||Getting Ross not so Straight
by Andrew Lesk
After decades of critical response to the work of Sinclair Ross, a very fine biography of the man has appeared to complement-and, most important, to help us re-evaluate-his work. David Stouck's precise and very readable As For Sinclair Ross vividly recounts the rather reclusive life of a man who gave new meaning to the word "dour". Ross appears to have been very much the embittered and retiring figure often on view in much of his work. And Stouck's skill lies in reading Ross into and out of the author's fiction without more than suggesting (and never demanding) new ways to read Ross.
His life story itself is not extraordinary. His parents separated while he was young and his domineering and clinging mother dogged his comings and goings. She pushed him into banking, the career that would be his livelihood, whereas he aspired to the arts, particularly music and writing. He eventually escaped her by enlisting in the war effort, and later moving to Montreal without her. But she clung to him still, until her death. After retiring, Ross lived in Greece and Spain, and spent his last years in Vancouver.
What is remarkable about this simple sketch is the extent to which Stouck animates it. His softly reverent approach bespeaks the best that one can offer a friend now deceased: clarity, relevance, and esteem. Stouck's gift is that he has rescued an unremarkable life, bestowed it with impeccable research, and secured its place in the literary firmament.
Stouck's halting and often incomplete marshalling of the issue of Ross's (homo)sexuality, though, haunts As For Sinclair Ross, in that defining Ross's place in Canadian letters seems now dependent on resolving an apparent incongruity between (what has been-and is often still-viewed as) aberrant sexual behaviour and the author's place in our national English literary history. (Witness the recent flurry of academic and non-academic essays, including my own, on Ross.)
If there is any single statement that might be highlighted in this biography, it is the following point concerning legitimate subjectivity and, more particularly, Ross's own desperate desire to lay claim to it. Buried in the notes is a rather frank supposition that I find really underscores the debate: "It could be argued that Ross's refusal to identify himself completely as a gay man was bound up in society's disapprobation of homosexuality, that bisexuality was his way of retaining partial claim to a legitimate subjectivity." This contention illustrates, according to Stouck, Ross's own self-categorization as "bisexual", arising from an "intuitive grasp of his sexual nature."
This insistence on "bisexuality" seems to me to be a result of Ross's own need to please his interlocutors. Stouck states in the preface that this biography "is not an attempt to 'straighten' the public image of Sinclair Ross, nor to theorize his life, but to provide a record of his experiences and of how he viewed them himself." This appears to be true for the most part; generally, Stouck writes with a hands-off attitude. Yet the biographer can never really disappear from the picture. Stouck's claim of letting Ross's life speak mostly for itself ostensibly looks like disinterest, that is, objectivity. However, the account often isn't transparent, and, as with any selective recounting, it could not be.
The question of subjectivity arises as Stouck attempts a discussion of an identity-based culture, shaped primarily (though not exclusively) by sexual difference. For example, Stouck writes that Keath Fraser's (quite unhelpful) 1997 memoir, As For Me and My Body, "constituted a public outing of Ross as a gay man, but unhappily associated his sexuality with promiscuity and criminal behaviour." I'm not sure that many gay people (or straight people) might have a problem being associated with promiscuity; but in any case, Stouck professes that he doesn't "quarrel with Fraser's perception exactly"; indeed, Stouck quotes quite liberally from a memoir whose anecdotes "were related to Fraser during the author's long illness with Parkinson's disease, when medication would induce wild imaginings." Should these quotes be taken seriously or not? How much is there of Ross's own aspiration to a form of heterosexual subjectivity, in conversations with his (heterosexual) interlocutor?
Likely sensing that this might be problematic, Stouck foregrounds his methodology: "I was acutely aware of how sensitive he was to his audience and how he bent his words to his listener . . . So I have had to ask myself throughout this project, how much was I inventing? How much in our conversations was Sinclair Ross inventing himself?" Here we might find ourselves swimming in murky waters, save for the fact that Stouck wisely depends largely on the written record to fashion a Ross who is still, as it were, up for debate.
This is not necessarily wrong. Every biographer must purchase her or his line of reasoning-but costs must be examined. Stouck early on is careful to take into account what he feels to be Ross's sexual ambivalence and engagement with triangulation-that is, his bisexuality as it might be expressed though his apparent courting of friendships with male/female couples. This central contention is floated upon the thinnest of suppositions. An adolescent incident, in which Ross and a girl watch a boy masturbate in a hayloft, becomes "a shadowy template for the shapes of curiosity and physical desire to come." Ross's subsequent fictive and non-fictive accounts are viewed through this prism. His youthful relationship with Dorothy Cornell, never more than platonic, and Keith Clarke, which did move beyond the platonic, is given solemn weight: "Years later, he would recognize in his friendship with Dorothy and Keith a pattern for the most intense and satisfying friendships he would experience during his lifetime. Such friendships would involve the simultaneous enjoyment of a man's and a woman's company, where he was a welcome third party and where he felt attracted to the man and woman equally."
