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Dorothea Canfield Fisher (17 February 1879–9 November 1958) was a prolific author of children’s books, nonfiction works, and realistic fiction centered on the lives of middle-class individuals, quite often set in 20th century Vermont. Her numerous works of fiction “helped 20th century American Literature come of age”(Fadiman 1993, ix).

A staunch advocate of the Montessori philosophy of educating young children both at home and in the classroom, Canfield Fisher also was active in the Depression-era movement to promote continuing education for adults, and was the first woman to serve on the Vermont state board of education.
Canfield Fisher was born into the Lawrence, Kansas family of James Hulme Canfield, professor at the University of Kansas, and his wife Flavia, an artist. When “Dolly,” as her father called her, was nine years old, her mother decided she needed to study art in a French studio, so the two of them moved to Paris. Canfield Fisher attended a French school and learned the language quickly. While walking through her Paris neighborhood, she saw a statue that had a profound influence on her thinking. Under the statue was written, “After bread, the first need of the people is for education.” Canfield Fisher and her mother then moved to Spain where she learned Spanish.

When her father assumed the role of chancellor of the University of Nebraska, the family moved to Lincoln where Canfield Fisher spent her high school years. While there, she became friends with Willa Cather, who would later become a famous American author. The two women collaborated on a story for the University Magazine. This story was the only collaboration for Cather and the first publication for Canfield Fisher.

When Canfield Fisher’s father became President of Ohio State University, the family moved again. While in Columbus, Canfield Fisher became interested in the violin. She developed a passion for music and began to think it would become her life’s vocation. While waiting for a train to Vermont one summer, however, she began to ponder the difference between being a creative artist and a skilled violinist. She knew she always would love music, but she also knew that her hands were not large enough for perfection, and she was beginning to lose her hearing. She decided, without much emotion, that she should devote her energies toward something other than becoming a concert violinist.
She decided that she would follow in her father’s footsteps and make education her calling. Her knowledge of languages influenced her studies. She accepted her bachelor’s degree with a concentration on languages and literature from her father as his last official act at Ohio State University before the family moved to New York City, where he became the librarian at Columbia University.

For Canfield Fisher, the next few years represented a whirlwind of study. She studied at the University of Paris, summered in London, and worked on German at Hanover. After that, she began work at Columbia University on her doctoral degree in Romance languages while working as a secretary at the nearby Horace Mann School. In an age when many people argued that a woman didn’t need such an advanced degree, she completed her dissertation, Corneille and Racine in England (1904), and was awarded a Ph.D.

After marrying John Redwood Fisher, she moved into an old family farmhouse in Arlington, Vermont, and began to write and enjoy New England country life. She was a disciplined author and spent many hours writing and corresponding. The rather progressive couple, after having children, alternated responsibilities. When one was occupied with writing, the other one would take over the responsibilities of running the home and watching over the children.

Soon after the publication of Canfield Fisher’s second novel, Squirrel’s Cage (1912), which was considered to be her first successful novel, she and her family visited Europe. Publisher William Morrow, who was soon to publish a book by Maria Montessori, asked her if she would call on Montessori in Rome to discuss one of the book’s chapters. Canfield Fisher was fascinated by the Casa di Bambini, Montessori’s school, and visited it many times. Upon her return to the United States, Canfield Fisher was bombarded by questions from young mothers about the procedures she had seen. She decided to answer them in a book, A Montessori Mother (1912). Like most of what Canfield Fisher accomplished in life, this book arose out of a desire to fulfill a need that she saw. She became known as someone who could give the practical, more simplified explanation of Montessori’s work. She also wrote many articles in women’s magazines in which she sought to answer practical questions from mothers. Later, she collected these ideas into a book, Mothers and Children (1914).

To raise funds for improvements in the local school, Canfield Fisher wrote and produced a play. Again, she saw a need and found a concrete way in which her talents could be of service. When the war broke out in France, she and her husband knew their service was needed in France, and moved abroad to work with French troops. They helped operate ambulance missions and aid the injured. While in France, Canfield Fisher started a fund to aid French children, and founded a Braille press for blinded soldiers and a hospital for refugee children.
Canfield Fisher never stopped learning, studying, and writing. She believed that no adult should ever stop learning and growing. She campaigned fiercely for the continuation of adult education, and helped form the Adult Education Association. In her 1930 address in the Kappa Delta Pi lecture series, Learn or Perish, she appealed for the quality of individual minds as a basis for the quality of national thinking. She openly criticized teachers, professors, and administrators of public schools for not continuing to educate themselves. She shared the spotlight that day with John Dewey, who delivered his lecture, Sources of a Science of Education.

During the Second World War, Canfield Fisher worked for the successful establishment of the United Nations stating that the cause must be explained and championed to common people. Her son was a military surgeon in the Philippines during this war. Canfield Fisher and her husband sent letters to him and all of the hometown soldiers to keep them thinking positively and in touch with their homeland. In 1945, their son was killed while helping to free 500 American soldiers from a Japanese concentration camp. The Canfield Fishers, though devastated by his death, managed to use this tragedy for good and brought two Philipino surgeons, who had tried to save their son, to the United States for a year of study at Harvard Medical School.

For 25 years, Canfield Fisher served on the editorial board for the Book of the Month Club. She took this job quite seriously, as she struggled, month after month, to be fair to all of the authors. She considered each book in terms of how it might influence someone’s mind, and then spent hours defending her choices to disappointed authors and promoters. As one of the original and longest standing judges for the book club, Canfield Fisher had a profound influence on what Americans read.
Canfield Fisher continued throughout her life to write, publish, and prove to the world that continued education should be a part of life for thinking people. She wrote letters of encouragement to authors, to children, and to educators. She reveled in information received from friends, as well as news that challenged her way of thinking. Later in life, she was honored with the Vermont children’s book award, which is named for her. She also published two more books, Vermont Tradition (1953) and Memories of Arlington, Vermont (1957), along with several children’s stories. Eleanor Roosevelt, who had served on college boards with Canfield Fisher, named her one of the ten most influential women in the United States. Most of her collected writings are housed in the library at the University of Vermont

Contributed by Sheila Rogers Gloer, Baylor University

References

Fadiman, C. 1993. Foreword. In Keeping fires night and day: Selected letters of Dorothy Canfield Fisher, ed. M. J. Madigan, i–x. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press.

Fisher, D. C. 1912. A Montessori Mother. New York: Holt and Co.

Fisher, D. C. 1913. The Montessori manual for teachers and parents. Cambridge, Mass: Robert Bentley.

Washington, I. A. 1982. Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Shelburne, Vt.: New England Press.

Yates, E. 1958. Pebble in a pool: The widening circles of Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s life. New York: Dutton.

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