Saturday, November 24, 2007

Reading Journal: "Seasoned Timber"

“...there are all kinds of ways to love...”
—Dorothy Canfield, Seasoned Timber

Dorothy Canfield’s Seasoned Timber was published in 1939, as Fascism was marching across Europe, drawing one nation after another into conflict with Hitler and the Third Reich. Like most of Canfield’s novels, Seasoned Timber is set in a small town in Vermont, and shaped by the author’s engagement with the ideals of progressive education. Dorothy Canfield (1879-1958) was the daughter of the second president of Ohio State University, held a Ph.D. in romance languages from Columbia, and was responsible for introducing the Montessori method of elementary education to the United States. Her most famous book, the children’s novel Understood Betsy (1917), can be read as a dramatization of Canfield’s ideas about progressive education. Seasoned Timber centers on the character of Timothy Coulton Hulme, the principal of a small and struggling village academy in the mountains of Vermont. Through Hulme (Hulme, significantly, was the middle name of Canfield’s father), Canfield again works out her ideas about education, in a manner that some readers may find slow and didactic, but which I found warm and refreshing.

T.C. Hulme, a widower, has for twenty years been the principal of Clifford Academy, living in the stone-built principal’s house with his eccentric Aunt Lavinia. The first half of the novel moves slowly and lyrically as T.C. finds himself falling in love with young Susan Barney, a new third grade teacher at the school. Meanwhile, he has to contend with various school crises—a tight budget, frozen pipes in the Domestic Science classroom, a bigoted trustee—while attempting to come to terms with middle age. But the biggest crisis comes when the bigoted trustee dies and leaves a million dollars to the Academy—on the condition that Jews be excluded. This sets up a conflict between T.C.’s nineteenth-century liberal ideals and the blunt force of fascism backed by the all-mighty dollar. It’s a novel about ideals—about whether they can be lived up to, about whether they can stand up against the stark realism of money and power, about how we idealize other people, and about the idealism of democratic education. In its introverted, old-fashioned, slow-moving way, it’s powerful and moving, perhaps because it’s so deeply seasoned with Canfield’s own tough idealism, her commitment to education, and her love of Vermont.

Canfield seems to have begun writing Seasoned Timber shortly after the publication of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), his satire of American fascism, also set in Vermont. Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street was the bestselling novel of the year 1921; Canfield’s The Brimming Cup was second on the bestseller list for that year (the eventual winner of the 1921 Pulitzer Prize, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, was fourth on the list, after a Zane Grey western). Canfield lived a more stable and settled life than Lewis, and had a more tolerant and optimistic view of small-town life, but they shared a concern over the danger of fascism and an eye for the gap between American values and American actions. Their fiction often explores that gap between exalted ideals and their imperfect working-out in ordinary life.

One of the important questions that Seasoned Timber asks is how we can have “oneness” in a pluralistic society. In 1939, the Nazis were attempting to create oneness through a genocidal homogenization of their society and culture; oneness, they believed, could only be achieved through racial purity. Canfield, of course, saw a different way: through the American ideals of liberty and justice for all; through a progressive, democratic education for every child; through learning cooperation rather than competition; through the often complicated and conflict-ridden experience of living in a community. Canfield loves the slow-moving, personal democracy of the Vermont town meeting. It’s slow, but speed is the dubious virtue of dictators like Hitler and Mussolini, not of a democratic system that takes time to hear the voices of all its citizens. One of T.C.’s favorite hobby horses in the cooperative movement—and I think he, and Canfield, would have been pleased with modern Vermont’s embrace of co-ops and the slow food movement. And with locavorism, too, since T.C. makes sure that the Academy's Domestic Science (home economics) program stresses making the most of the materials available, especially locally-grown ingredients. Things move so slowly in Vermont, Canfield says, that perhaps all this new-fangled capitalism will pass before Vermont catches up with it, and the old-fashioned values of cooperation and community will come around again. Vermont is retro and cutting edge.

For Canfield, liberalism, inclusiveness, sense of place, cooperation, and neighborliness—both cussed and caring—are the old-fashioned American values. Somehow, conservatism has become associated with the interests of big business and the unsustainable expansion of the economy. It’s become about grabbing what you can. It’s about Haliburton, not hallowed ideals. Dorothy Canfield’s conservatism is the conservatism of the Gettysburg Address, with its ideal of one nation for all—not one for the wealthy and powerful, and another for everyone else. She was a true progressive—someone who believed in making steady progress toward achieving the goals of freedom and community and equality for all that were America’s from the beginning.

I read Seasoned Timber in a 1939 first edition, published by Harcourt, Brace, and Company, that I picked up at Monkey See, Monkey Read. It’s also available in a paperback edition published by University of New England Press. Dorothy Canfield also wrote one of my favorite novels of all time, The Home-Maker, which is available is a fine paperback edition published by London’s Persephone Books.


Penny said...

I have heretofore known of Dorothy Canfield only though Understood Betsy, which is one of the great children's books that I never read as a child -- that and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald. I didn't discover either one until I had my own children.

By the way, we have finished Half Magic and are on to Magic by the Lake!

Anonymous said...

Funny you should mention it but I'm just about to start The Home-Maker, that is, as soon as I finish Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady, which at the moment is leaving me rather depressed in spirits.

Holly Cairns said...

Hi Rob,

Darn it! You'd make a great board member. :-0 I voted for you. My kids like you, too.

I think the world needs a good definition of "progressive" and so I started a blog

Want to comment or author? Send me an e-mail and I'll send a password and ID. To comment you don't need password and ID.

thanks :-) Holly Cairns

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .