Margolis: Fact and Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s fiction

Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Author Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

(Jon Margolis writes political columns for VTDigger.)

Dorothy Canfield Fisher (1879-1958), the best-selling author of 15 novels and five short story collections, was one of the most celebrated and admired Vermonters of the 20th century.

Some of her novels and stories were about children, and she was obviously writing those for young people. No wonder, then, that Vermont librarians call their best-kids-book-of-the-year prize the Dorothy Canfield Fisher (or just “the DCF”) award.

Fisher was also politically active, and her politics were decidedly left of center. Eleanor Roosevelt admired her. The daughter and granddaughter of fierce abolitionists, Fisher “devoted much of her professional life to combating intolerance, bigotry and authoritarianism,” in the words of a 1997 article in the Journal of the Vermont Historical Society by historian Hal Goldman. In 1943 she urged Gov. William Wills to try to persuade Vermont resorts to drop their policy of being “restricted,” the euphemism for “no Jews allowed.”

Now comes a request to the state librarian that he drop Fisher’s name from the annual award because she was a racist.

Specifically, in the view of Abenaki educator Judy Dow, of Essex Junction, Fisher stereotyped Abenaki and French Canadians in her fiction and was part of the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s that sought to sterilize those considered “degenerate” or “feeble-minded.”

The second of these allegations is complicated, not because there is anything complicated about Vermont’s eugenics initiative – it was a truly shameful episode – but because it is not clear that Fisher played any part in it, or even that she thought it was a good idea. Goldman, who is an adjunct professor of history and a provost’s teaching fellow at Ottawa’s Carleton University, said he found the evidence of “the ties between Fisher and the eugenics movement … very attenuated.”

That’s academic for weak.

But there is nothing complicated about the charge that Fisher’s novels and short stories display negative views of racial or ethnic minorities. That charge is nonsense.

Fiction is … fiction. Characters in fiction speak as those characters, not as their author. If a character in Fisher’s novel “Bonfire” describes another as “half-hound, half-hunter, all Injun,” that’s how that character at that time and in that place would talk. If in “Seasoned Timber” a bigoted headmaster scorns a student’s “awful Jewish mother,” well, that’s how bigoted Vermont headmasters talked back then.

Considering that starting in 1939 “a steady stream of Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany found refuge” with Fisher and her husband in Arlington (this from Ida H. Washington’s biography of Fisher, published by New England Press in 1982), the headmaster clearly was not reflecting the views of his creator.

The task of a fiction writer is to portray the world as it is, not as the writer would like it to be. Any effort to discern a writer’s opinions through the words of his or her fictional characters is worse than foolish; it misconstrues the purpose of literature. It is barbaric.

So was the Vermont eugenics movement, which ended up sterilizing an unknown number of people, disproportionately Abenaki or French Canadian. Patients consented to the operations, but often that consent was the only way they could be released from prison.

Fisher was not part of the eugenics operation. It is not certain that she supported it. The worst that can be said about her with any confidence is that it is not certain she did not support it.

Perhaps she was a bit of a snob. She wanted Vermont to attract “those who earn a living preferably by the trained use of their brains,” rather than those who “buy or sell material objects or handle money.”

Well, la di da, and no wonder some suspect she might have harbored bigoted thoughts. But there is no reason that an Abenaki, a French Canadian, a Hutu or an Eskimo can’t earn a living with the trained use of his or her brain, and no grounds for concluding that Fisher thought otherwise.

Removing Fisher’s name from the award would do little harm. She was hardly a giant of 20th century American literature a la Hemingway, Faulkner or her friend Willa Cather (and let’s not inquire too deeply about some of their ethnic prejudices). Though someone checked her most famous book, “Understood Betsy” out of Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library just two months ago, most of today’s teens and preteens don’t read her and know her name only because of the award.

But that doesn’t answer the question of whether changing the name of the award would do any good, beyond easing the sensitivities of those who care about it.

