Fisher, Dorothy Canfield (1879–1958)

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Fisher, Dorothy Canfield (1879–1958)

Popular American author in the early 20th century who attacked intolerance in all its forms. Name variations; Dolly; Dorothy Canfield; (pseudonym for some magazine articles) Stanley Cranshaw. Born Dorothea Frances Canfield on February 17, 1879, in Lawrence, Kansas; died in Arlington, Vermont, on November 9, 1958; daughter of James Hulme Canfield (1883–1959, a professor and writer) and Flavia (Camp) Canfield; graduated from Ohio State University, 1899; graduated from Columbia University, 1904; married John Redwood Fisher; children: Sally Fisher (b. 1909) and James (b. 1913)


elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters; was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters from Middlebury College (1921), University of Vermont, Dartmouth, and Columbia (1929), Northwestern (1931), Rockford College (1934), Ohio State, Swarthmore, and Williams College (1935); given the Constance Lindsay Skinner Award from the Women's National Book Association (1951); the Vermont Congress of Parents and Teachers and the Free Public Library Commission established the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children's Book Award (1956); the American Library Association in conjunction with the Book-of-the-Month Club began an annual Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award (1958) to aid libraries in small communities.

Selected writings:

Gunhild (1907); What Shall We Do Now? (1907); The Squirrel Cage (1912); A Montessori Mother (1912); The Montessori Manual (1913); Mothers and Children (1914); The Bent Twig (1915); The Real Motive (1916); Self-Reliance (1916); (with S.L. Cleghorn) Fellow Captains (1916); Understood Betsy (1917); Home Fires in France (1918); The Day of Glory (1919); The Brimming Cup (1921); (translator) Life of Christ (1921); Rough Hewn (1922); Raw Material (1923); The French School at Middlebury (1923); The Home-Maker (1924); Her Son's Wife (1926); Why Stop Learning? (1927); The Deepening Stream (1930); Basque People (1931); Bonfire (1933); Tourists Accommodated (1934); Fables for Parents (1937); Seasoned Timber (1939); Nothing Ever Happens and How It Does (1940); Our Young Folks (1943); American Portraits (1946); (short stories) Four-Square (1949); Vermont Tradition (1953).

Dorothy Canfield Fisher was a novelist, short-story writer, essayist, translator, lecturer, philosopher, educator, historian, and children's book writer. She was also a member of the editorial board of the Book-of-the-Month for 25 years, an enthusiastic advocate on the virtues of Vermont, and a beloved humanitarian, known for her unselfish integrity.

Born in Lawrence, Kansas, on February 17, 1879, the daughter of Flavia Camp Canfield , an artist, and James Hulme Canfield, a professor, Dorothea Canfield was named after one of her mother's favorite literary characters: Dorothea Brooke of George Eliot's (Mary Anne Evans ) Middlemarch. As a child, Dorothy built towers with books in her father's study; before long, she was immersing herself in their contents. She loved Thackeray, Fielding, Hakluyt, and Dickens. Though she received Ivanhoe for her sixth birthday, she preferred her book on America's first settlers, most especially the chapter on the Quakers' exile at the hands of the Pilgrims. Dorothy was bewildered by the behavior of those who came to America to seek freedom of religion, only to turn around and impose their beliefs on others. Her father gave her a dose of reality, explaining that freedom of thought was often the freedom to "bully everybody else into thinking as they do."

An energetic young girl, with blue eyes and brown hair, Dorothy played on the grounds of the State University of Kansas where her father taught. Her summers were spent in Arlington, Vermont, with her great-grandfather and her father's aunt and uncle, listening eagerly to stories of earlier Canfields. The ten-year-old wrote back to Kansas: "The reckless way these people talk of years is perpetually astonishing to me. 'How long ago did that happen, Uncle Zed?' I asked him yesterday. 'Oh, a few years, fourteen or fifteen maybe.' Why that's more than my whole life!" Instead of dolls, she had chickens, dogs, and horses to while away her days; she explored the countryside, the mountain roads, the sugar maples, and visited her neighbors on a Morgan colt called Don. In the evenings, she read of Indian raids, but the Native Americans depicted in the books were not like those she had seen on the Kansas plains or on the green mountains of Vermont. Dorothy had always been puzzled by the way the Indians in Lawrence were treated as outcasts. For the first time, she had doubts about the veracity of some of her readings.

At home in Kansas, all was not idyllic. Her mother, absorbed in art and tending toward the radical, was chafing under the confines of a settled marriage, while her father, who preferred a well-ordered household, was content to keep on teaching for the rest of his life. Dorothy was "beginning to understand something of the differences bound to exist between scholarly exactness and artistic irresponsibility," wrote Elizabeth Yates . Since she felt helpless to change the situation, Dorothy turned to the violin for consolation and escaped into her music.

