Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Author and educator who lived for many years as near neighbor of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, BRADFORD SMITH here draws a memorable portrait of that staunch and lively Vermonter. A graduate of Columbia University. Mr. Smith has laught in Japan and at Columbia, directs the International Summer School at Bennington College, and lias written many books, including RiivnFORD OF PLYMOUTH and WHY WE BEHAVE LTKE AMERICANS.


NORTH of Arlington, Vermont, the road glides through a narrow valley until it crosses that famous trout stream, the Battenkill, and twists northward at a brick house. Just beyond, a dirt road climbs the first rise of Red Mountain and within a quarter of a mile veers aside as if to leave room for the small white house which rests snugly against the mountain’s slope.

This is Clan field land, and has been since 1764. The brick farmhouse is a Canfield house. The towering pine plantations that climb the slope, planted there forty years ago with the idea of supplying funds to send the children to college, seem to enclose the space so as to aid the great bulk of the mountain in protecting the house and its occupants.

Here from the time of their marriage in 1907 Dorothy Canfield and John Fisher lived lives uncluttered by superfluous possessions or timewasting activity. Close to earth and unencumbered by the demands of city living, they put all their time and effort into the things that matter. When Dorothy Fisher died in her eightieth year, she had completed — from this unpretentious headquarters — one of the most active and serviceable lives in America.

The pines still standing so thickly remind one that when the Fishers went to help France during World War I, they had some of their trees cut to furnish money for the desperate needs they saw all about them. And at one edge of the pines stands a little cabin which has housed many a distinguished visitor. During World War II the Fishers, thinking about an Arlington boy who was homesick overseas, decided that it would do him good to feel that he had a place back home which he could call his own. So they wrote to tell him it was his.

In the last year or two, Dorothy Fisher had arranged for all her friends and neighbors who wanted perennials from her garden to have them. As the flowers rise to life each spring, many a family will think of Dorothy Fisher, remembering her as a person whose life was centered in love — in earing. It is the central theme in her ten novels and her many short stories.

When she and John Fisher decided to live their lives in her ancestral town (population 1500), their city friends thought them foolish. They had no income but what they could earn with their pens. They would be out of touch with editors and other writers. But they persisted, and aided by the rise of mass-circulation magazines, they were successful from the start. Although they often left Arlington for Europe, where Dorothy (thanks to her artist mother and college-president father) felt as much at home as in Vermont, the little house on the great slope of Red Mountain was always home.

Into the house, as Dorothy’s audience widened, poured a great tide of correspondence. Her writing made readers think of her as a friend. The mail literally came by the basketful. After it had come in, the small study often looked as if a whirlwind had struck it, with letters piled here and there according to the way they were to be handled, magazines set down on table or davenport, and books (especially after Dorothy became a judge for the Book-of-the-Month Club) spilling of! chairs and end tables.

The Fishers managed to combine plain country livingwith a rather constant involvement in the world’s affairs. They proved that it could be done, and by prodding and leading their neighbors they proved that a whole community could do the same. One instance was the local library. Dorothy Fisher gave to the town the brick house on Main Street which had come to her from the Canfields. It became the community center, and in one wing a library was established. To have done this much would have satisfied the ordinary donor, but Dorothy kept up a continual supply of books. More important still, she inspired the formation of a library board which met once a month to discuss and choose the books to be purchased. While this method horrified some librarians, who felt it should be the professional task of a librarian to choose books, it proved in the long run to be a wise and stimulating idea. For it involved the community in the library, got people to reading reviews, looking for likely titles, reading and talking about books.

When Arlington needed a new high school building but was in doubt how to finance it, especially since it was also considering a plan to erect some sort of war memorial to its sons, Dorothy Fisher said, in effect: “What better memorial could we have than a school?” She had reason to feel deeply: her only son had been killed in the Philippines. Arlington made the effort — a bigone for so small a town — and built its high school. The Fishers and other friends also gave a memorial playground.

Whether it was supporting a local kindergarten, or forums on world affairs, or better education, or equal treatment for women, Dorothy Fisher in the midst of an incredibly busy schedule always had time to help. In her last years her amazing physical strength began to leave her, yet the spirit and the zest for action would not let her rest.

“The pressure against the UN may get worse in the United States,” she would remark. And then, with a rousing of her spirit and a rise in the pitch of her voice: “I’d like fine to get the old claymore out for one more good swing in the good cause.”And she would do it, too.

Another of her strong feelings was for fairness in racial relations. “It is the most ordinary, everyday sense which makes us see to it that POISON labels are kept pasted on the bottles of dangerous chemicals in our medicine closets,” she would argue. “In exactly the same way a constant repetition is needed of the label POISON on all forms of mass prejudice, racial injustices, making an individual suffer for something he doesn’t do or is not, because some of his group have done it or been it.”