Needless to say, this “anti-Dorothy” flap has to be viewed in the context of other efforts to remove the names and symbols of people and causes once admired, now scorned.

Some of this has been beneficial. The Confederate States of America and its leaders and symbols should not be honored. Their secession was the greatest act of treason ever committed against the United States, and it was motivated (this is beyond debate because the traitors said so at the time) by a belief in slavery and white supremacy.

But not much about the past – including its flaws – is that clear-cut, and it might be wise to guard against the temptation to go out in search of new dragons to slay.

Especially dragons as unthreatening as Dorothy Canfield Fisher appears to be.

(Correction: A previous version of this column misstated Hal Goldman’s college affiliation.)

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Jon Margolis

About Jon

Jon Margolis is VTDigger's columnist. He is the author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, left the Chicago Tribune early in 1995 after 23 years as Washington correspondent, sports writer, correspondent-at-large and general columnist. Margolis spent most of his Tribune years in the Washington Bureau as the newspaper’s chief national political correspondent. In 1988, he was a one of the journalists asking questions of Senators Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle in their televised vice presidential debate. Before joining the Tribune in 1973, Margolis had been the Albany Bureau Chief for Newsday. He was the first reporter on the scene of the Attica prison rebellion in 1971, and spent the entire first night inside the prisoner-held “D” yard. Earlier, Margolis was a reporter for the Bergen Record in Hackensack, N.J.; the Miami Herald and the Concord Monitor (N.H.). In addition to The Last Innocent Year, published by William Morrow in 1999, he is the author of How To Fool Fish With Feathers: An Incompleat Guide to Fly Fishing (Simon and Schuster, 1991) and The Quotable Bob Dole — Witty, Wise and Otherwise, (Avon Books, 1995). He also wrote two chapters of Howard Dean: A citizens Guide to the Man Who Would be President (Steerforth, 2003). A native of New Jersey, Margolis graduated from Oberlin College in 1962. He served in the US Army.

Email: [email protected]

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  • Edward Letourneau

    The only people who should be talking about removing an author are those who are also award winning authors. — And they should collectively write about the people who think that removing awards, statues, etc. from and about people who did things 50 and 150 years ago in another time and place will somehow correct history. — In this context that is a euphemism for stupid.

  • Rich Lachapelle

    It is a crazy irony and hypocrisy that whenever this issue of
    (progressive) eugenics comes up with the intent of tarring and
    feathering a historic figure, that Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood and the patron saint of
    progressive feminism always escapes scrutiny. Whose births do you think she was trying to control anyhow?

  • Ed Connelly

    Objective historical facts have little influence when a very vocal, politically correct, perpetually indignant population believes what “everybody knows” are “universal truths”. This development seems to be a result of changing emphases away from teaching and moving toward “educating” and mass testing. Doing so resulted in discouraging the development of individuals capable of thought and analysis by
    diluting the content provided within the education system, ceasing teaching ”how to learn” through objective observation, research and analysis; and diminishing the acquisition of fundamental knowledge of history, geography, art, literature, economics,
    philosophy, psychology, etc. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge seems to be no longer a driving force; people today don’t bother to know stuff because they can always look it up – if they’re not in a dead spot.

    History occurred within its own time, place and culture. Blindly condemning the actions of people living at a different time and immersed in the societal habits and expectations of that time merely because those actions and attitudes would not be
    acceptable in one’s current culture is a symptom of both an unwillingness to accept objective reality and a fear of being wrong. We seem to be in a time of preferring the modification of history to the point of 1984-like erasure and replacement rather than
    understanding and learning from it.

    Meanwhile, the small-minded but seminal 1916 work by Madison Grant still lives in
    the “one-drop” rule. It is so woven into our societal norms that few recognize the assumption enough to question why it goes in only one direction. It would not be PC (so it is neither necessary nor desirable) to discuss the eugenics movement objectively as an aspect of history . Any attempt would be condemned as racist, fascist hate- speak.