In 1890, at age 11, she spent a year with Flavia in Paris, living in rooms in a girls' boarding school on the Rue de Vaugirard. Dorothy's mentor was the 23-year-old American Emily Balch , something of an intellectual, who also lived there while attending the Sorbonne. While her mother studied art at a nearby studio, Dorothy attended the girls' school and easily absorbed French. Rainy days were spent in the Cluny Museum, where her mother made copies of the greats, or restlessly posing for her mother, while listening eagerly to the art talk of her mother's friends—of colors, of light and shadow, of Breughel's red.

Dorothy took care of Flavia, calmed her nerves, and did most of the interpreting as her mother did not take to languages. Eventually, Dorothy would be able to speak and write in French, German, Italian, and English, allowing her to do translations. That fall, she was to attend the Sorbonne herself, majoring in philology (at that time, a wide-ranging study of literature), but her mother, often described as self-absorbed, followed the Parisian art world on a mid-winter quest to Spain in search of Velasquez, dragging Dorothy behind her. Flavia was ready to sacrifice all to art and would have no truck with anything second-rate. Her daughter seemed to understand: "She's reaching for the only stars she sees," she wrote. "What better can any of us try to do."

Mother and daughter returned to America in 1891. That same year, when Dorothy was 12, the family moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, where James was made chancellor of the university. By then, he was president of the National Education Association and, as a dedicated feminist, instrumental in introducing athletics for girls. With the encouragement of her father, Dorothy took boxing lessons along with fencing lessons from an instructor named John James Pershing, the future general. James Canfield wanted to break the chains of over-protection, even when it came to criticism. Some take criticism so personally, he once told his daughter, that they can't profit from it. He taught her to make it serve her: take it in, appraise it, then use what you've learned.

In 1895, the family moved on to Columbus, Ohio, where James Canfield became president of Ohio State University. Flavia rang doorbells to some success, trying to pry the women of Columbus out of the house to hear her series of lectures on art while James took on the industrial community with his belief in free trade. Dorothy continued her music studies, playing second violin in a string quartet, but she was beginning to suspect that her talents as a musician would soon plateau. Rather, she wanted to spend her energy on a profession where growth would be unlimited; at first, it was teaching.

There was one drawback. At age 19, Dorothy, who had been experiencing noises in her head for some time, learned that her hearing was impaired and that she would have to live with the noises for the rest of her life. An infection of the inner ear had been caused by swimming in a warm-water pool. She told no one, but, from then on, she relied on a little lip reading to aid her hearing.

Her novels attack materialism, social discrimination, religious and racial intolerance, and all forms of brutality and fraud. Far ahead of her times, she wrote of the waste of human resources implicit in consigning women to limited roles of social usefulness.

—Ida H. Washington

In the spring of 1899, she graduated from Ohio State; that fall, when her father took a position as librarian at Columbia University in New York, she followed him to Manhattan, then studied languages in Europe for the next two years. Willa Cather was also in Europe, and the two friends chummed around together. In 1902, Fisher entered Columbia, pursuing her doctorate in philology in order to teach. She graduated in 1904.

Dorothy began writing articles for The New York Times and, in the tradition of both parents, was becoming something of a nonconformist; she adamantly refused to wear corsets, proclaiming them implements of the Inquisition. She wrote stories and became a final reader for William Morrow's American Magazine; she also did some freelance editing. Along the way, she met John Fisher, then a law-school student. A handful of wild flowers cemented the relationship, and they were married on May 9, 1907. With saved earnings and a small house on a quarter-acre lot acquired as a wedding present, they located to Arlington, Vermont, determined to live simply and write. Dorothy became close friends with Sally Cleghorn , a writer living nearby. Wrote Cleghorn in her biography Three-score:

When I'd begun genuinely to know Dorothy I made the fundamental discovery that she really meant it. All those gracious welcoming ways, that lighted-up look when you came in, weren't forms of politeness at all. They were Vermontishly honest and real.… I saw her meet other people, welcome them, and when they had gone retain the same kind of look for them, as she told me about them in the same cordial voice. Then I saw that these were fast colors.… She felt that way.

Fisher signed with a New York agent, and her first novel Gunhild, one she had been working on for about a year, came out that October. The critics found it promising; it sold 600 copies and sunk out of sight. But her short stories of Vermonters, stories of simplicity and courage, were being scooped up by Munsey's, McClure's, Ladies' Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and American Magazine. Though cosmopolitan, she often wrote about a rural region. She had become the voice of the taciturn.

In May 1909, Fisher's first daughter Sally was born. The year 1912 saw the publication of The Squirrel Cage, a protest against conformity and materialism. With monies received, the Fishers took their second winter in Europe, baby Sally in tow. Before Fisher left, William Morrow had asked her to contact Marie Montessori while in Rome, regarding a chapter in a book Morrow intended to publish on the Montessori method. Fisher was bowled over by what she saw at the Casa di Bambini and made several visits. Montessori maintained that children should be given complete freedom to learn in their own time in their own way as long as they did not hurt or annoy others. Fisher, writes Yates, "had long been convinced that totalitarian authority was wrong, in teaching and governing, as it strangled the natural growth of the individual. Step by step these children were being led from self-control, through self-discipline, to self-government." Back home, Fisher wrote The Montessori Mother, one of the first books in English on the Montessori system of education. Her next book, Mothers and Children, challenged child-rearing theories of the time. Fisher began to lecture on progressive education. Once asked if she would spank a child who refused to obey, she replied, "How big is a house?" "Which house?" asked the questioner. "Well then, which child?" replied Fisher.

