By Don Keelan
The Bennington Banner recently reported that the Vermont Board of Libraries postponed making a decision to rename the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award. The reason the board was meeting in the first place was due to allegations by educator Judy Dow that the 20th century Vermont icon, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was, in fact, a racist.
Space does not provide me with the opportunity to go into all of the details that Dow cites to defame the Arlington, Vermont, author.
Jon Margolis, a columnist for VTDigger, noted in his July 10 column that, “Specifically, in the view of Abenaki educator Judy Dow, of Essex Junction, Fisher stereotyped Abenaki and French Canadians in her fiction and was part of the eugenics movement of the 1920s and 1930s that sought to sterilize those considered ‘degenerate’ or ‘feeble-minded.’”
At the hearing, several experts on the history of Fisher strongly objected to what Dow had presented. The discussion had become so overheated between Fisher supporters and Dow that committee chair, Bruce Post, closed the hearing on possibly renaming the annual children’s book award until October.
Once again, those of us in southern Vermont must endure the defaming of an individual whose contributions continue to be an important part of our local history.
It was in late 2013 that author and New York Times art critic Deborah Solomon published her book, “American Mirror: The Life and Art of Norman Rockwell.” In her 500-page tome, Solomon insinuates that the nationally recognized 20th century illustrator could very well have been a sexual deviant. Why else would he have had so many young boys as models for his Post covers? she asks.
A number of Rockwell’s models from Arlington had come to his defense — namely, Chuck Marsh, Don Trachte, Jr., and James (Buddy) Edgerton. The Rockwell family called out nearly 100 errors in Solomon’s book, as did Wake Forest University professor Patrick Toner, writing for First Things, in December 2013.
And let us not forget (or maybe we should) the lambasting given to President Abraham Lincoln’s descendants by Charles Lachman in 2008. In his book, another 500-page effort, “The Last Lincolns: The Rise Fall of a Great American Family,” Lachman rips away at Lincoln’s son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren — all of whom at one time lived in Manchester, Vermont.
Lachman characterizes the Lincoln descendants as such: “The next generation lived variations of the wasteful life of the idle rich.” I gather that Lachman never interviewed the folks in Manchester who knew Mary (Peggy) Lincoln Beckwith, the president’s great granddaughter? Had he done so, perhaps he would not have come to his vitriolic conclusions.
Of course, Dow, Solomon, and Lachman have every right to state their opinions no matter how egregious, defaming and inaccurate they might be. What I disagree with is for the state library board to be wasting its time on Dow’s attempt to drag down the stellar reputation of Dorothy Canfield Fisher.
Vermont has tens of thousands of adults who can only read at an eighth grade level. I don’t pretend to imagine how difficult it must be for these folks to navigate the complexities that they face each day — life is only becoming more complex with the need to have a much higher level of reading and comprehensive skills.
The Vermont Board of Libraries is not the cause of this critical problem, but it can be the vehicle for the solution. It is here that the board should place its focus and not waste time, energy and emotions attempting to rewrite history because some author dug up an issue that in 21st century standards we might find offensive.
I hope that the State of Virginia Library Board is not looking to ban all books about Mount Vernon or Monticello.
Don Keelan writes a bi-weekly column and lives in Arlington, Vermont.