On one occasion Mrs. Fisher was invited to bestow a prize on a Negro girl at exercises in Harlem. She went, made one of her apt and charming speeches, and kissed the girl on both checks after the French manner. The house exploded in applause’ and affection.

As a trustee of Howard University, she was well acquainted with many Negroes of top professional standing. After a meeting with them one day she asked where they planned to go for the approaching summer vacation. Some mentioned Europe’, others Canada, Mexico, South America.

“Good gracious!” she remarked. “What travelers you all are. Don’t yeu ever spend a vacation in the United States?”

A silence fell on the group. It was a silence she never forgot.

Yet even more tragic, it seemed to her, was the fact that half of humankind were relegated to an inferior position by the other half. The very Negroes who resented being treated as inferiors by whites were, she often found, willing to relegate their womenfolk to inferiority. That women were the equals of men and entitled to equal treatment was one of the main themes of her fiction. And surely she managed to show them in that light. Mrs. Knapp in The Home-Maker drives her family ill with her compulsive orderliness and management. But when an accident makes a cripple of her husband so that she must become the breadwinner and he the homemaker — free at last to indulge his love for the children, his gift for dealing with them, and his love for reading — peace comes to the household.

“Why shouldn’t some women be better off as wage earners, and some men be better off as homemakers?” she asks. She herself was both. When her two children were growing up, she gave them the motherly attention they needed and still did a day’s literary work.

As HER time became freer, Mrs. Fisher served on the state board of education, lectured widely on literary and educational subjects, served as president of the Adult Education Association - all because she felt that people have in them the power of growth if only it can be properly stimulated. From her earliest books on English composition and child training to her latest effort for the United Nations and the Charter of Human Rights, she believed in education.

She felt a deep and tender concern for others to the end of her life, even when her eyes had grown so weak she could no longer read and her voice small and no longer pulsing with its old vigor and enthusiasm. To save eyestrain, she had taught herself touch typing in the last years of her life; but then a cerebral accident left her fingers partly paralyzed. She had her dictaphone, though, and she went on with that. If she had had to write with her toes, she would have done it!

“Like trying to dance a hornpipe on a steel rail of a railroad.” she would say when the difficulties crowded in. But she never gave up trying. Nor did her gift for such picturable phrases ever leave her. A combination of tried-and-true folk sayings with her own lively imagination gave her speech the vividness and intensity with which to convey the enthusiasm and deep concern she felt for all things that really matter.

“I hang over all the sports news,” she told me once, “not because 1 care for the sports themselves but because there is an emanation which gets through to me from the astonishing vocabulary used in writing about them.”

“What is your news?” she would ask when we dropped in for a chat. It was because she had this capacity to live in the lives of others that her fiction has so authentic an aura of reality about it. And because she put her own life into it, as well as the emanations she was quick to pick tip from others. All writing, one way or another, is autobiographical, but Dorothy Fisher’s books are full of herself — not simply of experiences she had but of convictions she held deeply, of messages she fell driven to express, of a faith in human growth and love despite all the ugliness to which her eyes were equally open.

An internationalist as firmly as she was a Vermonter, Dorothy Fisher helped us to see how a life fully and richly lived in the country can, because of its roots deep in earth (like one of her own beloved trees), spread out over a wide area. Her faith and enthusiasm brought to life the Children’s Crusade to save child refugees from fascism and Nazism. She and her husband also aided personally any number of refugee intellectuals. They brought to the United States for postgraduate medical study the Filipino doctors, man and wife, who had been with their own beloved doctor-son at his death. As long as she was able, Dorothy Fisher met each summer with the group of Fulbright students from all over the world who came to Bennington College for a summer course. She made them feel that Vermont, small and poor yet resourceful and proud, gave them a homely welcome.

DOROTHY FISHER wrote more than forty books, of which ten were novels. She wrote books for children, books on education (she was the popularizer of the Montessori method in the United States), collections of short stories, and that unique book, Vermont Tradition, which sums up her feeling for a heritage in which she found universal meaning.

When she and John moved into the little house in Arlington where they were to live and work for the rest of their lives, it had no space for a separate writing room. When the two children came along, there was even less space where Dorothy could have quiet. But it was not until they returned from their war work in France that John, handy in all things, built an addition which would provide a downstairs study for Dorothy.

The study soon proved too accessible. When Dorothy wanted to work undisturbed, she would take hersell to a tiny room over the study, so small it could hold nothing more than a chair and a table. But that was all she required. Like all really professional writers, she was a craftsman — able to do her work like any skilled worker without making a production of it.

Did any one of her novels give her more difficulty than the others? When I asked John Fisher this question shortly before his death in June, he said: “She didn’t groan much about any of them. She just went upstairs and plugged and plugged and plugged.” But he felt that her last novel, Seasoned limber, because it was more complicated and because it attempted a very unfamiliar theme that there can be love between a man and a woman which is not sexual — was the most demanding.

“She was never purely satisfied with her work,” he added. “Great Scott — the amount of paper that’s been used in this house!” It was habitual with her to rewrite and rewrite, and then to be still dissatisfied.

“What had l produced?” she asked after finishing one of her better stories. “A trivial, paltry, complicated tale, with certain cheaply ingenious devices in it. Those little black marks on white paper lay dead, dead in my hands. What horrible people second-rate authors were! I would never write again. All that effort, enough to have achieved a masterpiece it seemed at the’ time . . . and this, this, for result!”

But by the next day the story seemed already far away, and “the question of whether it was good or bad not very important or interesting, like the chart of your temperature in a fever now gone by.”

The genesis of her fiction Dorothy described as “a strong thrill of intense feeling, and an intense desire to pass it on to other people.” The initial impulse might come from the chance remark of an acquaintance, the sound of a spring brook, the expression on somebody’s face.

“I cannot conceive of any creative fiction written from any other beginning than that of a generally intensified emotional sensibility,” she once wrote, adding that such an emotion refused to crystallize around the events of her own life or around those stories offered by friends who were sure that the incidents were strange or interesting enough to be “written up.”

Most readers of Dorothy Fisher’s fiction have fell that it must be copied from life because it sounds so convincing. This is a tribute to her skill as a writer, to her preference for dealing with plain folks whose idiom she could catch exactly, and to the intense feeling for people which she was able to communicate.

“Nowhere in her books will you find more than a glimpse of an actually observed life story,”her husband asserted, liven The Deepening Stream. which contains much of the Fishers’ life during the years when they gave their services to France, is not a transcript of their experiences. The Forts in the book arc different people from the Fishers, and react differently to the experiences they meet. Yet it was in this book that John Fisher found Dorothy herself most fully. “Not in the day-by-day events, but her spirit — how the deeper values of life look to her.”

“I can write nothing at all about places, people, or phases of life which I do not intimately know, down to the last detail,”Dorothy once said. Perhaps this is another reason for the authentic character of her work. Surely it gives a genre-like quality to her writing, so that her scenes of life have the loving intimacy of detail we find in Brueghel.

Because she had a dedicated faith in the power of human beings to grow and develop, Dorothy Fisher’s fiction always had this clement of growth in it. In her work, story and idea coalesce. She hated to be told that she was preaching, but because she was a born teacher all her books have an idea to get across. Sometimes her people do talk a little too pedagogically, but usually she was able to work out what she had to say through story.

The themes which meant most to her, and which kept recurring in her books, are the right relation between husband and wife, the power of growth and the importance of allowing and encouraging a natural and healthy growth in children, the importance of bringing out what is best in man and the ways in which this can be done, the moral obligation to fight tyranny of all kinds — Nazism, racism, the degrading of women to a status inferior to that of men.

The growth of the individual through loving care to a maturity which combines love with understanding and leads to a creative life within the family and the community — this was her continuing concern, and her books are parables, both positive and negative, on this prevailing theme.

To foster internationalism, equality of the races and sexes, sound education, and the sane rearing of children these are the causes for which she would willingly have given her heart’s blood, and did. Rarely have we had a writer of fiction who lived so fully in the world of affairs in order to bring her own ideals to fruition.

AOTHER unique aspect ol Dorothy Fisher’s work was the part her husband played in it. One can easily guess from her novels that her own marriage was singularly ideal. It was also a working partnership. For Rough Hewn John Fisher provided the school and college memories, the life-like incidents from which Neale’s story could be fashioned. Dorothy meanwhile worked on the more complex Marise, and then reworked John’s notes so as to bring the two lives into a final harmony. The contrapuntal effect of the two separate stories finally merging is highly satisfactory.

A sympathetic but honest critic, John also supplied the other mind which a writer badly needs after he has worked so hard on a book that he can no longer tell what is good or what is bad. Because his mind was sympathetically tuned to hers, Dorothy felt that she could depend upon its reactions. What greater boon could a writer ask for than that!

When she took up her work for the Book-of-theMonth Club, John’s help became indispensable. Dorothy had consented to be a judge for the club after some misgivings. She was already as busy as anyone had a right to be. Besides, she didn’t like the name very well, for it seemed to imply that there would be one book each month which would suit all readers. And why should anyone assume to pick another’s reading for him? Then one day in New York, after finding things so crowded in a department store that she could not even get in to buy what she wanted, she went to a bookstore on another errand and found it empty and silent. The next day she accepted the Book-of-the-Month job, certain that a new method of getting books out to people all over the country was needed.

For twenty-five years she served as the only woman on the editorial board. The other members of the original board were Christopher Morley, William Allen White. Heywood Broun, and Henry Seidel Canby. No wonder that she enjoyed the three-hour monthly meetings when each of those individualists hotly and capably argued for the book he favored.

“Time after time, when we stand up at the end of a long meeting,”she reported, “we are pretty tired. . . . But we often have the intellectual satisfaction of realizing that some problem which has seemed insoluble has been dissolved to nothingness by the application of the earnest, not to say ardent, desire to get honestly at the truth about a book.”

The board soon found that they could quickly agree on narrowing the field to two or three books. But then to choose one — the one — that was where the fun and the hard work came in.

Of course there had been plenty of work before each meeting. For twenty-five years Dorothy read fifteen books a month, and not only read them but thought about them, often writing notices which appeared in the club’s newssheet.

“I couldn’t have done it without John,” she told me. He usually read the “B” books — borderline books which had been read at the office and judged to be strong candidates. Then he would tell Dorothy what he thought of them and whether he felt that she should read them too. The six to ten “A” books she of course had to read herself.

Until her eyesight began to weaken, she was a very fast reader. Therefore it was not a hardship for her to do all this work. Rather, it spread before her a feast of reading which kept her, as she loved to be, in touch with everything that was going on in a constantly accelerating world. It helped keep her alive to the very Huger tips, interested in every current of thought, every evidence of the human achievement.

Her enthusiasms were infectious. If she liked a book, she would write a rousing come-on for it, write the author to say how much she had enjoyed it, buy copies to give her friends. Many of us are in her debt for these services so gladly given, and we miss the mails which frequently brought a marked magazine, a newspaper clipping, a cheerful hand-penned note. How she found time to do these things while still writing, reading for the Book-of-the-Month Club, and answering the piles of letters that came to her, no one will ever know.

Unfortunately, all this activity cut down her time for writing her own fiction. Of her ten novels, only three were written after she went to work for the club. They show a developing maturity which makes one wish there could have been more. Like the earlier ones, they also show her great skill in inventing parables of the human heart:

IN SPITE of infirmities, Dorothy’s last years were good ones.

“Here on the side of Red Mountain, with the road as quiet as my work schedule, with the main events the coming and disappearance of the sun back of the mountain, I find much sweetness in just drawing breath and looking at these beautiful surroundings . . . the pine forest. . . . Such tree-like life as the old Fishers are having, and very enjoyable — tree-like because we are absolutely stationary and still pretty much alive.”

Yet until near the end of life she was able to get out onto her beloved mountain, roaming the woods in a jeep. “‘With four chains on, I believe that jeep could climb up the side of a barn,” she exulted. She loved the winters — the cold crisp air, the crunchy snow, the peace and quiet of the country, the absence of visitors.

And the long evenings. “We immensely enjoy those interests — noble music and line books and good talk — which are as open to old age as to those with nimble joints and lively feet.

“Last night we heard (by radio) an enchanting rendition of “The Magic Flute.’ We had just been deep in some especially interesting and thoughtprovoking chapters of Montaigne’s Essays which John had been reading aloud to me, and as we went to bed very much uplifted by those two pleasures, we felt that life in the deep country in sub-zero weather wasn’t so bad.”

The day before she died she was having Doctor Zhivago read to her. Whatever her bodily infirmities, her mind never stopped growing.

“Doubt till thou canst doubt no more,” she quoted from her friend Albert Guerard. “Pause and resume the course of thy doubt. For doubt is thought, and thought is life. Systems which end doubt are devices for drugging thought.”

But she had no doubt about the value of life itself, the dignity of man, the preciousness of freedom, the right to equality. To the discouraged modern who looks at the world and says, “But what can I do?” Dorothy Fisher’s life answers, “Do what you can do and do it to the hilt, and you’ll find you have done something.” Oldfashioned? Perhaps. Like sunrise, or the earth’s turning.

In a story called “The Heyday of the Blood,” the young Dorothy Fisher wrote of an old man who went to the county fair despite the doctor’s warning that it might kill him, and in his zest for life shouted out: “Live while you live, and then die and be done with it!" It was a motto that served Dorothy Fisher in her own life.