Great thoughts: Dorothy Canfield Fisher

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(Host) Commentator Edith Hunter says that Vermont writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher greatly influenced our ideas about women, children and education during the first half of the 20th century – especially the value of learning by doing.

(Hunter) Dorothy Canfield Fisher symbolized for many of my mother’s generation what a woman could achieve: women who lived before women’s suffrage, and then saw suffrage won. They were women who cared about all children, not just their own; who wanted better schools; better pay for teachers; better working conditions for labor; better relations between the races; and world peace.

In her classic of children’s literature, Understood Betsy, she wrote of Elizabeth Anne, a city child just arrived in rural Vermont. Elizabeth Anne was being introduced to butter making: she weighed out the salt needed on the scales, and was very much surprised to find that there really is such a thing as an ounce. She had never met it before outside the pages of her arithmetic book, and she didn’t know it lived anywhere else. In other words, the best way to learn anything, is through first-hand experience.

This, in storybook form, was the kind of message Dorothy Canfield Fisher tried to convey to parents and teachers for a generation. Women’s magazines were just becoming popular and her down to earth, common sense approach had wide appeal. She made her readers feel that she was talking, neighbor to neighbor.

Her father was an academic, her mother an artist; both had roots in Vermont. As a child she spent many summers in Arlington, with her father’s family. When she was nine she went abroad with her mother, the first of many such trips. These two strains – Vermont roots, and at-homeness in a world without borders – combined to make Dorothy Canfield Fisher the person she became.

She had met John Fisher at Columbia, and in 1907 they were married. They settled in Arlington, Vermont. In 1909 their daughter Sally was born, and on a trip to Europe that year, Dorothy visited Madame Montessori’s school in Rome. Her book, A Montessori Mother, was another success. Son James was born in 1913, and it was for him, and with him, she wrote her Made-to-Order Stories.

For 25 years she was on the selection committee of the Book-of-the Month Club. Appointment to national commissions, speaking engagements, service on state boards – somehow she managed all these while continuing to write. The annual Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award keeps her name alive in Vermont.

In Vermont Tradition, The Biography of an Outlook on Life, she had written: We learn and relearn, from our experience of life, that to try to force growth sooner than nature wills does not bring an earlier harvest, but destroys the ability ever to mature and bear fruit. This sound idea could only come from someone who had lived close to Vermont’s soil, watched seed time and harvest, and learned to respect nature’s timetable.

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont. VPR’s commentary series, “Great Thoughts of Vermont,” examines the big ideas that came out of a small state. Learn more about the Great Thoughts in this series.

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