Famed Vermont author Dorothy Canfield Fisher's name will stay on a children's book award — at least for now.
The Vermont Board of Libraries met Tuesday and heard two and a half hours of debate about a request to rename the award. Critics behind the effort say Fisher was associated with the Vermont Eugenics Survey, and that she stereotyped its targets — including French Canadians and French Indians — in her writing.
But after several speakers at the meeting mounted a fierce defense of Fisher, the board delayed making a recommendation on whether to rename the award until its next meeting on October 10. State Librarian Scott Murphy will have the final say.
"I'm not trying to kick the can down the road, I'm trying to figure out a way to deal with this," board chair Bruce Post told Seven Days after the meeting in Berlin.*
Murphy, too, attended the gathering but made no comment during the discussion.
Afterwards, he said he needed more time to consider the issue. "It's too early to comment. I have to internalize all that information," he said of the "really good commentary" he heard at the meeting.
Writer, artist and plumber Tom Mulholland of Montpelier attended to defend Fisher. He sat at the same table as Essex Junction resident Judy Dow, a French-Indian educator who is leading the push to remove Fisher's name from the award.
Mulholland accused Dow of historical "vandalism" and said her characterization of Fisher as a eugenicist was based on innuendo and insinuation. "Unless there's absolute fact, she's innocent," Mulholland said.
Retired University of Vermont professor Helene Lang also defended Fisher in a lengthy presentation to the board, calling criticism of the author "very unfair and inadequately substantiated."
She added: "I've lost sleep over this."
Both Lang and Mulholland noted that several prominent Vermonters served with Fisher on the Vermont Commission on Country Life, which grew out of the Vermont Eugenics Survey directed by UVM professor Henry Perkins.
Fisher's participation on the commission does not mean she supported the eugenics survey work, her defenders said.
Dow disagreed on many of the points. She said that some of Fisher's characters were based on real people who were unfairly targeted in a eugenics survey report taken near Arlington. Lang objected, saying: "You have no proof."
Dow, though, said that the time has come to listen to those who have been oppressed and to consider changing the name on the award.
As Lang and Dow repeatedly engaged in sharp exchanges, Post eventually stepped in. "OK, hold it," he said at one point. "Please stop."
Although none of the board members took a public stance at the meeting, several thanked Dow for bringing up the issue, saying it was a worthy debate.
*Clarification, 9:12 p.m.: A previous version of this story misstated when Post spoke to Seven Days.