Malcolm Ross

Malcolm RossPhoto: Halifax Herald
Malcolm Ross
Photo: Halifax Herald

Malcolm Mackenzie Ross (1911–2002) was a literary critic, editor, author, and professor. Best known for his development of the New Canadian Library series of canonical Canadian texts, Ross helped to change the study of Canadian literature and had a profound impact on national literary studies.

Ross was born on 2 January 1911 in Fredericton, New Brunswick, to parents Charles Duff Ross, an insurance salesman, and Cora Elizabeth (Hewitson) Ross. Their second child, a girl named Margaret, was born five years later. While living in Fredericton, Ross attended Smythe Street School and Fredericton High School before continuing on to the University of New Brunswick for his undergraduate studies (Groening 7). At UNB, he became close with the faculty, especially Malcolm McPherson. He nearly failed to graduate in 1933 after his refusal to complete two years of military training required of all male students (Groening 11); however, the senate voted on the matter, and Ross was allowed to graduate with a double honours in English and philosophy. Ross then went to the University of Toronto, where he received his master’s degree in Renaissance literature in 1934.

After graduating from the University of Toronto, Ross accepted a position at the University of Canton in China. However, Japan and China entered into war at the time of his arrival, and he soon returned to Canada. Not long after his return, he met Lois Natalie Hall of Toronto; the two were married on 4 June 1938. A year later, Ross decided to pursue a PhD at Cornell University. Upon completion of his doctoral degree in 1941, he took a post at Indiana University for a year, but homesickness caused him and his wife to return to Canada. Turned down for enlistment due to medical reasons, he was hired by John Grierson at the National Film Board. He travelled across Canada for three years, distributing documentaries about the war effort. He left the NFB in 1945, and later that year, Ross’ wife gave birth to their only child, a daughter named Julie Martha.

After the war ended, Ross returned to the academic world. He taught at the University of Manitoba (1945–50), Queen’s University (1950–62), Trinity College (1964–67), and Dalhousie University (1968–82). He was also a visiting professor at the University of Edinburgh (1982). While in these positions, Ross served as editor of Queen’s Quarterly (1953–56), head of Queen’s University English department, dean of arts at Trinity, and chairman of the Cultural Activities Committee at Dalhousie University (1968–72).

His first book, Milton’s Royalism: A Study of the Conflict of Symbol and the Idea in Poems, was published in 1943. Ross then received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1945 that allowed him to spend six months at Harvard and six months at the Huntingdon Library in Pasadena, California, to work on Poetry and Dogma: the Transfiguration of Eucharistic Symbols in Seventh Century English Poetry (1954).

Despite these early works on British literature, Ross was more notable as a critic of Canadian literature. His most important works in this area were Our Sense of Identity: A Book of Canadian Essays (1954), The Arts in Canada: A Stock-taking at Mid-Century (1959), Poets of the Confederation (1960), and The Impossible Sum of Our Traditions: Reflections on Canadian Literature (1986). In his criticism, Ross often discusses Canadian culture as multicultural and diverse, but also as forming a unity around that diversity. He writes in Our Sense of Identity:

Ours is not, can never be, the “one hundred percent” kind of nationalism. We have always had to think in terms of the multi-dimensional structure, an openness to “the larger mosaic,” to the vivid themes of A. M. Klein’s Jewish heritage, to the fine rich Slavic interlacings of Winnipeg and the prairies. (xi)

Ross’ most significant accomplishment was the development of the New Canadian Library, a reprint series of Canadian literature in paperback, founded in 1957. He came up with the idea after noticing the lack of affordable books in print for students, a situation that severely limited the study of Canadian literature in universities. Initially, he approached John Gray, president of Macmillan of Canada, with the idea, but it was rejected. Ross was able to convince Jack McClelland of McClelland and Stewart of the viability of the project, and the series was launched with Ross as the general editor. The series published classic as well as contemporary novels and poetry collections. Each reprint included an essay written by a notable Canadian critic on the historical context and literary significance of the book. Ross edited the series until 1978; by that time, 168 works had been reprinted in the New Canadian Library format.

Ross held prominent positions in the national arts community. From 1950–56, he appeared on the CBC Radio program called Critically Speaking with Robert Weaver. He was also an active member in other organizations, like the Modern Language Association, the Canada Council, the Arts Advisor Panel (1980), the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Humanities Association (1956–58), the Association of Canadian University Teachers (1952–53), the Nuffield Selection Committee for the Humanities and Social Sciences (1961–64), the Committee on Research and Teaching, and the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

On 23 June 1976, Ross was awarded the Order of Canada for his contributions to education as well as his work with the New Canadian Library. He also received the Lorne Pierce Medal from the Royal Society of Canada (1981), the Northern Telecom International Award in Canadian Studies (1985), the Diplome d’Honneur from the Canadian Conference of the Arts (1990), and the Queen’s Silver and Golden Jubilee Medals from the Office of the Governor General (1977, 2002). Honorary degrees were granted to Ross by St. Thomas University (1976), Trent University (1982), University of Edinburgh (1986), Queen’s University (1989), University of Windsor (1989), University of Toronto (1990), and Acadia University (1991).

Ross died of pneumonia on 4 November 2002 at the age of 92 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He was predeceased by his wife, Lois, in 1996. He is remembered fondly by associates and former students—including Margaret Laurence and Adele Wiseman—as being encouraging to young, gifted writers and as a champion in the cause of Canadian literature.

Victoria Embree, Winter 2012
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Selected Primary Sources

Ross, Malcolm, ed. The Arts in Canada: A Stock-Taking at Mid-Century. Introduction by Malcom Ross. Toronto, ON: MacMillan, 1958.

---. The Impossible Sum of Our Traditions: Reflections on Canadian Literature. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart, 1986.

---. Milton’s Royalism: A Study of the Conflict of Symbol and the Idea in the Poems. Cornell Studies in English 34. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1943.

---. Poetry and Dogma: The Transfiguration of Eucharistic Symbols in Seventh Century English Poetry. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1954.

Ross, Malcolm MacKenzie, ed. Our Sense of Identity: A Book of Canadian Essays. Canadian Literature Series. Toronto, ON: Ryerson Press, 1954.

---. Poets of the Confederation: Duncan Campbell Scott, Archibald Lampman, Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts. New Canadian Library Original. Toronto, ON: McClelland and Stewart, 1960.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Breen, Judith, and Lynn Atkinson. “An Interview with Malcolm Ross.” Journal of Canadian Fiction 3.3 (1974): 60-4.

Chittick, Kathryn. “Interview With Malcolm Ross.” Studies in Canadian Literature 9.2 (1984): 241-266.

Friskney, Janet B. “New Canadian Library.” The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1997. Oxford Reference Online. 2006. Oxford UP. 23 June 2020

---. New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years, 1952–1978. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2007.

Groening, Laura. “Malcolm Ross: A Sense of Our Identity.” Canadian Poetry 52 (2003): 7-25.

“Malcolm Mackenzie Ross (1911–2002).” The Halifax Herald 23 Nov. 2002: Obituaries.

McGillivray, Mary. “Memorial Address for Malcolm Mackenzie Ross.” Canadian Poetry 52 (2003): 93-8.

---. “The Scholar Visionary: Malcolm Ross at Ninety.” The Dalhousie Review 80.3 (2000): 337-49.