignore the complexities in Canadian literature ("Critical Theory: Some Trends," 1976). As he points out in an inaugural address delivered at the Canadian Studies Centre at the University of Edinburgh and printed as the last piece in this collection, there has recently been a major move in Canadian criticism away from thematic criticism that has significant consequences for Canadian literature. Ross also argues that within recent Canadian literature there exist the voices of many peoples first and second generation writers of Polish, Hungarian, Icelandic, Mennonite, Japanese — a phenomenon that enriches our culture. He believes "it is [in] the interplay of these cultures and in our openness to the changing climate of ideas everywhere in the world that the dynamic of Canadian cultural life now is to be discerned" ("The Impossible Sum of Our Traditions," 1982). Canadian writers, in general, are in the process of recovering their ancestors. Ross does not find a particular theme dominating Canadian literature; rather, he suggests that "our literature has developed through the importation and interplay of the myths and memories of the many peoples who have come to Canada." He concludes by placing Canadian literature within a larger perspective: "Our literature has grown, is growing, not only from the presence and interplay of diverse cultural impulses from within, but also from an increasing awareness of cultural movements abroad."

     Ross's ideas on Canadian literature and culture are provocative, and his critical method has been consistent in his thirty years of writing on Canadian literature. He eschews trends and fashions, preferring instead to approach Canadian literature through its historical and social contexts, not through any preconceived theoretical ideas. Consequently, Ross's writing on Canadian literature reveals the complexity of Canada's literary and cultural tradition as it has evolved. His vision of Canadian culture and literature is a clear one; his prose is refreshingly lucid, and his approach is candid and personal.

     Although the latest selection included in this book dates from 1984, the issues and concerns raised by Ross are still relevant in 1987. The political realities of today — continuing regional economic disparity, the continuing fight of Quebec to maintain its separate culture, and the growing alienation of the west from central Canada — suggest that Ross's view of regionalism and national unity are idealistic. However, the growing cultural reality in Canada of isolated regional cultures unaware of and indifferent to each other's culture, makes this collection an important one. Ross's vision suggests, not only the need to reexamine Canada's cultural policy, but also the need to continue to create and define an identifiably Canadian culture, one that will survive both internal and external forces.

Alice Van Wart