In a New Hampshire apartment during the winter of 1923, this typewritten notice was fastened squarely against a closed door:
Through the door could be heard furious clacking and carriage returns: the sound, in fact, of an 8-year-old girl writing her first novel.
In 1923 typewriters were hardly a child’s plaything, but to those following the family of critic and editor Wilson Follett, it was a grand educational experiment. He’d already written of his daughter Barbara in Harper’s, describing a girl who by the age of 3 was consumed with letters and words. “She was always seeing A’s in the gables of houses and H’s in football goalposts,” he recalled. One day she’d wandered into Wilson’s office and discovered his typewriter.
“Tell me a story about it,” she demanded.
This was Barbara’s way of asking for an explanation, and after he demonstrated the wondrous machine, she took to it fiercely. A typewriter, her parents realized, could unleash a torrential flow of thoughts from a gifted child who still lacked the coordination to write in pencil.
By the time she was 5, Barbara was being homeschooled by her mother, and writing a tale titled The Life of the Spinning Wheel, the Rocking-Horse, and the Rabbit. Her fascination with flowers and butterflies bloomed from her typewriter into wild and exuberant poems and fairy tales. By 1922, at the age of 7, she was versifying upon music:
When I go to orchestra rehearsals,
there are often several passages for the
Triangle and Tambourine
When they are together,
they sound like a big piece of metal
that has broken in thousandths
and is falling to the ground.
The warning notice on her door the following year, though, marked a new project: Young Barbara was attempting an entire novel. On some days the 8-year-old topped four thousand words. While her notes to her playmates and family overflowed with warmth, she was absolute in guarding her time to write.
As 1923 passed into another year and yet another, she wrote and rewrote her tale of a girl who ventures into the woods and vanishes into nature. Friends, when she needed them, could always be imagined. “I pretend,” she once explained, “that Beethoven, the two Strausses, Wagner, and the rest of the composers are still living, and they go skating with me.”
By 1926—many drafts, one baby sister, and one manuscript-destroying house fire later—her book had the title The House Without Windows. It was, she explained, the tale of Eepersip, “a child who ran away from loneliness, to find companions in the woods—animal friends.” The tale stretched to over forty thousand words.
“Daddy and I are correcting the manuscript,” Barbara reported, “putting in and taking out, to copy it, and get it all ready to go to the printer.”
It was to be a small vanity job, but her father had a suggestion. He’d been working for a while with Knopf in New York; what if he passed it along to them? When Knopf’s response arrived addressed to Barbara, she wrote to a friend what happened next:
She had just turned 12.
The HouseWithout Windows appeared in February 1927 to overwhelming praise. “A Mirror of the Child Mind,” announced a New York Times headline: “the most authentic and unalloyed document of a transient and hitherto unrecorded phase in plastic intelligence . . . [a] truly remarkable little book.” The newspaper featured Barbara on the front page of that day’s Photogravure Picture Section, showing her correcting a set of galley proofs.
The Saturday Review of Literature found the book “almost unbearably beautiful.” It is not hard to see why. The opening lines evoke a fairy-tale isolation: “In a little brown shingled cottage on one of the foothills of Mt. Varcrobis, there lived with her father and mother, Mr. and Mrs. Eigleen, a little girl named Eepersip. She was rather lonely.” Eepersip emerges from the forest dressed in garlands to try to lure other children away, including her own younger sister:
Unable to convince anyone to join her outdoors—in her “house without windows”—Eepersip eventually disappears altogether, transformed into a wood nymph. It is a haunting tale that merges archetypal myth with a childhood desire to run away.
Soon Barbara was being asked to review the latest A.A. Milne for the papers, and H.L. Mencken wrote to her parents that “you are bringing up the greatest critic we heard of in America.” Barbara’s next plan—“to become a pirate” and take to the sea for her new book—was announced in the Times.
Barbara was famous—but one critic was unimpressed.
“I can conceive of no greater handicap for the writer between the ages of 19 and 39,” thundered Anne Carroll Moore in the New York Herald Tribune, “than to have published a successful book between the age of 9 and 12.”
The creator of the Children’s Room at the New York Public Library and one of the most powerful critics of children’s literature in America, Moore had qualms not about Barbara’s writing—“I have only words of praise for the story itself. The House Without Windows is exquisite”—but that it was published at all. Barbara needed to be outside playing with children her own age, Moore declared—and to grow up unburdened by early fame.
But Barbara was having none of this, and none of Moore’s criticism.
“It is surely very rash to slam down into the mud a childhood and a system of living that you know nothing about,” she responded in a fiery letter.
To read her book “as if I were tyrannized over,” Barbara wrote, insulted her and her parents. “The book,” she insisted, “is an expression of joy—no more.”
Even as reviews rolled in, Barbara planned an odyssey she’d long dreamt of: going to sea as part of a ship’s crew. That she was 13 mattered little to her, and at length her parents found a lumber schooner to take her aboard as a passenger—one who insisted on doing chores.
Following her journey up to Nova Scotia, Barbara’s next book, The Voyage of the Norman D, was written at a white heat. The voyage took place in July, the final manuscript was in Knopf’s hands by November, and the book was in stores by March. It is the work of an adult in the making: not just a charming prodigy, but an artist playing for keeps.
Barbara sketches her first interview with the schooner’s captain with droll eloquence:
The book’s confidence stunned reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. Barbara was no longer a cute “child authoress”: She was an author. “Its ingeniousness is preserved, yet embellished, by a literary craftsmanship which would do credit to an experienced writer,” the Times Literary Supplement marveled from London. The Saturday Review featured her book alongside Dorothy Parker’s latest, and declared it “a fine, sustained, and vivid piece of writing.” And yet, mused the New York Times, “Miss Barbara Newhall Follett celebrated her 14th birthday just 12 days before the publication.”