And the evidence for this? Triangular relationships in The Well and Whir of Gold. And not much else, beyond an unrequited bond with Cornell, a youthful longing that serves as a touchstone throughout the memoir if only to affirm the "bisexual" angle, as well as a few sexual trysts with prostitutes, such as the woman who would become "Mad" in Whir of Gold. Again, we are reminded of the view, ascribed to Ross, "that bisexuality was his way of retaining partial claim to a legitimate subjectivity" and Stouck's observation of Ross's sensitivity "to his audience and how he bent his words to his listener." Did Ross, in other words, tell Stouck what he, Ross, thought would win over his biographer's admiration? Could Ross's friendships with couples have been a means of masking his evident shyness in having to deal with others one-on-one?
I am not saying that Stouck in any way intimidated Ross into feeling he had to come across a certain way in order to please his audience. What Stouck seems to neglect is how much gay men and women engaged-and still do-in self-censorship in order to smooth the waters. Passing as straight in a world which overwhelmingly rewards heterosexuality is certainly tempting, and is, in some cases, a matter of emotional, if not physical, survival. So it isn't that Stouck's engagement with bisexuality and triangulation isn't interesting or worthwhile; it is. It's just that I don't find it altogether convincing.
Other problems arise with the unfortunate reviving of Fraser's revelation of the size of Ross's penis. This is linked, elsewhere, to a puzzling anecdote about Ross's visits to Will Conyers's communal gatherings, where "little boys would brag about the size of their fathers' penises"; and later, to Ross's brief sexual affair with Madeline, who admires his "size". Then for some reason, Ross's preference for not engaging in anal sex is brought to light. The purpose of such revelations is, it is claimed, to demonstrate Ross's narcissism. It seems that Ross, in casual sexual encounters with men, used his size as a bargaining chip; yet in the end, it tells us nothing important. Elsewhere, other experiences with gay sex are awkwardly related: "Jim felt a surge of fear as the man took hold of him and pulled back his clothing; he was being sodomized, but he didn't struggle." It sounds as though Ross is not really a part of the experience. In a visit to Chicago, Ross and four men he has met and found threatening suddenly "wound up having good sex together"-but they disappear, and the narrative moves on. The acute lack of nuance in relating homosexual encounters and gay culture is somewhat disconcerting.
What is gained by relating any of Ross's homosexual experiences? What happened to the man who sodomized Ross, for example? Did they meet again? What did it mean to be homosexual and covert in Canada in the 30s, 40s, and 50s? How many men did he fall in love with? Were any of his affairs lengthy? What about the bars that Ross visited in Montreal? What was the social scene like? These questions are not answered, and I wonder if that is because they were never asked. In some ways, then, the biography, in its efforts to converge on bisexuality and triangulation, misses opportunities to delve into questions that are important to understanding homosexual subjectivity in 20th century Canada.
Stouck does touch upon one aspect of homosexuality that is particularly revealing. In discussing the relationships of fathers and sons that occasionally crop up in Ross's writing, Stouck writes that "Jim was no doubt exploring further his dark and complicated feelings about fathers and sons, and perhaps the criminal dimension of this unpublished story [ie, "Teddy Do"] reflects a degree of self-loathing the author carried within him for the homosexual aspect of his nature." What Stouck brings to light but does not explore is how "having a gay problem" is something that is not only pressed upon a homosexual, but is considered to be strictly his or her "problem". Writing about this type of closeting, David Van Leer argues that homosexuality becomes "an internal problem of self-knowledge rather than an external one of social intercourse." It might have been more appropriate to characterize Ross's self-loathing as a function of society's inability to deal with homosexuality.
Beyond these arguments about sexuality, Stouck offers us what is undoubtedly the most important resource for Ross scholars-indeed, for Canadian literature scholars-today. The biography is a storehouse of correspondence involving some of Canada's literary heavyweights, notably Margaret Laurence. In addition, Stouck's reading of Ross's fiction is often enlivening: the chapter "Days with Pegasus" excels in describing this fertile writing period. Stouck contends that Ross's finest fiction is to be found in the period 1938-1941, and I would agree. Stories such as "Cornet at Night", which Stouck brilliantly analyses, "The Painted Door", and As For Me and My House, came out of these years. All the fiction that follows never matches the excellence found here.
And excellent too is the attention to detail that colours every page of the book. Stouck manages the near-impossible feat of making a rather colourless man seem kaleidoscopic. And despite the contentions I have with Stouck's positions concerning Ross's sexuality, the work is never less than engrossing. It is a valuable effort that should be warmly welcomed.
Work Cited: Van Leer, David. "The Beast of the Closet: Homosociality and the Pathology of Manhood". Critical Inquiry 15.3 (Spring 1989): 587-605.