"I want that green, fairylike, woodsy, animal-filled, watery, luxuriant, butterfly-painted, moth-dotted, dragonfly-blotched, bird-filled, salamandrous, mossy, ferny, sunshiny, moonshiny, long-dayful, short-nightful land, on that fishy, froggy, tad-poley, shelly, lizard-filled lake—oh, no end of lovely things to say about that place, and I am mad to get there."
This is the complete Barbara Newhall Follett material written by the "Astralaviary" author "J. Kel" or jkel. It was deleted and found on archive.org. I did not write any of this. J. Kel is the author of the Shedding Grace series: A Prophet on the Water, A Nomad in the Wind, A Hero in the Fire and An Artist of the Earth. - Bluejay Young
Barbara Newhall Follett news and updates are at Farksolia.
April 22nd, 2007
There was a period in my life when I spent far too much time reading Fantasy/Science-Fiction. It was not the wisest thing to do. At the peak of my fascination with anything but the here and now, I was reading two to three novels a week, and who knows how many short stories. I think I can safely say it severely distorted my perceptions of life and how to cope with it. The goal of a young person's moral education should not be how to change the world — young people have enough ideas in that regard already — but how to survive it. And I just barely passed. I picked up wrong, and if not wrong, just plain bad ideas about everything, from science to history to thinking to psychology. What a mess of an intellectual legacy to bequeath a young person. What a lousy way to start things out! Yes, I was a "fan," to my unending embarrassment. To this day, whenever I encounter a "fan," I want to put my hand on my wallet and run (in no particular order). I see aspects of myself, parts of me that I may never lose, and I fear the worst.
But why dwell on it? That period of my life is over and I am gradually coming to grips with it. Acceptance is the order of the day. I am paying my debt. Nowadays, I am down to reading perhaps one F/SF novel a year, typically a re-read at that, and am cold turkey on short stories — unless it's part of doing some literary-type research. You know how that goes. Yes, I am the better for my late blooming maturity. Nevertheless, while it is too late to undo all the damage, there is also no reason I cannot go with what I have "learned," in a negative sense of course, to see where it leads. It wasn't all wasted . . .
And indeed, F/SF will be one of the tools, if you will, that I will be using to analyze and understand the life and work of writer Barbara Newhall Follett (1914 - 1939). It also serves as an inspiration to do so, which I will explain shortly. In brief, I am re-opening the case, in a manner of speaking though I do so with some reluctance. The goal being both to re-examine and to assist in the recovery of her legacy. The means to preserve it on-line are at hand. I hope, and it may not be too late, that what will follow over the next several weeks will inspire others to contribute. At some point I might submit a formal biographical entry to some on-line agency, but nothing would delight me more if others were to beat me to it.
* * *
One of the short stories I read during my bad F/Sf time, and I recall it only vaguely (the author and title are both lost to memory), concerned a man telling a psychiatrist about an affair he had had with a strange woman. Though she was highly intelligent and physically mature, there was an innocence about her, a child-like quality that always came through when he was with her. She was also pretty darn mysterious. She would come and go at will in his life, like some 4-dimensional being passing through our 3-dimensional space. And having done so, she was impossible to trace. Think of a pet watching the comings and goings of its owner and trying to make sense of it in "pet" terms and you get the idea.
Then one day she disappeared.
As the character was telling his tale of this relationship, it became increasingly clear to him and the reader that this woman was in fact a "child" — of an extremely advanced "life-form." I guess that is the correct way to put it. She was human in appearance, to be sure, but her "adult" form (i.e. as the narrator viewed her) was only a transitory phase — soon she would pass to something much more advanced. Her appearances and disappearances were simply the times when she could come "out to play" and the times she would have to go "home" — wherever and whatever home might possibly be. At the end, the reader is left to wonder, among other things: were her feelings for him genuine? Probably, but simply in the manner of a school-girl crush, or of a child for her pet. She was in this world, but not of it. A feeling that, no doubt, resonates with many F/SF fans.
