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Backstory: Most Pleasant Dressing-Down


Published December 27, 2017 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 27, 2017 at 8:27 p.m.

Dorothy Canfield Fisher as a young woman
  • Dorothy Canfield Fisher as a young woman

Helene Lang was unhappy with my story about the late writer Dorothy Canfield Fisher and wanted to tell me why — in person.

When I accepted her invitation to tea, she seemed pleased but surprised that I was willing to enter "hostile" territory. That is, plunk down in her living room at the Wake Robin retirement community and meet face-to-face with a critic.

No one likes a dressing-down, but it's important to listen. Especially since, in my work as a reporter, I have observed and bemoaned the tendency for people to silo themselves off from others who challenge their thinking.

I wasn't surprised that the Fisher story generated heat. It explored the late author's association with the Vermont eugenics movement and the ongoing push — still unresolved — by Fisher's critics to pressure the Vermont Department of Libraries to strip her name from a venerated children's book award program.

The story also asked if it were fair to judge icons of the past through today's lens.

I pondered these questions as I drove to Shelburne that summer day and knocked at Lang's door. She greeted me politely, as did her husband. Their townhouse was immaculate, and I was soon sipping fragrant tea from a china cup.

Lang is a polite and well-educated woman. The retired University of Vermont associate professor taught Fisher's books for years and knows her biography well. So well, in fact, that she plays Fisher in "living history" presentations. She does Agatha Christie and Beatrix Potter, too.

Lang gave me quite a lecture that day, as I recall. She held forth on Fisher's good works for an hour and pulled out stacks of old photos and news clippings about the Arlington-based author, who died in 1958.

Lang rejected the notion that Fisher had a strong connection to the eugenics movement; she denied that Fisher stereotyped French Canadians and Native Americans in her work.

She also thought my writing about the controversy had been unfair.

I disagreed with that assessment — politely, I hope. My teacup drained, and with new deadlines looming, it was time to get back to the office.

I wouldn't change much about how I wrote the story, and I feel confident that it was newsworthy. Lang, I suspect, didn't come away from the conversation with a new view, either.

But she certainly taught me things I didn't know about Fisher. And it was all very civil — a rarity these days.

Want to weigh in on Fisher's legacy? The library board will discuss the matter at a 10 a.m. meeting on January 9 at the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington.