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Fisher, Dorothy F. Canfieldlocked

(17 February 1879–09 November 1958)
  • Robert L. Gale

Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-110621).

Fisher, Dorothy F. Canfield (17 February 1879–09 November 1958), author and educational leader, was born Dorothea Frances Canfield in Lawrence, Kansas, the daughter of James Hulme Canfield, a professor of economics and sociology at the University of Kansas, and Flavia A. Camp, an artist. As a child Dorothy summered with relatives in Arlington, Vermont. In 1890 she went to Paris with her mother, visited her mother’s studio in the Latin Quarter, and attended a convent school.

In 1891 Fisher’s father became chancellor of the University of Nebraska, and the family moved to Lincoln. In 1895 they moved to Columbus, Ohio, where he was the president of Ohio State University. After graduating from high school in Lincoln, Fisher enrolled at Ohio State. In 1899 she received her Ph.B. In March 1902 she published “Holy Week in Spain” in the New York Times; that fall she traveled in Europe with novelist Willa Cather, whom she had met in Nebraska in 1891. In 1904 Fisher earned a Ph.D. in Romance languages from Columbia University, where her father had become the first to hold the post of librarian. Her dissertation was published under the title Corneille and Racine in England (1904).

Fisher then declined an offer to teach French and German at Western Reserve University in Cleveland and remained instead with her aging parents in New York City. She became a secretary at the experimental Horace Mann School, began to publish short stories and poetry (1905), and coauthored Elementary Composition (1906). In 1907 she married John Redwood Fisher, a Columbia football star; they had two children. In 1907 she also inherited her great-grandfather’s farm in Arlington, to which she and her husband moved permanently. In 1911 she met Maria Montessori in Rome and was impressed by her method of educating children.

In 1912 Fisher engaged Paul Reynolds, the distinguished literary agent, who helped promote her novels The Squirrel-Cage (1912) and The Bent Twig (1915) and her collection of stories Hillsboro People (1915). After her husband went to France in April 1916 to be an ambulance driver and driver trainer, Fisher and their two children joined him in August. For two years she operated a camp commissary, helped rehabilitate war-blinded French soldiers, and set up convalescent homes for children in France and in the Basque country. Her next novels, about one couple, were The Brimming Cup (1921) and Rough-Hewn (1922). Her controversial novel, The Home-Maker, appeared in 1924. In 1926 the Book-of-the-Month Club was founded, with Henry Seidel Canby as chairman and Fisher, Heywood Broun, Christopher Darlington Morley, and William Allen White as members of the book-selecting committee. Fisher published Her Son’s Wife (1926), after which came The Deepening Stream (1930), perhaps her best novel. In 1931 she was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Her novel Bonfire (1933) upset reviewers but delighted readers.

Fisher’s last decades were marked by unremitting publication, most notably her novel Seasoned Timber (1939). She also helped organize the Children’s Crusade to bring Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany to America in 1939. Fisher retired from the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1951, having evaluated fifteen books a month for a quarter of a century. She died in Arlington, Vermont.

Fisher is noteworthy for her novels about marital and family struggles and triumphs. The Squirrel-Cage tells of a sweet girl’s difficulties in her marriage to a hard-driving Ohio executive. The Bent Twig dramatizes a spirited and fortunately practical heroine’s choices—comfort versus conscience—separately offered by contrasting suitors. Middle-western campus life is in the background, and racial prejudice and alcoholism are portrayed. The Brimming Cup presents the struggle of Marise Crittenden when the intensity of love for her husband Neale diminishes and she meets the more suave Vincent Marsh. Neale sagely realizes that Marise alone should make a choice with which she can live happily. In this novel too, Fisher bravely criticizes racial prejudice. Rough-Hewn, though published after The Brimming Cup, presents Neale and Marise from childhood to love and marriage. Marise’s early years in Europe reflect Fisher’s knowledge of the French and the Basques, while Neale’s early life is based on that of Fisher’s husband.

In Fisher’s The Home-Maker, a businessman hates his work, and his extremely efficient wife dislikes housework and child rearing. When he is homebound by a crippling accident, she embarks on a successful career while he nurtures the children—all in the face of what Fisher rebukingly labels “Tradition.” Her Son’s Wife dramatizes the perils of being a take-charge, perfectionist mother-in-law. She is the widowed Mary Bascomb, perhaps Fisher’s most complex heroine. In The Deepening Stream, a professor and his wife compete for control, which hurts their daughter until she senses their spiritual rapport. She matures in a happy marriage, accompanies her husband to France with their two children in 1915 when he joins the ambulance corps, and is disillusioned—as Fisher was—by postwar materialistic politics. Bonfire shows the uproar a Vermont physician causes when he brings Lixlee, his backwoods siren of a bride, into his sedate village. Seasoned Timber (1939) features Timothy Coulton Hulme, the freedom-loving, middle-aged principal of a rural Vermont academy who refuses a trustee’s huge bequest because it has profascist, anti-Semitic strings attached. Hulme was the middle name of Fisher’s beloved father, also a moral academician.

Fisher’s A Montessori Mother (1912), A Montessori Manual (1913), and Mothers and Children (1914) helped introduce the Montessori method in the United States. In A Harvest of Stories (1951) Fisher collected twenty-seven of her best short stories, including two masterpieces—“The Bedquilt” (1906), about a farm woman whose one talent is making quilts, and “Sex Education” (1945), presenting three versions of one encounter in a cornfield. Home Fires in France (1918) and The Day of Glory (1919) are collections of short stories about French bravery and the futility of war. Fisher translated two Italian books: Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ in 1923 and Adriano Tilgher’s Work: What It Has Meant to Men through the Ages in 1932. Basque People (1931) contains eight stories about a race of people Fisher observed and respected.

Fisher wrote much fiction for juvenile readers, the best being the classic Understood Betsy (1917). She also wrote nonfiction for such audiences, including Our Young Folks (1943), a manual on how to instill responsibility in children, and Fair World for All … (1952), a book about human rights that featured a foreword by Eleanor Roosevelt, who in 1958 called Fisher one of the ten most influential women in America.

Fisher’s varied works lost favor after her death, perhaps because of their generally conservative didacticism. Modernist critics prefer fiction by her more experimental contemporaries. All the same, she effectively wrote and acted against political tyranny of all sorts, racism, and the degradation of women, and she encouraged the development of the best in everyone, often within the institution of marriage.

Bibliography

Fisher’s papers, approximately 3,000 in number, are in at least fifty-eight repositories. The bulk are in libraries at Columbia University, Princeton University, and the University of Vermont. Many other papers are at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in New York City; the Houghton Library at Harvard University; and the Social Welfare History Archives at the University of Minnesota. In Vermont Tradition (1953) and Memories of Arlington, Vermont (1957), Fisher extols her adopted state and its rugged people. Biographies include Elizabeth Yates, Pebbles in a Pool: The Widening Circles of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Life (1958); Ida H. Washington, Dorothy Canfield Fisher: A Biography (1982); and Mark J. Madigan, ed., Keeping Fires Night and Day: Selected Letters of Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1993). Bradford Smith, “Dorothy Canfield Fisher,” Atlantic Monthly, Aug. 1959, pp. 73–77, is an engaging personality analysis. Alice Payne Hackett, 60 Years of Best Sellers, 1895–1955 (1956), lists The Brimming Cup and The Home-Maker as the most popular of Fisher’s several bestselling novels. Joseph J. Firebaugh, “Dorothy Canfield and the Moral Bent,” Educational Forum 15 (Mar. 1951): 283–94, discusses her treatment in The Deepening Stream of marriage and family life, success, the environment, religion, war, and especially education. Frederick A. Pottle, “Catharsis,” Yale Review 40 (June 1951): 621–41, discusses the genesis of Fisher’s “The Bedquilt.” Arthur Hobson Quinn, American Fiction: An Historical and Critical Survey (1936), and Edward Wagenknecht, Cavalcade of the American Novel: From the Birth of the Nation to the Middle of the Twentieth Century (1952), treat Fisher with admiration. Charles Lee, The Hidden Public: The Story of the Book-of-the-Month Club (1958), discusses Fisher’s work for the club. An obituary is in the New York Times, 10 Nov. 1958.