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John Sylvester Fischer papers

Call Number: MS 850

Scope and Contents

Most of the John Fischer Papers were given to the Yale University Library by his wife, Elizabeth Wilson Fischer, between 1978 and 1981. These papers consist of the files in Fischer's possession at the time of his death and contain materials relating to friends, family, and subject interests rather than office files relating to his government work or business files from Harper's. (There is a large collection of Harper's files at the Library of Congress.) The papers also contain copies of Fischer's articles and working papers for his books. Mrs. Fischer also contributed letters of condolence and memorial tributes.

While Fischer was a fellow of the Institute for Social and Policy Studies at Yale he had an office on campus. The files from this office came into the possession of the Social Science Library which donated them to Manuscripts and Archives in August 1981, after the Fischer Papers had already been processed.

During his lifetime Fischer gave some of his personal papers to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. An inventory of Wisconsin's holdings is appended to this register as Appendix A. Refer to finding aid in repository for Appendix A. Consult Reference Archivist for assistance.

The papers are arranged in six series:


The bulk of the material donated by the Social Science Library is in Series VI.

GENERAL CORRESPONDENCE is the largest series in the papers. It spans Fischer's entire adult life and contains letters concerning all facets of Fischer's career and varied interests. Editing, writing, and journalism stand out prominently as the subjects of many letters. There are numerous exchanges with prospective Harper's contributors. The series also contains numerous letters from readers of Fischer's columns and books, many of which he took time to answer personally.

There is voluminous correspondence with Harper associates Bernard (and Avis) DeVoto, Cass Canfield, Sr., Frederick Lewis Allen, and John Cowles, Jr. The business and personal friendships Fischer developed with writers is exemplified in the correspondence with Peter Drucker and Joyce Cary. (Included with the Cary correspondence is a manuscript in draft. The correspondence with Cass Canfield, Sr., Alex Haley, Archibald MacLeish, and Kermit Roosevelt also contains drafts.) Fischer corresponded with Richard Neuberger, the journalist, before Neuberger became a U.S. senator, and contributed to his first senatorial campaign. Other prominent writers, editors, and publishers represented in the series include John Dickens Carr, Bruce Catton, Norman Cousins, Headley Donovan, Ralph Ellison, Malcom Foster, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Gardner, Brendan Gill, Walter Kerr, Irving Kristol, Henry Luce, Willie Morris, Reinhold Niebuhr, Joseph Pena, Milo Perkins, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Schlesinger, Barbara Tuchman, Edward Weeks, Eudora Welty, Rebecca West, Tom Wolfe, and C. Vann Woodward.

For Fischer's correspondence concerning his own writing see the files for the University of Illinois Press, publishers of Six in the Easy Chair, and for Corona Machmer, at Harper & Row, concerning Vital Signs, U.S.A. and From the High Plains. Letters from Marshall MacDuffie, chief of the UNRRA mission to the Ukraine, contain his numerous reasons for urging that Why They Behave Like Russians not be published.

Fischer's interest in liberal politics is evident in his earliest correspondence. While in England Fischer corresponded with John Cripps, a Labour Party activist, and maintained a correspondence with other members of the Cripps family through the 1960s. On returning to the United States in 1935, Fischer began receiving news of Texans attempting to take over the Young Democrats Club at the University of Texas; students and former students of Dr. Robert Montgomery were attempting to build a party called the Progressive Democrats of Texas and to run for the Texas legislature. Letters from Clay Cochran, an Amarillo friend, are full of details of political infighting and of the efforts to establish a paper to appeal to farmers and laborers. One of Montgomery's proteges was Maury Maverick, the Texas liberal whom Fischer would get to know better while working on the Stevenson campaign trail.