[I have to note that sensitively as the story was told, it probably could not be published today. Way too much psychological peril in our times, when an adult observed in the presence of child in any context, gets people to thinking the worse.]
At the time, I was astute enough to understand that there was a "truth" to the fascinating story: we do on occasion meet people whom we feel hopelessly outclassed by, but foolish us, we become involved with nonetheless. The allure of the mysterious is irresistible. Along with that of the beautiful, it is never to be denied. It is understood, of course, that such relationships cannot last, that the object of awe and worship will soon enough move on. Maybe they will remember us, or more likely not, but that is all there is to it.
[I wrote about two such people in my lamented novel and dedicated it to them, as readers of this blog no doubt know. Those relationships followed the usual Oh Swell! Oh Hell! Oh Well progression. But they are still part of me.]
Obviously, this short story had quite an impact on me, or as I think of it, left a lingering emotional residue, one that remained long after the story details had dissipated. That was more than enough to prime me for what followed Not too many years later, I was to encounter a true-life tale spiritually similar that was to affect my life deeply.
I still recall the day I encountered it. I had recently moved to a new city and I was going to the library to see what it had to offer (I led a wild life in those days). I had just entered the building and I was looking around when in the corner of my eye saw a blue and white book in the bright sunlight. It was larger and narrower than the books around it and out of idle curiosity, I picked it up and began thumbing through it. It was Harold McCurdy's (co-written with Barbara's mother, Helen Thomas Follett) psychological study, Barbara: the Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Genius. At that moment and of course I had no idea at the time how far-ranging the affect would be, my life was changed. Subtly at first, then gradually to such a degree that I have only recently had to courage to investigate and understand what it meant, I was nudged along a very different path from what I had intended.
I refer to the book as my "sacred book," the only one in my library so designated.
There are in a sense two "Barbaras." One is the tragic and all too human being who vanished in the early evening of Thursday, December 7th, 1939 — three months shy of her 26th birthday, the beginning of mature adulthood. Then there is Barbara the enigma, whose life as chronicled by McCurdy shows her as a character in her own legend and who stunning disappearance is almost too perfect an end. For someone so gifted, with so much promise, how could it have been any other way?
I urge you to read the book, but be warned there is much it leaves out. For reasons of privacy, McCurdy/Follett shrouded the story so that many crucial details are obscured. Names are reduced to single initials to protect the innocent, obvious questions are avoided. This is understandable — at the time — but the unfortunate consequence has been that the legend was allowed to completely overshadow Barbara the human being and writer. I believe it is time that changed. Now, some 40 years after the publication of the book, almost everyone who had first hand knowledge of the events has died — though it is possible that her sister Sabra (b. 1923), who was never named in the book, may still be alive. If so, she would be the last to have first hand memories of the events. And if she is still alive, then she may well be the keeper of her sister's legacy. [Sabra Follett Meservey, the first woman to be admitted to Princeton as a grad student in 1961, died in 1994. - Bluejay]
So I tread cautiously. These posts are being written as an appeal to preserve Barbara's literary legacy and the memory of this extraordinary if brief life. There may also be private memoirs that also may shed light on what happened. One can only hope that it is not too late for Barbara to be rescued from the legend and with her two books, unpublished novel, poetry, and extraordinary letters might yet find a place in the history of great American writers.
So, dear reader, why am I doing this? This is not my story. I have no connection with the family in any way. As a writer, I am a complete flop, which admittedly does give me a certain advantage, a freedom that an established, successful writer would lack. I have asked myself that question, in one form or another, many times over the past few months. Part of the reason is that I no longer want her story to be a secret part of myself. If it forever cements my reputation as a "nancy-boy," to be so touched by this sad tale of a lost child-genius, then so be it. At least the story will no longer have a subversive effect on me. It's true, I did weep for her once, in circumstances never to be revealed. It took me a long time to understand why. Now I do. So in writing this, it is as much an end as a beginning of my new "relationship" with her.
