When it was published in 1924, almost a century ago,“The Home-Maker,” a story of radical gender-role reversal by Dorothy Canfield Fisher, was one of the ten best-selling novels of the year. Lester Knapp is a miserably unhappy clerk at the local department store in his small town, hating his job, mumbling poetry to himself to get through every day of tedious and humiliating professional inadequacy. Meanwhile, his wife, Eva, spends her days frantically cleaning their house, brutally policing her children’s every move to teach them good manners, and serving up picture-perfect healthy meals, which her family have trouble eating and digesting. “What was her life?” she thinks, near the beginning of the novel. “A hateful round of housework, which, hurry as she might, was never done. How she loathed housework! The sight of a dishpan full of dishes made her feel like screaming out. And what else did she have? Loneliness; never-ending monotony; blank, grey days, one after another, full of drudgery.”
All three Knapp children suffer under this regime. The older two are constantly terrified of making their mother angry. The youngest, Stephen, an out-of-control five-year-old, is himself prone to volcanic rages. After an accident leaves Lester unable to work, Eva takes a job at the store, Lester becomes the homemaker of the title, and suddenly everyone is happy, parents and children. Eva is a brilliant saleswoman, and Lester loves cooking and spending time with his children. The various ailments that plague the members of the family disappear—Eva’s intractable eczema, her husband’s dyspepsia, their older son’s nausea and vomiting spells.
Canfield Fisher was, all through her career, passionately politically engaged, a Progressive reformer with strong and influential opinions that informed both her nonfiction and her fiction. She often tended toward the didactic; the plot of “The Home-Maker” is indeed as schematic as it sounds. But the characters are forceful and still alive on the page today, and the book is compulsively readable. It’s a complicated and passionate story about family life, about the inner lives of parents, and also of children, one of Canfield Fisher’s most important subjects. For much of her life, her political energies were trained on education—first, on the education of children and the need for school reform, and then, later in her life, on the importance of adult education. Along with education reform, she was also deeply involved in war relief during and after the First World War, including Braille publications for men who had been blinded in battle. In the course of her life, she supported prison reform; women’s issues, including contraception and representation on juries; and the struggle for civil rights for Black Americans. As one of the founding figures of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which began in 1926, she was responsible for choosing the books that every educated American was supposed to read, and she used that position to champion writing she believed in, notably including Richard Wright’s 1945 memoir, “Black Boy.” She wrote to Wright in 1944, “In the South, it is frankly violent brutality which bars the way to free Negro development. In the North it is hypocrisy.” When the book was published, she wrote the introductory note.
Canfield Fisher died on November 9, 1958, and eleven days later Eleanor Roosevelt devoted part of an installment of her syndicated six-day-a-week newspaper column, “My Day,” to the author’s achievements. Roosevelt had known Canfield Fisher “slightly,” she wrote, certainly not “intimately.” But she had read and reread the Progressive author’s books, both to herself and to others. “Mrs. Fisher was a woman of great spiritual perception, and for many years it has given me comfort if I found myself on the same side of a controversial question with her,” Roosevelt wrote. “We might discover ourselves to be unpopular at the moment, but in the end our position would probably prove to be the best one, I felt, if she believed in it.”
Canfield Fisher’s adult novels are mostly forgotten, and nowadays she is not always included on lists of distinguished American novelists (or women). Several years ago, she became the subject of some controversy in Vermont, over her alleged connections with the eugenics movement, and news articles chronicling the debate explained, sometimes rather laboriously, that Eleanor Roosevelt had once called her one of the ten most influential women in America. One Canfield Fisher book that has stayed in print, and can claim “classic” status, is her 1917 novel for children, “Understood Betsy,” which grew directly out of her contact with Maria Montessori, the Italian physician and educator who had opened her first Casa dei Bambini (Children’s House) in Rome, in 1907, and developed a philosophy of education based on independent work and engagement with educational materials. Canfield Fisher’s highly successful publication, in 1912, of “A Montessori Mother” was followed, a year later, by “The Montessori Manual,” and these books brought Montessori’s work to the U.S., majorly influencing American thinking about children’s education and the nature of childhood. (Canfield Fisher also published a novel for adults in 1915, “The Bent Twig,” which drew extensively on Montessori ideas about childhood and education.)
“A Montessori Mother” is “dedicated by permission to Maria Montessori,” whom Canfield Fisher had met in Rome, in 1911, and the book is presented as a response to the battery of questions that the writer had faced since her return: “Now, you’ve been to Rome; you’ve seen the Montessori schools. . . . Is it really so wonderful? Or is it just a fad? Is it true that the children are allowed to do exactly as they please? I should think it would spoil them beyond endurance. Do they really learn to read and write so young? And isn’t it very bad for them to stimulate them so unnaturally?” Canfield Fisher proceeds to a wondering and almost religious description of the Casa dei Bambini, marvelling that the twenty-five young children in the room were completely absorbed in their different tasks, responding rhapsodically to the teacher, who was, in the best Montessori tradition, not interfering with the children, not disciplining them, but allowing them to learn by doing: “It suddenly occurred to me, as I looked at that quiet, smiling Italian woman, that somehow my own life, for all its full happiness, must lack some element of orderliness, of discipline, of spiritual economy which alone could have put that look of calm certainty on her face.”
I first encountered Canfield Fisher through “Understood Betsy,” though, as a child, I did not understand that the book’s various morals about childhood and learning were tied to a specific educational philosophy. Betsy—Elizabeth Ann—is a thin, unhealthy, nervous, not to say neurotic, orphaned child of nine, who lives in a city with her elderly Great-Aunt Harriet and her nervous—not to say neurotic—“Aunt” Frances. Aunt Frances is bringing the child up lovingly and above all protectively, with careful attention to every aspect of her delicate psyche, and, as a result, the little girl is afraid of everything, from dogs and examinations in school to her own death. In the first chapter of the book, “Aunt Harriet Has a Cough,” the exigencies of what is presumably adult tuberculosis lead to Betsy’s being sent to live with her “Putney cousins,” in Vermont. There, she is matter-of-factly expected to help with chores and housework, and to figure things out on her own. In other words, her Vermont relatives Great-Uncle Henry, Great-Aunt Abigail, and Cousin Ann are natural-born Montessori teachers.
As an adult (and a physician), I now find the first chapter of the book interesting—Great-Aunt Harriet’s cough, the TB diagnosis, the immediate rupture of the little family group—but, as a child, I regarded that as mere setup, and I was much more struck by the second chapter, significantly titled “Betsy Holds the Reins.” In it, the elderly Uncle Henry picks up the frightened, displaced Betsy, lifts her up onto the high seat of his lumber wagon, and casually hands her the reins, asking her to drive a little: “You pull on the left-hand rein to make ’em go to the left and t’other way for t’other way.” Betsy is terrified—especially because she is shaky on left versus right—but she is also profoundly interested, perhaps for the first time in her life. She has been set a real-world problem, and she has to solve it.