No letters in the series explain how Fischer became a speech writer and campaigner for Stevenson. Letters concerning the Stevenson campaign can be found in correspondence with Maverick, Ellen Davis, William Blair, Newton Minnow, and Willard Wirtz. Walter Prescott Webb sent some of his own suggestions for Stevenson's speeches. While there are only about five letters from Stevenson in the correspondence, several others are among the papers given to the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

The correspondence concerning Fischer's involvement with the Kennedy campaign is equally sparse. For the best information on this topic see the files for the Kennedy Writers Bureau and Theodore Sorenson. Other politicians with whom Fischer corresponded include Dean Acheson, Carl Albert, Chester Bowles, McGeorge Bundy, Frank Church, J. William Fulbright, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Jacob Javits, Lyndon Johnson, Joseph Montoya, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Edmund Muskie, Nelson Rockefeller, Dean Rusk, and Harry Truman.

Fischer's work in various government agencies can be traced in the folders of letters filed under the names of the agencies, e.g. "United States Government: Board of Economic Warfare." Although most of these letters are confined to business details about the terms of employment, several of Shannon McCune's chatty letters, while assigned to the office of the Foreign Economic Administration in Chunking, China, discuss the work of the administration and the members of the staff. The files for the National Educational Television and for the Public Broadcasting Laboratory contain minutes of meetings which concern the initial stages of public broadcasting. There is also a folder of correspondence concerning Fischer's work with the Appalachian Regional Commission.

There are a few folders of correspondence with longtime personal friends. See particularly the files for Margot Newlands, T. Andrew Nisenwaner and Charles Tant.

Interfiled in GENERAL CORRESPONDENCE are letters addressed to Mrs. Fischer by anyone other than Fischer or members of the family. Of interest are several moving, and often revealing, letters of condolence, particularly those from Cass Canfield, Harlan Cleveland, Peter Drucker, Joe Brandt, and T. Andrew Nisenwaner.

FAMILY CORRESPONDENCE includes many letters written by Fischer to his parents and his wife. These are particularly valuable for the insight they provide into Fischer's personal life and into the development of his views on politics, economics, and many other subjects. The series is arranged in chronological order.

There are a large number of letters during the early 1930s, the years Fischer was at the University of Oklahoma, and at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and in Germany and Spain. Especially interesting are the letters of 1934 Mar 9, 30; 1934 Apr 7; 1935 Mar 3; 1935 Jul 9, 21; in which Fischer discusses the policies of Roosevelt and the political and economic future of America, and the letters of 1933 Oct 22, 25; 1934 Jun 1; 1935 Aug 21; on the international situation. For Fischer's impressions of Germany see especially the letters of 1934 Jan 13, 20. Fischer was in Spain from June to October 1934 and from July to August 1935. His letter of 1934 Aug 4 is of special note. Letters from the period December 1934 to January 1935 detail Fischer's experiences covering the United Nations plebiscite in the Saar for the United Press.

In this series also are letters written by Fischer from India (July 1943 to June 1944), from the Ukraine in 1946, and on a campaign tour with Adlai Stevenson in September and October 1952. Less frequent letters in later years continue until the time of Fischer's death and offer glimpses of his relations with his family and of the personal side of his career as a noted editor and writer.

SUBJECT FILES contains a variety of materials such as clippings, office memoranda, and brochures organized under topical headings. Many of the subject files contain material collected by Fischer as background information for his "Easy Chair" columns and other writings; for example, the file "Colleges and universities" relates to his article "Survival U." Other material is grouped under headings reflecting Fischer's career and outside interests such as "United States Government: Farm Security Administration" and "President's National Committee on Rural Poverty." Some of these files contain copies of printed reports or brochures which Fischer probably helped produce.

WRITINGS includes drafts, printed copies, and working files for Fischer's articles, books, and speeches. The series is by no means a complete file of Fischer's publications and statements. For similar material the researcher should consult the inventory of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin (Appendix A) as well. Appended to this register as Appendix B is a partial list of articles by Fischer which appeared in Harper's, though not all of these are included in the papers. Refer to finding aid in repository for Appendices A & B. Consult Reference Archivist for assistance.

