Fischer, John Sylvester, 1910-1978.

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Editor and writer; editor at Harper's, 1935-1967 (editor-in-chief, 1953-1967); editor for Harper? speech writer for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy; author of six books.

From the description of John Sylvester Fischer papers, 1907-1980 (inclusive). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 122370012

Editor and writer; editor at Harper's, 1935-1967 (editor-in-chief, 1953-1967); editor for Harper & Brothers, 1947-1953; speech writer for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy; author of six books.

From the description of John Sylvester Fischer papers, 1907-1980 (inclusive). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 702153805

Editor and writer; editor at Harper's, 1935-1967 (editor-in-chief, 1953-1967); editor for Harper & Brothers, 1947-1953; speech writer for Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy; author of six books.

John Sylvester Fischer, editor and writer, was born on April 27, 1910, in Texhoma, Oklahoma. His parents, John S. and Georgie ("Kokie") Caperton Fischer, had one other child, Leigh. Although the family lived in Boise, Idaho, Fischer's roots were truly in the high plains of the Southwest; in later years he would boast of his ability to string barbed wire. He graduated from high school in Amarillo, Texas.

Fischer began his writing and editing career on a succession of school papers. While attending the University of Oklahoma (1929-1932) he started as a reporter and then became editor of the Oklahoma Daily. During vacations he worked as a reporter for the Amarillo Globe-News (1929 and 1931) and for the Carlsbad (New Mexico) Current-Argus. After graduation in 1932, Fischer worked on the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman but resigned in September 1933, to accept a Rhodes Scholarship.

From 1933 to 1935 Fischer studied economics, politics, and philosophy at Oxford University. During this time he was employed as a correspondent for the United Press in England and Germany and became active in the university's Labour Club. While in England he met his future wife, Elizabeth Wilson, a Scotswoman, whom he married on January 11, 1936.

In August 1935, Fischer had begun work for the Resettlement Administration in Washington, D.C., but resigned in April 1936 for a job in the Washington Bureau of the Associated Press. From here he moved to the Farm Security Administration's Information Division, which he directed from September 1937, until January 1942, when he transferred to the Board of Economic Warfare. In July 1943, he traveled to India to become chief representative of the board and of the Foreign Economic Administration in New Delhi. His position put him in charge of economic intelligence and lend-lease. He returned from India in June 1944. Many of the people Fischer met and worked with during these years in and out of government service were to become life-long friends and valued professional colleagues.

Among the most significant of these friends was Cass Canfield, the president of Harper & Brothers, whom Fischer worked with at the Board of Economic Warfare. When Fischer returned from India in 1944, he allowed Canfield to see his strongly pro-British report on India which, he knew, ran counter to prevailing official opinions. Canfield rightly surmised that the report would get Fischer fired, but he also predicted that the report would be published in Harper's and that the editor of Harper's, Frederick Lewis Allen, would offer Fischer a job. Both guesses proved correct.

Fischer joined Harper's as an associate editor in late 1944. His articles which had first appeared in Harper's in 1935 were now published regularly. When Fischer interrupted his career at Harper's to work as an editor for Harper & Brothers book publishers (1947-1953), he continued his writing. He returned to the magazine in 1953 when he was named editor-in-chief, a post he held until he resigned in 1967. He remained a contributing editor until the time of his death and stepped in briefly in 1971 as acting editor-in-chief. In evaluating Fischer's tenure at Harper's, Lewis Lapham wrote that he had "made Harper's a magazine known as an instrument for rigorous social inquiry-publishing much of the best and most constructive political thought of his era."¹

Politically, Fischer was a liberal. He took an active part in the campaigns of Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy, writing speeches for both and, in 1952, campaigning with Stevenson. But as an editor he was open-minded. His own articles, which appeared primarily in his column "The Easy Chair," concentrated on a variety of topics dealing with current international and domestic problems, politics, economics, urban planning, and education. Of his own point of view he wrote of seeking Don Marquis' "Almost Perfect State": "...though I am no longer so hopeful as I once was of finding it in one lifetime. Now, as time gets short, I would settle for The Reasonably Decent Society."² His writing was characteristically well researched, witty, and full of sharp observations and clear thinking.

In addition to the articles for Harper's, Fischer was the author of six books. His first, Why They Behave Like Russians (published in Europe as The Scared Men in the Kremlin), drew on his experiences traveling in the Ukraine in 1946 as a reports officer with a United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration mission (UNRRA). His other books are Master Plan: U.S.A. (1951); The Stupidity Problem and Other Harassments (1964); Six in the Easy Chair (1973); Vital Signs, U.S.A. (1975); and the more personal From the High Plains (1978).

Fischer was a frequent visitor to college campuses. He was a fellow of Calhoun College and the Institute for Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. In 1957 he taught at the Salzburg Seminar in American Studies. Kenyon College, Bucknell University, and the University of Massachusetts awarded him honorary degrees. He was also a trustee of the Institute for International Education.

Fischer's other activities included membership on the 1966 President's National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty, the Board of Editors of the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, the Board of Trustees of the Brookings Institution, and the Council on Foreign Relations. After his retirement, Fischer moved to Guilford, Connecticut, where he took an active interest in preserving the character and beauty of that historic town.

Fischer died in New Haven, Connecticut on August 19, 1978. His wife and daughters Nicholas Hahn and Sarah Gleason survived him. During the memorial service in September, friends and colleagues praised his accomplishments, recalling his wit and common sense, his broad interests, and particularly the encouragement he gave to so many other writers.

¹"An Editor's Estate," Harper's Magazine, 1978 Nov.

²"Letter from Leete's Island," Harper's Magazine, 1969 Jan.

From the guide to the John Sylvester Fischer papers, 1907-1980, (Manuscripts and Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Fischer, John Sylvester, 1910-1978. John Sylvester Fischer papers, 1907-1980 (inclusive). Yale University Library
creatorOf Fischer, John Sylvester, 1910-1978. John Sylvester Fischer papers, 1907-1980 (inclusive). Yale University Library
creatorOf John Sylvester Fischer papers, 1907-1980 Yale University. Department of Manuscripts and Archives
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
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associatedWith Fischer, Elizabeth Wilson. person
associatedWith Fisher, M. F. K. (Mary Frances Kennedy), 1908- person
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Place Name Admin Code Country
Ukraine
United States
India
Saarland (Germany)
India
Ukraine
United States
United States
Germany
Germany
Ukraine
Germany
Saarland (Germany)
India
Subject
World War, 1939-1945
Plebiscite
Plebiscite--Saarland (Germany)
Literature--History and criticism
Journalism
Occupation
Authors
Journalists
Editors
Activity

Person

Birth 1910

Death 1978

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