Over the years, I have lent the book Barbara to a few people I have known to get their reaction to the story. The reactions have, unfortunately, followed a simple pattern: the woman who hated her mother, said it was the mother's fault. The woman who felt herself utterly different, thought Barbara's problem was that she was too different. So it went. I think I can say that this story is something more than an object lesson for the movie of the week. Properly understood, it transcends itself and in so doing asks of us the fundamental of questions about our humanity. McCurdy clearly understood this, but few since have.
So does the story serve as a warning? Her own mother raised that possibility and while I cannot deny it, such a social advisory seems terribly weak. Barbara had a great impact on all those around her, her vitality and intelligence seemingly unstoppable, her sheer joy of living could not be contained. I'm sure she would reject the "object lesson" notion out of hand. Her spirit is what she should be remembered for, not the "there for the grace of . . ." rubbish. If you came under her spell, either directly, or second hand (through knowing someone who had, like McCurdy), or third-hand as with myself, you should count yourself among the blessed. And the quick answer is to the question of why I am doing this is as follows: to the extent we can respond to our humanity and the humanity in others through her story, we are the blessed and should continue to feel so for the brief time we are permitted life. Thank you, Barbara.
April 29th, 2007
What do we mean by a tragedy? In its traditional Greek sense, the word means a "fatal flaw leading inexorably to disaster." I certainly do not mean the term in the modern media sense of a grim or unpleasant conclusion to an otherwise mundane series of events (plane crashes, third-world bus accidents, and the like). Yet, even the traditional sense, if you will, lacks precision. We are all genetically coded to die, which certainly sounds like a disaster to me, so does that imply we are all "tragic" figures? I suppose such an argument could be made, and in fairness I prefer it to that of the notion of a grindingly fatal "character" flaw which forever haunts classical drama. What, after all, does a "character" flaw mean? What does it entail and imply? From whence did it come and why hasn't evolution gotten rid of it? And why should it lead anywhere, other than a refusal to get out of bed in the morning?
What I am indicating here is something more subtle: the idea of a combination of factors that once set in place, and once they collide with the subject's life, lead to decisions that result in one of two conclusions — either the abandonment of prior hopes, plans, dreams and moving to a different, if not necessarily superior, set. (I regret I don't have a pithy way to put that). Or the destruction of the self, which may mean physical death, but more likely something on the order of drugs, religion, or daytime television. Neither prospect is appealing, of course, but I am merely trying to state the rules, not circumvent them.
[Hence my repeated insistence on the need to win the battle against oneself, if there is to be any hope for a mature happiness.]
In that admittedly convoluted sense of tragedy, Barbara's life was indeed tragic and she is a tragic figure of the first rank. All the more so because she was one of those people who seemed to be capable of achieving anything, not in the manner of a bank's lame inspirational advertising or a high-school guidance counselor's tired cliches, but in a completely real sense: whatever the subject, writing, editing, journalism (a field we know attracts only the finest minds), sailing, marine engineering, dance . . . she could excel in it. All evidence suggests she could rapidly master any subject and go with it as far as she desired. This is not a potential that most of us are cursed with.
[Her life at times reminds me of that of Evariste Galois, the incredibly brilliant mathematician who managed an even livelier and speedier finish to his genius via a duel at the ripe age of 21].
And yet, for all her abilities and character strength (everyone agreed Barbara was one heck of a strong personality who for most of her life got her way and did so without fits or tantrums), there was also a sense of a profound hesitancy about her. A reserve that held her back from going too deeply into any one field, lest she risk losing her most precious value, which I hypothesize to be freedom.
I think this might account for her love of dancing and why she returned to it as strongly as she did near the approaching end of her life (by her early twenties, could she in some sense have known the danger she was in?). As was noted in McCurdy's book, the girl-child heroine of The House Without Windows disappears into her dance at the end of the novel, abandoning everything on earth, from her family to her beloved animal friends, to transcend her life and become the freest of free spirits. Dance was arguably Barbara's highest personal expression of her desire for freedom (by her late teens it was clear fiction writing was of rapidly decreasing interest to her). Dancing was something that no other endeavor could give her — with the possible exception of climbing and embracing the rigging of a schooner, a distinction perhaps without a difference.
I once tried to calculate her IQ, having come across a list of the (estimated) IQs of some famous people, ranging from Leonard da Vinci (~ 220) to that lame-o Einstein bringing up the rear with a weak ~160. Of course, it matters greatly what you do with the intelligence you have, but from her grasp of concepts to their physical implementation (as process she describes herself in her second book, The Voyage of the Norman D.), I estimate it at 175 +/- 10%. Since all these estimates are just that, which possibly even greater uncertainties in some cases, who can say what the actual figure was? I once toyed with the idea, since her life seemed to be operating on triple time (i.e. running through 75 years in a mere 25), that her IQ was on the order of ~300, but that is not credible. It is nevertheless certain that Barbara was up there. A genius indeed.
So the first key to the tragedy is the conflict between her intelligence and her primary value: freedom. With a more understanding/supportive husband (the 25 year-old man she married at 18 does come across as a bit of a stiff, but more on him later), she might well have worked that one out. By definition, she was smart enough to have done so. But the second key was far more insidious and undermined her to such an extent that it likely sealed her fate: her extreme emotional repression. Though my fondest image of her is when she was 15, at the top of the rigging of the schooner Vigilant (watched by the no doubt awestruck eyes of her first love) singing "and a star to steer her by," from the well-known John Masefield poem, it is in fact an illusion. Barbara had repressed a vast subconscious reservoir of emotions, and by the time the dam broke in her late teens, it was probably too late. Not to regain control, that would be missing the point of what I am trying to say, but to be able to understand and channel the forces churning within her. No one knew that at the time, of course, least of all Barbara herself. But it is plain from the record of her life that from age 18, for the first time she was starting to make serious mistakes, one after another, all leading to disaster.
In this series, I plan to trace her intellectual development which, as in the case of most artists, is difficult to separate from her life. Even more so, in fact. I want to understand how it all lead to that final early evening of December 7, 1939, when she left her apartment and vanished with $30 in her pocket (about ~$500 in 2007 terms). Given all that was happening to her, something like this end was indeed "inexorable," but the outcome need not have been fatal. We are not talking pre-destination here. What we are seeking to understand is what led up to the final result of the tragedy, i.e. the miserable conclusion to an unfulfilled life (here using the standard media sense), as much as the result itself.
What qualifies me to do this? Nothing, but I have studied her life for a long time and have experienced a lot since I first encountered her story. I think, therefore, I can bring a reasonably mature perspective and perhaps even shed some light on her fate – at the very least I can ignore what constrained McCurdy, which is not to deny his vastly superior knowledge when it came to the human personality. I am willing to make the effort which I hope counts for something. I don't have to be accommodating to the living, though I intend to remain sensitive to the deceased. To be blunt, I can go places McCurdy/Follett would not. And I do so for a purpose McCurdy and perhaps even Helen Follett could not have foreseen — to inspired others to rescue Barbara's literary legacy as we approach the centennial of her birth, March 4, 1914.
May 6, 2007
Filed under: Blogs -- jkel @ 8:04 am
Into the Central Fire
She was born in late-winter 1914 of an upper-middle class family, her mother a school-teacher mother and her father an editor (Wilson Follett would in fact go on to a distinguished career as one of America's great editors and literary critics). She was home schooled in English, writing and grammar [which you should study along with spelling] primarily. Music, dance, which particularly appealed to her, and the natural sciences (like many a budding genius, she compiled detailed lists and catalogs of what she had observed) were also part of the mix. Curiously, she appears not to have been taught drawing nor mathematics beyond the basics (she would pick up the latter, i.e. the elements of spherical trigonometry, in her teens to learn navigation). Either she had no aptitude, which seems highly unlikely, or simply no interest. In any event, by age four she had mastered the typewriter. By age eight, after four years of experimentation and one can safely presume, hard work, she had mastered the language.
And, I mention this because some people have concerns about the effects of home schooling. While Barbara spent most of her time with adults, she was hardly denied contact with other children and enjoyed the time she spent with them. It was a glorious and exciting beginning that anyone would have envied. Her family life was comfortable and secure. As she grew, everyone she encountered treated her with great affection and respect. She was deeply loved by both parents and her extended family. All found her as charming as she was impressive. For anyone observing her at the time, her life seemed to hold enormous promise up to the point of certainty.
It was also the last year of the Belle Epoch. For like so much of the world at that time, it was not so much an illusion, if an astonishingly beautiful one, but built upon one. Everyone agreed that a corner in history had been turned and that henceforth civilization would only continue to advance. Hoards of intellectuals were already making plans towards that end, to improve steadily to perfection itself, with socialism leading the way. Was it perhaps too beautiful to last, a thought that is malformed at best I admit (but also unavoidable)?
One can only wonder. Recall the saying: those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first drive mad. But that statement begs the question -- why would the gods want to destroy something so beautiful, the most advanced civilization in history? By being too beautiful, too promising, the cynic in me replies -- and thereby far too threatening to their pretensions. Above all else, the gods cherish ugliness and death. In the early months of 1914, it was all heading for destruction. The gods were about to get their wish.
There is a curious fact about Barbara's life that starting at age four, her life moves along in four-year periods (more on that in due course). Suffice it to say, that the period from age four to eight was one of intense literary experimentation for her, short stories for the most part, but also some more ambitious attempts (no need to go into them here, the details can be found in Barbara). These experiments were successful -- they greatly increased her confidence as a writer. So much so that by age eight, she was ready for her first major writing project, a novel she titled The House Without Windows (henceforth THWW).
THWW is an amazing story. It can be read, in retrospect, as a life-script, and the possibility is strongly raised in Barbara. It is one that is hard to resist (Note: McCurdy/Follett do not use the term, though I think they would have agreed with it.) But it can also be seen as one of those rare glimpses into the central fire of creativity, so effortless for the young, but which few can tap into. THWW is the story of a young girl's relentless quest for absolute freedom. She cannot be stopped in its pursuit. Though she bears them no ill-will, she flees her parents (the Eigleens), or perhaps more accurately, her parent's world without hesitation to attain her own life, first to be one with Nature (her capitalization), and then to transcend even that. Eepersip is unsure where her quest will lead, but uncertainty does not concern her: "metaphysical" freedom, if I may use the phrase, is her absolute. To be at one with Nature is fine for a while, but when it grows unsatisfying, via dance and butterflies, she becomes a "spirit of Nature, a sprite . . . , a naiad . . . , a nymph . . ." Her quest at the end of the tale is complete.
When I first read the book (copies of which are rare these days), I confess I found it a difficult read. The style is lush and if you are not used to lots of heavily descriptive writing (which never works for me), you may find it difficult. Fortunately, a lot of people love such writing, so most will have no problem with it. For myself, it took a while. Nevertheless, the book holds up under multiple readings. It's best to proceed slowly, but the rewards are there.
[A caveat: While researching THWW, I came across an article by someone who felt the whole child literary genius thing was overblown, and that most of these people were so heavily coached by their parents (the tip-off supposedly being that few of these very young writers did not have success in adulthood)[I think he means few of them "had success in adulthood". - Bluejay], that they are in essence literary frauds. I kept the notion in mind, but with THWW it doesn't hold up. There is nothing in the writings of Wilson Follett, who was her editor as we shall see, that show him, or any adult, capable of writing THWW.]
When the Folletts saw the initial draft of THWW, their first thought was to have a private printing and circulate it among friends. But I think it was her father who grasped this was something far beyond what a typical 8-year-old was capable. Even if it needed work to become a true story, that is, good enough to attempt to publish it would be worth it.
