DOROTHY-CANFIELD-FISHER

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#AmericanGuideWeek comes to the Green Mountain State: Vermont. Photographs are by Tara Wray, a photographer and filmmaker. She’s a native Kansan that’s put down roots in Vermont, a state she calls her home as well as her muse. Follow her on work Tumblr at Tara Wray Photography and find her portfolio site at tarawray.net.

A GUIDE-BOOK exists only, of course, for people who do not live in the region described. Presumably nobody who reads this book knows Vermonters. Are there, we wonder, as the volume goes to press, any general remarks about Vermont which might help visitors to understand, and hence better to enjoy their stay in our midst? It is only honest to say that a great many sensible Vermonters think generalizations of this kind all nonsense. “We’re just like any other Americans,” they say impatiently. “All this quaint old-time stuff is the bunk.” And perhaps it is. How can anybody tell? To know your own home country intimately enough to speak about its ways with authority, you must have lived there so continuously as not to have had time to learn — really learn — the ways of another region well enough to make a comparison. No law of physics is more immutable. So all I can do is to quote a few comments from observers of our ways…

My first commentator is my godfather. His life was laid out according to a geographical pattern very familiar to us here in Vermont. He was born in Morrisville, one of our finest old small towns. When he was small the family moved to Kansas. There he became, after education at the State University, a very successful corporation lawyer, who earned, I make the guess, every year of his life an income seven or eight times the salary of the Governor of Vermont. He had been moved away from Vermont when he was too young to remember it; he lived continuously in Kansas for all of a long and unusually successful life. But he never got over the feeling that he was in essence a Vermonter. I set down this brief account of him as a framework for the remark he often made. We did not altogether like it, and usually protested, but as I grow older I understand more of the truth behind his fanciful notion: 

“What ought to be done with the old State,” he would say meditatively, “is to turn it into a National Park of a new kind — keep it just as it is, with Vermonters managing just as they do — so the rest of the country could come in to see how their grandparents lived.”

Now let me put with that remark… another one, frequently made by a French friend of mine, who for many years spent her vacations (her work was in New York) in a small boarding-house in our Vermont village frequented by local people. “It’s so like France!” she often said relishingly. Americans to whom she made this remark always exclaimed wonderingly, “What do you mean?” and she explained:

“Well, when my fellow boarders, chatting about Arlington happenings, speak of somebody they always mention who he is, and by that they mean who his parents and perhaps his grandparents were, who his brothers and sisters are. ‘He’s Lottie Roberts’s son. Don’t you remember, she married Joel Lane’s youngest boy?’ That is, like the French people they instinctively and invariably think of the individual in the frame of his family, not isolated from his past. Of course newcomers and tramps, whose families they don’t know, are disconcerting to them, like silhouettes, only two-dimensional, not to be counted on for lack of knowledge of them. And that’s the way we French feel about strangers and new-comers. And then” — she spoke with Gallic seriousness on this next point — “Vermont is the only place in America where I ever hear thrift spoken of with respect.”

–DOROTHY CANFIELD FISHER in VERMONT: A GUIDE TO THE GREEN MOUNTAIN STATE (WPA, 1937)

The Home-Maker. Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Persephone Books, 2011 (first published 1924). Cover art “Crackers in Bed” — Norman Rockwell.

Both husband and wife are oppressed and frustrated by the roles they are expected to play. Evangeline Knapp is the perfect, compulsive housekeeper, while her husband, Lester, is a poet and a dreamer. Suddenly, through a nearly fatal accident, their roles are reversed: Lester is confined to home in a wheelchair and his wife must work to support the family.

If we would only give, just once, the same amount of reflection to what we want to get out of life that we give to the question of what to do with a two weeks’ vacation, we would be startled at our false standards and the aimless procession of our busy days.
—  Dorothy Canfield Fisher
If we would only give … just once … the same amount of reflection to what we want to get out of Life that we give to the question of what to do with two weeks’ vacation, we would be startled at our false standards and the aimless procession of our busy days.
—  Dorothy Canfield Fisher (American educational reformer, social activist, author, 1879-1958)

“Sex Education” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher from the Center for Fiction

Dan Chaon on “Sex Education” by Dorothy Canfield Fisher

Our Model Short Story series, in which we ask a prominent short story writer to recommend a classic, continues….

 I have long been interested in writers who have fallen into neglect. Dorothy Canfield Fisher is, unfortunately, among those whose work is seldom read these days, though she was quite famous in her time. The author of 35 books, some of them bestsellers, many of her stories appearing in Best American Short Stories and O. Henry anthologies, she was also a noted educational reformer and social activist who was once named among the ten most influential women in the United States by no less than Eleanor Roosevelt. Now, she is primarily known for the annual children’s book award that bears her name. Few of her books remain in print.

So it’s a pleasure to have a chance to introduce new readers to her wonderful short fiction. “Sex Education” is a beautiful and strange story about, among other things, the telling of stories. It has an unusual and compelling structure—the main character, Aunt Minnie, tells the same story three different times over a period of decades, and each time she tells the story it transforms in major ways, taking on radically different shadings and meanings, altering details. It’s a kind of Rashoman talein reverse, the same person remembers, then re-remembers, then remembers again. It suggests the elasticity of memory, as well as the ways that we might lie to ourselves about our own motivations, and it has challenging and complex things to say about what Aunt Minnie calls “this man-and-woman business.”

 I love the way the story compresses forty years of an ordinary woman’s life into a few pages, so simply and skillfully, and so heart-breakingly. I love the way Canfield Fisher uses unshowy, conversational language to reveal complex psychological depths. “There just aren’t any words to say something that’s so both-ways-at-once,” Aunt Minnie says. But Dorothy Canfield Fisher proves Aunt Minnie wrong.