Northern Review resulted from the merger between two earlier magazines, Preview and First Statement, both of which had been founded in 1942, and which were also Montreal-based. Poet and literary critic John Sutherland, founder of First Statement, became the managing editor of Northern Review. A number of well-known Canadian poets, including Patrick Anderson, A.M. Klein , Irving Layton, P.K. Page, F.R. Scott, and A.J.M. Smith also served as editors for various periods.
In 1947, Sutherland's scathing review of Robert Finch's Governor General's Award-winning book, Poems, caused all of the latter-named editors, except Layton, to resign from the magazine's editorial board. Finch was a generally respected writer at the time who had co-published with Klein, Scott, and Smith in the 1936 poetry anthology New Provinces, so Sutherland's denouncement of Finch hit a sore spot with his elder colleagues.
In spite of the controversy, Northern Review was the most significant Canadian literary magazine of its day, providing a forum for new Canadian poets with an ear for modernism, a mode toward which many longer-established and conservative magazines, such as Canadian Poetry Magazine, were reluctant. Northern Review was also an important source for Canadian literary criticism, at a time when few critics, including Canadian ones, regarded Canadian literature as a distinctive and worthwhile body of achievement. For all his irreverence and bluster, Sutherland distinguished himself as a perceptive voice for literary development in Canada, as did many others who contributed articles to the magazine.
By the late forties, Sutherland had established a small press called First Statement Press as a sideline to regular issues of Northern Review. Layton's first book, Now is the Place, (1948) was among a handful of significant books published by the press, although Layton himself left the editorial board of Northern Review that same year. The Sutherland-edited Other Canadians: An Anthology of New Poetry in Canada, 1940-46, the first major collection devoted exclusively to modern Canadian poetry, was also issued by First Statement Press.
Sutherland converted to Catholicism in the early 1950s, and as a result Northern Review became more conservative in its editorial vision. Although Northern Review appeared destined for the more mainstream status and wider readership enjoyed by other Canadian magazines such as Canadian Forum and Macleans, Sutherland's early death from cancer in 1956 put an end to the magazine. In total, forty issues were published, enough to make it a relative success story in an era of short-lived Canadian periodicals.
- Dudek, Louis, and Michael Gnarowski, eds. The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada. Toronto: Ryerson, 1967.
- "Northern Review". Entry in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature. Ed. William Toye. Oxford University Press, 1983.
- Sutherland, John. Essays, Controversies and Poems. Ed. Miriam Waddington. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart (NCL), 1972.