But the road to publication did not go smoothly. A great loss in Barbara's life was the burning of the first draft in a house fire. For people interested in creativity, not necessarily critics and scholars, it would have been extremely valuable to compare the original draft and the final published version. But what is important is that Barbara was not deterred. She set to work almost at once to recreate the story, slowly at first and then with increasing confidence, through three drafts. It took about a year and a half (the details of the rewrite are more involved than I indicate but there is no need to go into them) to finish it. Then working with her father (perhaps the perfect editor in this instance), it took another year to create a true novel from the tale, and then to get it published roughly a year after that when Barbara was twelve.
So in response to the skeptic, the problem is, as every writer (ahem) knows, that by achieving fluency in language, and by age eight Barbara was completely fluent in English, in no way does that give you guidance or ability as to how to construct a story. The mechanics, the rules, of story telling are completely different from the rules of grammar. Otherwise, anyone who could jam a noun and a verb together could write a "story," something like what is happening today . . .
The actual "house without windows," the central image of the book from which the girl Eepersip (named after a bird call) begins her quest, can be viewed either as a cocoon or as a grave: both serve as a gateway, or a rebirth, into a transcendent reality. Eepersip will emerge ultimately as an invisible being with a kind of special sight into the nature of the world: she can not only see more deeply than the vast majority of humans, but can be seen in turn only by those gifted with that same special sight.
Lest the reader think I am exaggerating about the "grave" image, with its obvious ominous foretelling, here is the relevant passage (p. 32). I let you be the judge:
There a number of remarkable aspects to the story, and it could be the subject of a long study, which I leave to my literary betters. Here, I will comment on only three.
First, while Eepersip goes all out for her animal friends, as shown in great detail in the first section of the book, and they for her, she abandons them without a moment's hesitation when she decides to explore something new. There are no good-bye scenes in the novel, no regrets, no flashbacks, no wondering about . . . When it is time for Eepersip to leave, she leaves and that is that. Her animals, perhaps a characterization she would reject, are left to fend for themselves.
Second, the relationship between the Eigleens, Eepersip's parents, is not the most pleasant. I found this passage striking:
One gets the impression that Mr. Eigleen is quite used to his wife's excitability and, dare I say it? verbal abuse, and apparently knows how to handle it. The "wink" is quite telling. It's also telling that as an editor, Wilson Follett let this passage stand. How his wife reacted to this it is not recorded, but in a few years he would himself move out of the house and far away, seeking his own version of freedom from what appears to have been a grim marriage.
Third, there is an amazing amount of psychological acuity in the novel (young children, of course, are notorious for their observational skills), not only regarding others but also, by reflection herself, that is, how she comes across to them. In the second section of the novel, Eepersip tries to tempt her sister away from her parents, (recall that Barbara's sister was only 1 - 2 years old when this was written). It is made very clear that her sister regards Eepersip with at first awe, but then with increasing suspicion and concern, so much so that she ultimately refuses to go along with Eepersip's plans for them both. It's a perfectly understandable and human reaction.
This too would play out in Barbara's future, with the distance between the two siblings never close, and in fact increasing over the years until Barbara's disappearance when her sister was sixteen. However, it is also worth noting that Barbara does dedicate the book to two people, one of them being Sabra.
THWW began as a curiosity, one in a long line of her experiments, that her father saw as being publishable. He was right and the book enjoyed a solid success. Now, we look upon the book as almost a manifesto. So while I think describing the novel, or novella (it is after all only about 40K words long), as her life script is open to objection, it is clear there is much that portends her future, not so much as a destination but as a description of Barbara's reactions to the world around her and her unhappiness with it. To escape it, she had tapped into the central fire of her creativity, her special "seeing" -- and there is always danger of getting burned when that is done. We can now see the dangers, but to be fair to all concerned, it is a risk we have to accept or forever stifle creativity. In any event, at the time it would not have been as obvious as it is now. While every writer put's a great deal of themselves into their first book, few follow it to the literal end. Barbara would.