DIARIES AND OTHER MEMORABILIA contains an interesting set of journals kept by Fischer during his high school and college days and the first year of his stay in England (1933-1934). The series also includes travel journals kept during his New Delhi assignment (1943-1944) and the UNRRA mission to the Ukraine (1946). Most of the other memorabilia dates from high school and college years though the series does contain some juvenilia saved by his parents and some later photographs and biographical sketches.

YALE FILES contains those files kept by Fischer during his years as a visiting fellow in the Institute for Social and Policy Studies. While at Yale Fischer was researching innovations in government in metropolitan areas, rural poverty areas, and multi-state regions. Some of this research was used in teaching a seminar in political science; much of it came to be used in Fischer's own columns in Harper's and in his book Vital Signs, U.S.A.

The files, as now constituted, consist almost entirely of printed material organized by subject. At the beginning of the series and scattered through some files are notes made by Fischer and his research assistant Edie MacMullen; there is also one folder of student papers. Some subjects such as "Appalachia" appear in both Series III and VI, reflecting Fischer's continuing interest in these areas. Folder 56, "Urban Coalition," contains notes of an interview with John Gardner as well as copies of his speeches.

Newspaper clippings and other readily available serial publications, found in the original subject folders, have not been preserved. Correspondence has been added to Series I, GENERAL CORRESPONDENCE.


  • 1907-1980


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Existence and Location of Copies

Newspaper clippings and wire stories are available on microfilm (1,281 frames on 1 reel, 35mm.) from Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, at cost. Order no. HM120.

Additional information not yet available in the online version of the finding aid exists in the repository. Contact Manuscripts and Archives for assistance.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright is retained by Elizabeth Wilson Fischer for the unpublished works authored or otherwise produced by John Sylvester Fischer. After her lifetime, copyright passes to Yale University. Copyright status for other collection materials is unknown. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Elizabeth Wilson Fischer, 1978-1981.


Arranged in six series: I. General Correspondence. II. Family Correspondence. III. Subject Files. IV. Writings. V. Diaries and Other Memorabilia. VI. Yale Files.


25 Linear Feet (60 boxes, 1 folio)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


Family and general correspondence, subject files, writings, diaries and memorabilia. The general correspondence makes up nearly half the papers, documenting Fischer's professional career. As editor of Harper's Magazine (1935-1967) with time out as an editor of Harper & Brothers (1947-1953) he numbered many prominent writers among his correspondents. Notable are Bruce Catton, Norman Cousins, Ralph Ellison, Malcolm Foster, John Kenneth Galbraith, John Gardner, Brendan Gill, Walter Kerr, Irving Kristol, Henry Luce, Willie Morris, Reinhold Niebuhr, Milo Perkins, Bertrand Russell, Arthur Schlesinger, Barbara Tuchman, Eudora Welty, Rebecca West, Tom Wolfe and C. Vann Woodward. The correspondence also reflects his political activities, including his involvement in the presidential campaigns of Adlai Stevenson (as speechwriter) and John F. Kennedy. Political figures with whom Fischer corresponded include Maury Maverick, William Blair, Newton Minnow, Willard Wirtz, Dean Acheson, Carl Albert, Chester Bowles, McGeorge Bundy, Frank Church, J. William Fulbright, Barry Goldwater, Hubert Humphrey, Jacob Javits, Lyndon Johnson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Edmund Muskie, Nelson Rockefeller, Dean Rusk and Harry Truman. Family correspondence also reflects his political interests, and many of these letters discuss such events as Roosevelt's policies, and impressions of Germany and the Saar plebiscite where he was a reporter for the United Press in 1935.

Biographical / Historical

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.

Guide to the John Sylvester Fischer Papers
Under Revision
by Janet Elaine Gertz and Diane Kaplan
November 1981
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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