Fisher would write a great deal on education. Why Stop Learning?, published in 1927, would be one of the first popular works in the U.S. on adult education. Writes Yates:

The more she wrote, the more there was to say, and though she felt that writing on educational matters was distinctly worthwhile she was far more interested in the attempt to convey her ideas through fiction. She felt that one of her early observations was constantly being confirmed: fewer converts were made by straight exhortation than by apt parables. She knew that she could best express abstract truths in the form of human drama. Her love of liberty and fair play, her hatred for cruelty and the tyranny of caste, her contempt for the spirit of competition that carried one to the top by pushing another down, made their way through her writing to a widening and increasingly articulate circle of readers.

By 1913, most of the ancestral Canfield land had been willed to Dorothy or her brother. Some of the land was rented to farmers. To bring back the poorer land, the Fishers chose reforestation, with the help of neighbors, planting 10,000 white pines. That year, during Christmas week, their son James was born. In 1914, The Bent Twig, published under her maiden name Dorothy Canfield, met with success. She followed that with the children's book Understood Betsy, but Fisher was not taken seriously by critics.

In 1916, John joined the American Field Service and traveled to Paris to run an ambulance section during World War I; she and the family followed. There, Fisher established a Fund to Aid French Children, ran a Refugee Children's Home, worked on books for the blinded soldiers under the aegis of Winifred Holt , and grew homesick. The family endured the zeppelin raids over Paris, and young Sally survived a bout of typhoid fever. All this resulted in the publication Home First in France. The family returned to Arlington in May 1919.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher's writing was simple, honest, and direct. In 1920, she published The Brimming Cup, known as the obverse of Sinclair Lewis' Main Street because of her positive view of village life. The two books shared the bestseller list, and The Brimming Cup went through eight printings in its first year. Fisher was fascinated with human behavior. She combined this with her reformer's mentality, thus The Deepening Stream was about Quakers and against war.

On the eve of World War II, she published Seasoned Timber (1939), warning of the growing threat to freedom. She formed a group to welcome German and Austrian refugee children in Bennington County (soon expanded to include Danish, Chinese, etc.), cajoling the American publisher of Hitler's Mein Kampf to contribute the royalties to the project. Though there were those that protested using schools to aid foreigners, she launched a Children's Crusade in schools across the nation, collecting pennies for the cause, totaling $140,000 (an enormous sum in 1940). But Fisher had more in mind than the raising of money; she was bent on teaching children that the only way to keep the freedoms of America was to safeguard the freedoms of other nations. For her work, she was awarded the Ella Flagg Young Medal.

Fisher also served on the original prestigious committee selecting books for the Book-of-the-Month Club: it was at her urging that Pearl S. Buck 's The Good Earth was pulled out of nowhere; she also championed Life with Father and Native Son and wrote the introduction for Richard Wright's Black Boy. Along with Eleanor Roosevelt , Fisher was the only other white woman on the board of the largely black Howard University.

In February 1945, Fisher and her husband received word that their son, 31-year-old Captain James Fisher, had been killed in the Philippines when he led his Ranger battalion on a successful attack at a Japanese prison camp, freeing 500 American prisoners of war. "We are struggling with what strength we have to reconstruct our lives without Jimmy," she wrote a friend. "To the eye I am the same gray-haired, deaf writer as ever, bent over the desk, the weary old hand still driving the old pen." In 1953, she finished a long-cherished enterprise, Vermont Tradition: The Biography of an Outlook on Life. Soon after, in December, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, what she called the "Canfield" stroke, and was confined to bed. Though she recouped, Dorothy Canfield Fisher died five years later, on Sunday, November 9, 1958, of another stroke.


Washington, Ida H. Dorothy Canfield Fisher: A Biography. Shelburne, VT: New England Press, 1982.

Yates, Elizabeth. The Lady from Vermont: Dorothy Canfield Fisher's Life and World. Brattleboro, VT: Stephen Greene Press, 1958.

suggested reading:

Madigan, Mark J, ed. Keeping Fires Night and Day: Selected Letters of Dorothy Canfield Fisher. University of Missouri Press, 1993.

McAllister, Lois. Dorothy Canfield Fisher: A Critical Study. Ph.D. thesis, Case Western Reserve University, 1969.


Papers and manuscripts in the Wilbur Library at the University of Vermont.

related media:

The Homemaker was filmed.

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Fisher, Dorothy Canfield (1879–1958)

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