Board of Libraries delays book award decision

Vermont Board of Libraries

The Vermont Board of Libraries discusses Dorothy Canfield Fisher at Tuesday’s meeting. Photo by Cherise Madigan/Bennington Banner

(This story is by Cherise Madigan of the Bennington Banner, in which it first appeared July 12, 2017.)

BERLIN — The Vermont Board of Libraries has delayed recommending whether to rename the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award after an impassioned debate on the author’s legacy Tuesday.

The board’s recommendation will ultimately factor into the final decision by State Librarian Scott Murphy.

“I think this is a good opportunity for us to open up this discussion,” said Murphy. “It’s important that Vermonters have their say.”

At a presentation to the Vermont Department of Libraries in April, artist and educator Judy Dow provided evidence of Fisher’s ties to Vermont’s eugenics movement and argued for the removal of Fisher’s name from the award. Dow returned to the Board of Libraries on Tuesday to defend her position, as retired educator Helen Lange presented her defense of the Arlington author.

“I decided it was very important for me to speak… on behalf of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, to whom it seems the ills of society — both racism and Nazism — have been laid at her feet,” said Lange. “I think it very unfair, and inadequately substantiated, so I am here to argue for a totally opposing point of view.”

Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Author Dorothy Canfield Fisher.

Lange went on to present evidence of Fisher’s character and importance as an author, utilizing testimony she had collected from various sources, biographies of the author, and Fisher’s own letters and written works including “Seasoned Timber” and “Vermont Tradition.” She then presented the origins of the book award itself.

“Vermont took notice of this very famous, internationally renowned, wonderful person who had done so much for the world of books, and decided to honor her,” said Lange. “I’m arguing for some discussion about reading carefully, separating fact from fiction, and seeing what the author was doing in character development.”

After Lange’s presentation, in which she heavily scrutinized the research and motivations of Dow, board Chair Bruce Post interjected in an attempt to temper the already heated debate.

“You can agree or disagree with Judy, but I’m glad that she spoke up. I’ve been disturbed by some comments I’ve seen in emails and op-ed pieces that say that people who are raising questions about Dorothy Canfield Fisher are lumping her in with Hitler,” said Post. “I see no evidence of that. … You can make a legitimate criticism of an author, and you can make a legitimate criticism of the eugenics movement that was prevalent without making it appear that the people you are criticizing were Nazis.”

Dow then directed her own questions to Lange, prior to presenting a statement on her position.

“Are you aware that those three books were based on characters taken directly from the Sandgate report?” said Dow, referring to a 1928 study by the Vermont Eugenics Survey featuring that town as an example of “rural degeneracy.” “It’s not simply fiction. When you take these actual people and make them part of the historical record in such a distorted way, to some people that’s not considered fiction.”

Though Lange had argued that Dow has inappropriately lifted characters from Fisher’s novel “Bonfire,” and “went the next step” to argue that those characters were based on real people, she said she had not read the Sandgate report. Dow said descendants of these individuals named had written to Murphy directly, though she did not present that correspondence.

“The time has come to hear the stories of those that were oppressed by the eugenics movement in Vermont. The time has come to make this a teachable moment,” said Dow. “Our children, and apparently many adults, deserve to know that Vermont’s history comes from many perspectives, not just the history recorded and retold by Anglos.”

After Dow’s response, Tom Mulholland, of Montpelier, presented his collected research and evidence in favor of Fisher. While he acknowledged Vermont’s dark history with eugenics, he argued that Fisher had no knowledge of the Vermont Commission on Country Life’s ties to the Vermont Eugenics Survey. Fisher was among the more than 70 individuals recruited to contribute to the commission’s 1931 publication, “Rural Vermont: A Program for the Future.”

“It would engender outrage if someone were to spray paint graffiti on the Ethan Allen statue in front of the Statehouse, so it is not surprising that Judy Dow’s act of vandalizing the memory of Dorothy Canfield Fisher with the charge of her being a eugenicist has outraged some Vermonters,” said Mulholland. “Take heed, there is not enough (evidence) to repudiate this accusation. It must be denounced.”

Mulholland argued that Dow was guilty of research bias and had repeatedly taken Fisher’s work out of context. He focused primarily on the character of Fisher, taken from letters and biographies, and emphasized the credentials and legacies of others who served with Fisher in the Vermont Commission on Country Life.

Children’s author Jessie Haas then presented quotations from Fisher’s writings, articulating Fisher’s dismay with anti-Semitism as well as her philosophy on writing fiction.

“I have tried to make a glass door through which the reader looks into the heart and mind of one and another of the men, or women, or children in the story, so that, once for all, he knows what sort of human being is there,” Fisher wrote in a letter to William Lyon Phelps. “From that time on, it has been my intention to leave the reader to interpret for himself the meaning of the actions of that character, without the traditional explanations and re-iterated indications from the author.”

With discussion extending well past the allotted 45 minutes, board members acknowledged that a recommendation would not be put forth immediately.

“I must confess I really knew little about (Fisher) and the eugenics movement in Vermont, so this has been a huge educational opportunity for me,” said board member Deborah Granquist, of Weston. “I’ve been talking to people about this a lot, so it’s actually been a very good way to raise awareness of a very difficult time in Vermont’s history.”

Board members agreed that a more systematic process would need to be developed before a decision was made, with Post suggesting the potential inclusion of the Vermont Humanities Council.

“Getting that feedback from people in Vermont is very important, and that takes time,” said Murphy. “It’s a sticky part of our history, so we need to be open and frank about it.”

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  • Julia Purdy

    If Dorothy Canfield Fisher did not know what she was getting involved with in the Vermont Commission on Country Life and its direct ties to the eugenics movement she was severely remiss. In 1931, its founder and executive was UVM Prof. Henry Farnham Perkins, inventor of UVM’s eugenics program. For a thorough discussion of Perkins, his program and how it fit into Vermont’s tourism and second-home promotions, do read “Breeding Better Vermonters” by Nancy Gallagher. Being a bright woman, Fisher had to have known. But many luminaries of the day believed that “scientific” breeding programs to improve human “stock” was the best thing since white sliced bread.

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