May 13, 2007
Filed under: Blogs -- jkel @ 7:46 am
Never in this world
The Voyage of the Norman D. (henceforth TVOTHND) is Barbara's triumph. It is the best memoir (memoir?: you read that right -- since when does a twelve-year old write a memoir, even these days?) of the last days of sail that I have read. Written only one year after THWW, it is an astonishing piece, done at almost the exact midpoint of her life. Filled with remarkable detail, keen psychological observation, and a great love of the sea and the men who live by it, I know of nothing quite like this book. Technically superb, it captures Barbara as a moment when her literary powers are in full bloom. I would have been impressed by this book if it had been written by someone who had spent decades on the sea with a full command of the language That Barbara does it at her age on her first voyage, seemingly effortlessly, is nothing short of astonishing. Since I'm running out of superlatives and embarrassed of "telling" in any event, let Barbara show what she can do:
There mother accosted me: "Oh, don't go up there! You scare me to death." I overlooked her entirely, and laid my hand upon the shrouds. Upon the shrouds! I felt a little thrill go through my hand. Next minute I was over the taffrail. "You don't dare, do you?" she continued. "Watch me and see," I replied. Then I pulled up on to the ratlines. The emotions and sensations of that moment are indescribable. I was starting my career as a sailor. I was already in the rigging, and I hadn't been on the ship for more than twenty minutes! And only yesterday, before that talk with my sailor friend, it was a far-away dream, pretty nearly impossible to accomplish. Things had shaken about strangely. I was in the rigging! Up and up I went, hand over hand. I could have gone much faster without a quiver, but I was so taken by it that I went slowly. I felt the rigging sway beneath my weight. Fascinating! The shrouds were getting closer and closer together, and the ratlines, therefore, shorter and shorter. I was a few steps below the crosstrees. I never believed, never in this world, that I should be able to go more than halfway up. Yet up I went, and the ratlines were so very short that I could just wedge my feet between them. Next moment I had reached out an arm, put it over the crosstrees, braced my foot on the iron futtock shrouds, and pulled myself up. There I was, sitting on the crosstrees, one foot braced up the futtock shrouds, the other foot dangling in midair, sixty-five feet about the deck.
To see Barbara in this book balanced between her childhood pirate fantasies and her keen adult sensitivities, to see the this tale of the sea balanced perfectly between romance and realism, to see something so very rare in all times and all places: a joyous, dynamic fully human intelligence at work. It is here we truly sense the ineffable.
In my youth, I had read Ernest K. Gann's novel of the last days of sail, Twilight of the Gods (Tango Around the Horn, not readily available, is another book that is also recommended). Now Gann was a skillful, technically knowledgeable writer, but I confess to having been terribly disappointed in this dreary soap opera at sea that might as well have been titled Ship of Losers. It read like it was simply written to be a movie (and that is what it became). Gann was capable of doing much better, but here I believe he took the easy route. The burning of the ship at the close of the book, a wonderful descriptive passage to be sure, does satisfy on some level, but that was about it. The core humanity simply was not there, and what was there was rationed. The humor, what little there was, was coarse, the characters either unpleasant or uninvolving, the joy of the sea and sail sadly absent, which was perhaps supposed to be the point. In contrast, Barbara captured in TVOTHND (written some three decades prior) the moods and characters of her sailors perfectly, with an unfailing blend of warmth and humor. She is a full participant in the life on the ship, not just a passenger, and that makes her an even better observer. Half of her wants there to be a mutiny with the usual Hollywood accompaniments of plank-walking and keel-hauling, but half of her realizes the crew's discontent is little different from office grumbling. These men love the sea but are happy enough to have any work at all, opportunities for plunder having been greatly diminished. The age of sailing adventure as romance is rapidly coming to a close.
