“Collecting Stamps Would Have Been More Fun” is the first published selection of letters by, to, and about Sinclair Ross; and it is a particularly welcome new resource because Ross was a publicly shy man, little known to his readers. David Stouck, in his As For Sinclair Ross (2005), gave us a full biographical narrative, and the letters now add the immediacy of Ross’s own words and the intimacy of overhearing them.
Ross apparently saved few of his letters, but David Stouck, while researching the biography, gathered them from scant and scattered sources, and Jordan Stouck has drawn largely from that gathering for “Collecting Stamps.” She includes about a third of the available letters, well selected for their “literary and biographical interest,” and adds a transcript of the only formal interview Ross ever granted (xxv). In her introduction, she supplies biographical context and continuity especially helpful to those who have not read the biography. She also explains her grouping of the letters into five major phases of Ross’s career, from the initial successes of the short stories and As For Me and My House (1941) through difficult and disappointing decades to eventual national recognition and the critical success of Sawbones Memorial (1974), and finally the later years when Ross was celebrated as a literary forefather, an inspiration to a generation of Canada’s most accomplished writers. At the foot of each letter, readers will find David Stouck’s often remarkably resourceful notes waiting to explain any obscure or quizzical references in the texts.
As the quotation in the title suggests, many of these letters address Ross’s difficulties with publishers and with audience. By some measures, Ross had a very successful career, enjoying early acceptance and encouragement from Canada’s literary elite and later finding wider recognition, including the establishment of As For Me and My House as a national classic. Yet Ross considered himself a failed writer, unable to capture a wide audience or achieve his dream of living by his writing (though As For Me did eventually sell nearly a quarter million copies). Many have argued, rather, that his talent was starved by neglect and the lack of an appreciative audience, and the letters reinforce this view, drawing attention to the frustrations between his successes, including abandoned and [End Page 211] unpublished manuscripts and his ill-fated second novel. The Well (1958) was so changed by editorial demands that Ross scarcely considered it his own, and Jordan Stouck argues persuasively that the publisher’s desire to appeal to presumed popular tastes of the time tended to obstruct and stifle Ross’s creative imagination.
Most significantly, these letters bring us Sinclair Ross with a new immediacy and vitality. Especially in his exchanges with fellow writers such as Margaret Laurence, Ross opens up—revealing his beliefs, his humor, and, gradually, his personality. The taped interview of 1971 left most of us with the impression of a shy, withdrawn author with little to tell us about his writing. David Stouck and others have since assured us that Ross became a sophisticated reader and traveler, but the personality in these letters still surprises. Ross emerges as an astute, articulate, and forthright commentator, joining the critical controversies about his own work. His exchange with David Williams, who advanced a contentious theory about paternity in As For Me, is exemplary. Williams evidently seeks privileged support for his theory, but Ross’s response is unequivocal: “To be brief: so far as I’m concerned, Paul Kirby is not the father of Judith West’s child” (252).
Jordan and David Stouck have given us an important and highly readable book offering new insights into the life and writing of one of our finest Canadian and western writers.