But in that week before publication, Wilson Follett delivered devastating news. He’d recently turned 40, and—in a plot development he’d have struck down as painfully trite in any novel—he was leaving Barbara and her mother, Helen, for a younger woman.
“You say Helen needs me,” Barbara pleaded to her father, “and right you are, but I need you, too.” At the moment of her greatest triumph, Barbara was abandoned by the man who had fostered her ambitions.
Wilson left them with little money. At first, Helen tried to spin necessity into adventure: They would take their typewriters to sea, sail to Tahiti, and write books! But by September 1929, Barbara found herself stranded with family friends in Los Angeles. It was unbearable: She fled to San Francisco, hid in a hotel, and wrote poetry. But she’d been reported as a runaway, and when police burst into her room, they narrowly kept her from escaping through the window.
“I loathe Los Angeles,” she explained to reporters.
The story made national news; a Times headline reminded readers, “Case of Barbara Follett Recalls Feats of Chopin, Mozart, and Others.” Helen and Barbara were reunited in New York, but their finances were so dire that upon turning 16 in March 1930, Barbara had to find work. Her timing was awful, coming months after the Wall Street crash. After a course in shorthand and business typing—a “decidedly more tawdry use of [the typewriter’s] magic,” she mused—Barbara was getting up early every morning to ride the subway to a secretarial job.
“My dreams are going through their death flurries,” she wrote that June. “I thought they were all safely buried, but sometimes they stir in their grave, making my heartstrings twinge. I mean no particular dream, you understand, but the whole radiant flock of them together—with their rainbow wings, iridescent, bright, soaring, glorious, sublime. They are dying before the steel javelins and arrows of a world of Time and Money.”
Improbably, she kept writing: She took to waking up early before work to toil on a new book, Lost Island. Set around a New York couple who get shipwrecked on a deserted island, the book pivots on a dilemma: After they’re discovered, the woman doesn’t want to go back. Lost Island’s opening lines show a teenage author turned older and abraded by Manhattan:
By 1934 Barbara had written her third and fourth books—Lost Island, and a brisk travelogue on the Appalachian Trail called Travels Without a Donkey. But worn down by six years without the encouragement of a father or an editor, she finally stopped publishing. Instead, she found a kindred soul in an outdoorsman named Nickerson Rogers, and they eloped.
America’s next great novelist was now a teen bride without a high school degree, without work. Yet she was not unhappy—at first. She backpacked through Europe, and between secretarial jobs in New York and Boston, she discovered dance classes. She took some summers off to travel west for dance classes at Mills College, which she loved: It was a taste of the college life that she’d been denied.
But returning to her husband in Brookline, Massachusetts, in late 1939, she was shaken once again, worse even than by her father’s abandonment. “There is somebody else,” she wrote to a friend. “I had it coming to me, I know.” Her despair was so keen that she could only rest with the help of “sleeping stuff.” Soon her correspondence darkened ominously: “On the surface things are terribly, terribly calm, and wrong. . . . I still think there is a chance that the outcome will be a happy one, but I would have to think that anyway, in order to live; so you can draw any conclusions you like from that!”
The conclusion to be drawn was perhaps the worst one possible. On the evening of December 7, 1939, she and Nick quarreled, and by a friend’s account she left later that evening.
She never returned.
Nick waited two weeks to go to the police, and another four months to request a missing-persons bulletin: He claimed he was waiting for Barbara to return. Nobody in Boston’s morgue matched her, and the bulletin, issued on April 22, 1940, under her married name, went unnoticed by the press:
It wasn’t until 1966, when Helen coauthored a slim academic study on her daughter, that the press realized Barbara Newhall Follett was missing.
In the intervening years, Wilson Follett wrote a peculiar anonymous essay for The Atlantic—“To a Daughter, One Year Lost,” in May 1941—that expressed muted guilt and amazement: “Could Helen Hayes be lost for 10 days without a trace? Could Thomas Mann? Could Churchill? And now it is getting on toward 40 times 10 days.”
Helen, belatedly discovering how little Nickerson Rogers had looked for Barbara, spent 1952 urging police to seek someone now missing for 13 years. “There is always foul play to be considered,” she hinted to Brookline’s police chief. To Nickerson, she was blunter: “All of this silence on your part looks as if you had something to hide concerning Barbara’s disappearance. . . . You cannot believe that I shall sit idle during my last few years and not make whatever effort I can to find out whether Bar is alive or dead, whether, perhaps, she is in some institution suffering from amnesia or nervous breakdown.”
She never found her.
Extraordinary young talents are all the more dependent on the most ordinary sustenance. But instead of a home and a college education, Barbara Follett got author copies and yellowing newspaper clippings. This girl—who should have been America’s next great literary woman—was abandoned by the two men she trusted, and her fame was forgotten by a public that she never trusted in the first place. Her writings, out of print for many decades, exist today only in six archival boxes at Columbia University’s library. Taken together, they are the saddest reading in all of American literature.
Then again, her work always was about escape. Her mysterious disappearance echoes with the final words of The House Without Windows, when the lonely Eepersip finally vanishes forever into the woods.
“She would be invisible forever to all mortals, save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see,” Barbara wrote. “To these she is ever present, the spirit of Nature—a sprite of the meadow, a naiad of lakes, a nymph of the woods.”
Paul Collins teaches at Portland State University; his latest book is The Murder of the Century (Crown Books). Excerpted from Lapham’s Quarterly (Winter 2011), a magazine of history and ideas created by Lewis Lapham, a longtime editor of Harper’s. www.laphamsquarterly.org