U of A mourns passing of ‘consummate gentleman-scholar’
The University of Alberta community is mourning the passing of Rowland McMaster, a long-time member of the English Department whose examination of the Victorian masters was surpassed only by a classroom conduct best characterized by the Charles Dickens maxim, “A day wasted on others is not wasted on one’s self.” McMaster died peacefully July 20 at the Edmonton General hospice. He was 85.
Born in Australia in 1928, and raised in Port Credit, Ont., McMaster came by his love of the classics as a young boy picking Victorian-era books from amongst the belongings of a late uncle’s trunk.
McMaster took his three degrees in English at the University of Toronto before going on to teach at Acadia University. He would go onto become an authority on dozens of Victorian authors including Anthony Trollope and William Thackeray, but his real passion was Dickens.
“Dickens is one of the biggest industries going on now in literature, but he wasn’t when I started,” recounted McMaster in an interview with New Trail in 1993. “At the time, people rather questioned why you were working on a stuffy old Victorian author.”
McMaster came west to the U of A in 1958 to join the English department, where he continued to build his reputation as the leading authority on the “stuffy old Victorian author.” A contemporary of McMaster’s once quipped, “By 1962 [McMaster] had published five essays on Dickens that exerted more influence and authority than any half-dozen books.”
It was at the U of A where McMaster found his stride in the classroom, becoming both beloved and admired by generations of students.
McMaster taught English courses on all things Victorian, as well as Geoffrey Chaucer, and the English novel, along with the first-year survey course, but none were as notorious as his Currents of Thought in the Nineteenth Century.
Peter Sinnema, who has been an English professor at the U of A since 1999, remembers his vaunted year-long, all-or-nothing plunge into Victorian prose in the mid-80’s.
“I distinctly recall the engaged, even intense, look on his face as he listened to participants raising questions about texts, and the rigorously respectful way in which he responded to questions, point by point, invariably bringing historical and social context into conversations about Thomas Carlyle or John Ruskin,” said Sinnema, who credits that class with turning him on to academia. “Rowland was an enthusiast for the material he taught, and that enthusiasm—that genuine joy about learning and reading the Victorians—was always evident in his interaction with all things 19th century.”
Sinnema added, “Friendly, never condescending, the consummate gentleman-scholar: this is how I will always remember Rowland.”
Another U of A English professor fortunate enough to have braved McMaster’s Currents of Thought remembers McMaster first as a great teacher and then as a great colleague.
“Carlyle, Pater, Ruskin, Mill, Morrise—every single class was filled with knowledge and characterized by the most interesting discussions you could imagine, prompted by the clear expectation that we’d done the reading—no one dared not—and Rowland’s thoughtful spurs to reflection,” said 3M National Teaching Fellow Heather Zwicker. “He always had time for students and made a genuine effort to get to know us, even anxious and awkward second-year Honours English students like I was.”
And although his academic honours, which include election as a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1990, the U of A’s coveted Killam Professorship in 1991 and the Kaplan Award for Excellence in Research in 1993, all point to a distinguished research career of the highest order, McMaster was in it for the love of teaching.
“The fun of teaching keeps me here,” he said in 1993, a year before his retirement. “There’s no better job going than having all these brilliant young people around whom you can argue with.”
McMaster’s service to the English department is still felt today, more than 50 years after he arrived. It was then that the idea of establishing graduate studies in English was coming to fruition, and he was designated chair of the committee in charge of shaping the new program.
McMaster would go on to teach one of the first graduate courses offered in English at the U of A, an experience that changed more than the department. It is there that he met his wife of 45 years, fellow U of A professor, Victorian scholar and Royal Society of Canada fellow, Juliet McMaster. In his Kaplan Award speech, McMaster joked, “Wherever we are there is a 24-hour-a-day staff meeting and scholarly discussion going on.”
He was a lifetime photographer, a gifted dramatic reader—students have been dazzled by his renderings of the voices of such Dickens favourites as Magwitch from Great Expectations and Sergeant Buzfuz from The Pickwick Papers, as well as Harry Bailey from Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales—and a good dad.
Those who would like to contribute to a bursary in Rowland McMaster’s name can call the Annual Fund Office at 780-492-7587.
—With notes from the 1993 autumn edition of New Trail magazine