Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A writer's raw materials

Raw Material, Dorothy Canfield

I don't know who is responsible for this rather odd book, but I lay it to the earlier generations of my family . . .  

In the rather odd first chapter of this book, published in 1923, Dorothy Canfield suggests that many of us from our early years are story-tellers, creating vivid narratives woven together out of the messiness of our daily lives.  We synthesize, we organize, we create order out of chaos.  We may never write our stories down, or even share them with anyone else, yet they are a part of us.  But there are also those who see the world only through other people's stories, through the prism of books they have read, art they have seen or lectures they have heard.  In her view, that second-hand sight is really a type of blindness.

At least I think that's what she is saying.  Anyway, her book is for the story-tellers:
[T]his is not a written book in the usual sense.  It is a book where nearly everything is left for the reader to do.  I have only set down for my own use, a score of instances out of human life, which have long served me as pegs on which to hang the meditations of many different moods  . . .  In this unrelated, unorganized bundle of facts, I give you just the sort of thing from which a novelist makes principal or secondary characters, or episodes in a novel.  I offer them to you for the novels you are writing in your own heads  . . .  I have only tried to loan you a little more to add to the raw material which life has brought you, out of which you are constructing your own attempt to understand.

I found that first chapter a little difficult to follow (let alone summarize).  I also started to wonder uneasily if I am one of the second-hand crowd, too caught up in books.  I thought, "If the whole book is like this, I won't get too far with it."  But the chapters that followed were a delight.  They consist of vignettes, reminiscences of people and places, episodes in her life or in the lives of family and friends.  Some are set in her childhood, others in adulthood.  Many of them take place around her home in Vermont, in the small town where generations of her family had lived. Others are set in France, during her times there as a student, and then later during the Great War, when she was doing relief work.

There is an interesting variety in the chapters.  I  could see connections to other books of hers that I have read, particularly the sections on France in World War I, which fit right in with Home Fires in France.  One tells the story of her friend Octavie Moreau, who in the third year of the war was sent to a prison camp in Germany, with 39 other women from their town, as a reprisal for something that supposedly happened somewhere else.  I have never read anything about German concentration camps in the First World War, nor about civilian deported to them.  Another chapter, "Scylla and Charybdis," is about little Cousin Maria Pearl Manley, an orphan moving back and forth between two branches of her family, happy in neither.  I wish she could have spent some time with the Putney family from Understood Betsy.  In the last chapter, "Almera Hawley Canfield," Canfield builds up a picture of the great-grandmother whom she never met, from the reminiscences of family members and old friends, which also show us something of the community in which she lived.  It's really beautifully done.  The Vermont sections made me think of Sarah Orne Jewett and her evocative stories of Maine. 

I have so many of her books still to read, and I will be looking for these connections, to see if she used her raw materials in later works.

I found my slightly battered and foxed 1923 edition at Kaboom Books here in Houston, and it was $8.50 well spent.  A previous owner, Ralph M. Pons, left his bookplate inside the front cover. He can't ever have read it, though: at least a quarter of the pages were unopened.  So for the first time in my life, I found myself nervously separating the edges of pages.  It was more difficult than I expected, and I was a bit clumsy at times, so the book is a little more battered than when I bought it.  I don't mind, I'm just happy to have it on my shelves.


  1. What a cool and unusual idea for a book! I'm adding it to my list -- I'm slowly working my way through everything Dorothy Canfield Fisher wrote. I just read Hillsboro People, and I'm sure there are many connections between that book and this one.

  2. This sounds like a wonderful bookish investment. I've only read The Home-Maker, but Dorothy Canfield is on my list of authors to be read once I'm done with my century of books. And this one is on my list of titles to be hunted down now.

  3. That sounds like a great find, I've only read one of her books before but it was good. I've never had to cut pages before but I have plenty of raggedy edged books to prove that it isn't as easy as it might seem.

  4. What a curious and interesting book this sounds! Like Jane, I've only read The Home-maker, but I do have a few other of her books on my shelves.

  5. elizabeth, I don't have Hillsboro People yet, and I'm trying to resist buying more til I read the three I have on the shelves. (That never lasts long.)

    Jane, she could fill in some years up to 1939, if you still have gaps. I hope you can find it - I don't see an e-book version, though several of hers are available.

    Katrina, I think there's a special knife for cutting pages. I tried different sharp edges but none of them was just right. I did think of you reading the stories set in France, since you introduced me to Home Fires.

    Simon, I remember you posted some pictures of your bookshelves, and I saw that we have a couple of her books in common - but I thought you had read them already!

  6. I'd be keen to find out more about the WW1 concentration camps - I assume they're different to the POW camps - for civilians rather than soldiers? Interesting!

  7. vicki, this camp she was writing about was a general prison camp - not a work camp, but there were POWs as well (Russian and Polish). I want to find out more about this too, it's the first I've heard of WWI civilians being interned (and women in camps with men, no less).

  8. Like Simon and Jane, I've only read The Home-Maker, but this sounds like an interesting book to read before continuing on with her other works. I'm sure it would shed an interesting light on her novels.

  9. JoAnn, The Home-Maker is such a favorite! It's a shame her other books can be hard to find (except the wonderful Understood Betsy). I hope Virago or Persephone will be inspired to re-print more of her work, or maybe they can be put into e-texts.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!