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date: 07 December 2019

Cannon, Cornelia Jamesfree

(17 November 1876–01 December 1969)
  • Maria Diedrich

Cannon, Cornelia James (17 November 1876–01 December 1969), novelist and birth control activist, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, the daughter of Henry Clay James and Frances Haynes. While her father practiced law and speculated in land, her mother helped out the family fortunes by painting; some of her watercolors are now at the Minnesota Historical Society. Cannon grew up in St. Paul and Newport. At Radcliffe College Cannon studied philosophy with William James and zoology with Charles Davenport and took courses in a wide variety of fields as well. Following nineteenth-century notions of education for women, she strove for breadth rather than depth. Her social life at college was very active; she joined almost every club and held almost every office her class had to offer. In 1899 she received her B.A. In 1965 she received one of Radcliffe’s first Founder Awards.

For two years she taught Latin at the St. Paul Mechanic Arts High School. In 1901 she married Walter Bradford Cannon, a physiologist at the Harvard Medical School. On their wedding trip they climbed 10,000–foot Goat Mountain, which was later renamed “Cannon Mountain,” in Glacier National Park. They settled in Cambridge, later spending their summers at a farm they bought in Franklin, New Hampshire. Between 1907 and 1915 they had five children, and Cannon spent her time taking care of her family and supporting her husband’s career.

When her children entered school, however, Cannon, an ardent believer in public education, became involved in school committee work, serving as secretary of the Cambridge Public School Association and writing hundreds of letters for the Cambridge Chronicle on public school education and on the work of the association. She also started her campaigns against corruption in city government, becoming, according to her daughter, Marian Cannon Schlesinger, “the scourge of City Hall.” Her ideas found their way into print in provocative articles that were published by Atlantic Monthly, North American Review, and Harper’s in the 1920s, among them “Philanthropic Doubts,” “Can Our Civilization Maintain Itself?,” and “The Crabbing of Youth by Age.” In the early 1920s she also launched her career as a monologuist, performing her unconventional poetry in women’s clubs and libraries all over New England.

During her husband’s absence to serve in World War I, Cannon took full responsibility for her family; she also organized host and educational programs for American soldiers who were stationed in Cambridge before their departure to Europe. Her wartime experiences were expressed in her first (unpublished) novel, The Clan Betrays, which she wrote after her husband’s return. Although the novel attempts to describe too many things at once—men’s and women’s differing war experiences, problems of a Protestant–Irish Catholic marriage, and corruption in local politics—it nevertheless documents both Cannon’s willingness to take on the most controversial political and social issues of her day and her keen awareness of gendered experience.

In 1925, after a trip with her sister to New Mexico, Cannon started work on children’s books about the Spanish conquest of the Southwest, the four Pueblo novels: The Pueblo Boy (1926), The Pueblo Girl (1929), Lazaro in the Pueblos (1931), and The Fight for the Pueblo (1934). Her greatest commercial success, however, was Red Rust, a bestseller published in 1928. The novel’s protagonist, a Swedish farmer in Minnesota, struggles successfully to develop a strain of wheat resistant to the rust disease. He is supported by his wife; through her experiences Cannon portrayed both the hardships of pioneer women and (an autobiographical element) the challenges faced by the wife of a devoted investigator. Heirs (1930), a novel conceived as a contribution to the nativism debate, depicted the confrontation between old and sophisticated but exhausted New Englanders and a vigorous pioneer race of Poles in a New Hampshire town. This book, Cannon’s most mature, unfortunately suffered from the decline in book sales during the early years of the depression.

Cannon’s last novel, Denial, never published, reflected her most controversial political concern, birth control. After attending Margaret Sanger’s Birth Control Conference in New York in 1921, Cannon became a convert, but she refrained from active participation in the movement out of consideration for her husband’s career. Motivated both by feminist anger at a state that denied women the right to control their fertility and by her eugenic conviction that the high birth rates of the nation’s poor and ethnic minorities ought to be reduced, she did, however, do pioneer work in the movement of the 1930s. She served as president of the Massachusetts Mothers’ Health Council from 1933 to 1935, later worked on the board of directors of the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, and traveled the world as a “missionary” of birth control. Denial was a polemic written in the mid-1930s to support the Massachusetts campaign for the Doctor’s Bill, which intended to give Massachusetts physicians the right to distribute birth control information to married women. The novel delineates in graphic detail the fate of a working-class Massachusetts woman who falls victim to the state’s rigorous birth control laws: though suffering from a heart disease, she is refused birth control information; after several abortions she finally commits suicide and murder, gassing herself and her children. In addition to novels, Cannon wrote poetry, plays, travelogues, and thousands of letters, most of which were preserved by her family. Her oeuvre is a fascinating record of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American womanhood.

Cannon was an enthusiastic traveler. With the proceeds from Red Rust she took her family on a European tour in 1929–1930, during which she treated her daughters to three months of travel in Italy. Among her European travels with her husband, a trip to Spain led to their support of the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy. The couple also visited Central and South America in the 1930s and 1940s, and in 1935 a lecture tour took them to Japan, China, and the USSR. After her husband’s death, Cannon traveled around the world several times—the last time at age eighty-five—usually alone, and still acting as a champion of birth control by distributing condoms and birth control information wherever she went. At eighty-two she returned to the USSR. She left unpublished accounts of all her tours, among them “Art Awheel in Italy,” “A Grandmother Visits the Philippines,” and “Feast with the Bear.”

Intellectually curious and adventurous, Cannon published only a small part of her extensive writings. In many ways she was the quintessential faculty wife of the early twentieth century, pursuing her social goals primarily through her family life and through wide-ranging volunteer activities. Her published work remains of interest, and several of her books merit rereading—Heirs and Red Rust for their literary strengths, and Denial and The Clan Betrays for their sociohistorical significance. Cornelia James Cannon died in a Franklin, New Hampshire, rest home.


Most of Cornelia James Cannon’s manuscripts and correspondence are held by her daughter Marian Cannon Schlesinger, Cambridge, Mass.; additional material is in the Walter B. Cannon Papers in Countway Library, Harvard Medical School, and in the Cornelia James Cannon Papers in the Radcliffe College Archives. Additional biographical information was acquired in interviews with Cornelia James Cannon’s daughters Wilma Cannon Fairbank, Linda Cannon Burgess, Marian Cannon Schlesinger, and Helen Cannon Bond and in an interview with John King Fairbank. For a personal impression, see Marian Cannon Schlesinger, Snatched from Oblivion: A Cambridge Memoir (1979). For further biographical information see Saul Benison et al., Walter B. Cannon: The Life and Times of a Young Scientist (1987). An obituary is in the Boston Herald, 8 Dec. 1969.