We have been having a real siege here, with John [her husband] in bed with a badly infected knee and a high temperature and us in quarantine with both children [daughter Sally and son Jimmy] whooping it up with chicken pox, and the thermometer at twenty below and me keeping fires night and day and tending to my sick-a-beds. Pretty strenuous materially, but not at all wearing morally as there was no anxiety about them, which is the only thing that ever bothers me in the care of the sick. John is up today pretty pale and peaked, Sally is up, pretty spotted and speckled, and I am back in my study to attack delayed work.It seems like a very appropriate title for this book, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1993. The editor, Mark J. Madigan, has chosen letters that focus on Dorothy Canfield Fisher's enormous output of work, both her fiction and the constant stream of non-fiction articles and reviews that she wrote. Once she became a member of the board of the Book of the Month Club, she wrote reviews every month for their newsletter (from which members chose their books). But she also kept the fire of her commitment to social justice issues burning throughout her life. There her focus was on challenging racism and anti-semitism in American society, stressing the need for education and life-long learning, and campaigning for greater opportunities for women. I have enjoyed the books of hers that I have read, very much. Reading her letters gave me a great admiration and liking for her, as a person - with of course the quirks that we all have.
I have to say that this is the most meticulously-edited volume of letters I have ever read. Mark Madigan included a section at the beginning, "Editorial Practice," where he explained how he chose the letters to include (189 of more than 2500 in DCF's papers). He also explained how he edited them (minimally, which was nice). There is a chronology of her life, an introduction to her life and work, and a section on "Notable Recipients" (who include Willa Cather, W.E.B. Du Bois, Robert Frost, Pearl Buck, Isak Dinesen and her brother Thomas, Richard Wright, and Christopher Morley). Eleanor Roosevelt was another correspondent, though she is represented here by only one letter. According to the editor, she enjoyed reading DCF's work and considered her one of the most influential women in America.
The letters cover the years 1900 to 1958 (the last written two months before she died). In selecting which to include, Dr. Madigan wrote, "[They] have been chosen according to their relevance to Fisher's career and development as a writer." He defined relevance "to include both direct discussion of literary topics and reflections of the personality, interests, background, and spirit which inform the author's approach to literature." Because he included the entire letters rather than excerpts (I wish all editors did), they contain personal and family information as well. There are several letters written from France in the First World War, which report on the war work DCF and her husband were doing (John driving an ambulance). Many of the letters discuss work that she had in progress, including most of her major novels. (I am very much looking forward now to reading The Deepening Stream, Her Son's Wife, Seasoned Timber and Bonfire.) DCF also wrote in detail about the Book of the Month Club, particularly about the process of selecting books. She answered letters from readers complaining about the selections, telling one woman who was concerned about the "bad morals" of books chosen that perhaps she should cancel her subscription if she was worried about her children reading them.
Dorothy Canfield Fisher challenged racial discrimination in American society throughout her adult life. In her own work, she pointed out the racism of Northern whites, and the denial of opportunities to blacks, working these themes into her New England stories. Despite her progressive outlook, however, her letters show that she wasn't completely free of racist attitudes, including the tendency to assign group characteristics to African Americans. In her mind all black Americans are musically talented, all are great story-tellers - or liars, as she remarked in one jarring letter. I was particularly troubled by a short series of letters to Richard Wright, whose memoir Black Boy was under consideration by the BOMC. He was apparently still editing it, because DCF suggested in two different letters that he include some allusion to white allies, working to uphold American ideals, who might have encouraged him in his struggles. This would in turn encourage those allies. She said more than once that he should only do so if he truly believed this, because otherwise "even a single word would be a dreadful travesty." I felt so uncomfortable reading these letters, wondering how much pressure Richard Wright felt not just from an older, established white author, but someone on a committee that could make his book a best-seller (it was chosen for the BOMC in March 1945). I should note though that DCF made frank, detailed suggestions about writing and editing to other authors in her letters, and received advice herself (without always agreeing).
I truly enjoyed learning more about DCF's life, both through the letters and the editorial framework. She wrote that "in the long run, most novels are a sort of autobiography I suppose -" but "imaginary autobiography." She drew elements from her own life, but she insisted that none of her characters were portraits of real people. I did find in the letters some common threads in the books I have read so far. Her parents' marriage was strained, with her artist mother traveling frequently to France, where she kept a studio in Paris. DCF often joined her there. Like many of her characters, she attended Columbia University, where she earned a Ph.D. in French literature. (She also received at least six honorary doctorates.) Her husband John was an alum as well, and the captain of the football team. I expect he provided a lot of the detail for the football-mad Neale's career (on the varsity team at Columbia) in Rough-Hewn. According to the editor he also acted as his wife's secretary and editor while she supported their family, in a reversal of traditional roles that suggests The Home-Maker and the shared work of the parents in The Bent Twig. And of course there is Vermont itself, the Eden from which her characters are sometimes exiled and to which they return in their happy endings.
I learned from the introduction that Willa Cather stipulated in her will that her letters may not be published nor quoted. I'm happy Jane Austen didn't think of that - or Dorothy Canfield Fisher either!
(Cather was a college classmate of DCF's older brother Jim, and the two women became close friends. But they did not speak to each other for 20 years, after Cather wrote a story about a mutual friend that DCF begged her not to publish, because the friend was sure to recognize herself in it.)