This book marks the beginning of what I call Barbara's "mermaid" phase -- half woman, half creature of the sea, and all, as in the scene near the end when she masters the sailor's walk, utterly charming.
There I was, sitting on the crosshairs. It was here that Jim Hawkins had sat in his terrified flight from Israel Hands. Here I was, and I could imagine an Israel, wounded, dirk in teeth, climbing after me. I stood up on the crosstrees, and, looking out to sea, I found that I could see very far and clearly . . . to my intense delight, that I could look down . . . without a tremor. My head is built for height. I have a sailor heart, and a sailor head, thought I. Now, if only I were sure I had a sailor stomach, everything would be perfect.
Why the quite common obsession of young girls with pirates I am unsure. I have known several who have it well into their late teens, and eschewing any attempts at Freudian interpretation (though it does seem so much healthier than an obsession with vampires), I'm guessing it might have something again to do with the fantasy of total freedom that presumably males possess (if only women knew . . .). And it is the male pirate (along with some historically accurate female ones) who possesses the greatest, most complete freedom of all. Such is the power of the fantasy that the fact that most pirates were monsters has absolutely no impact upon it. On that basis, the corresponding power fantasies that pre-teen boys have regarding dinosaurs are clearly analogous -- finally, something bigger and tougher and meaner than your parents, your teachers, and the school yard bullies.
[Hollywood may be missing a bet here: a movie that could combine pirates and dinosaurs (Pirates of Jurassic Park, anyone?) could have a very large and built-in appeal. My own projected movie script, Escape from Nazi Dinosaur Island, I believe caught some of that dizzying, and dizzying thrill, but clearly did not go far enough, as Hollywood never called.]
I should mention at this point that, along with everything else, her parents were quite indulgent to her pirate fantasies, even allowing her to play with one of the kitchen knives as a sword substitute (mentioned by her mother in her book, Stars to Steer By) -- something it is hard to imagine contemporary middle class parents even considering, let alone permitting (one cannot help but wonder: how much of the "You don't dare, do you?" shouted by her mother was secret encouragement?) In any even, once the reality of actually being able to go to sea had seized her, nothing could keep her off the Norman D. (note: the name of the ship was the Ellen Bond. Once again, names had been changed to protect the innocent).
This time the book, written in the form of letters to a friend, required little editing by her father. Barbara had been taught well. Wilson Follett's strongest contribution this time was simply to urge her to resist all attempts by the publisher to cut the book. She did resist -- one can well imagine there was no effective contest, and again we see his faith in his daughter fully vindicated. While twice as long as THWW, anything cut would have been a terrible loss.
So published intact it was, but the book appears to have caught reviewers by surprise and they were, in McCurdy's phrase, "less kind." It's the same as it ever was. Then as now they complain they want the writer to try something new, and they complain when she does. I'm guessing here, but most were undoubtedly looking forward to Eepersip II: the Revenge, or some reassuring continuation of her fantasy writing. Others may have been again disbelieving, but could not quite bring themselves to say it: no twelve year old could have written this. But Barbara had.
By now it was clear to everyone who had come in contact with her, that Barbara was something else. Everyone was amazed by her, though admittedly some, including a few of the sailors, were apparently uncomfortable interacting with must have come across as a highly intelligent woman in a child's body.
We will see her love of the sea and sailor manifest again in her voyage aboard the five-masted schooner the Vigilant (recounted in Stars to Steer By) as the unfolding tragedy comes into focus.
Note for the irony conscious: years later Barbara's beloved Vigilant was to meet the same fiery end as the schooner in Twilight of the Gods. I have been so far unable to determine the fate of the Ellen Bond.
May 20th, 2007
Tolstoy famously observed (in a quote that has detractors and besides it's too easily parodied) that "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I think he was close, so allow me to edit the quote as follows: "All families resemble one another — each is unhappy in its own degree." There, that is much better. And we'll worry about when a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind later.
There is something distressing about the Follett family, something so modern about them in their unhappiness and frustrations, their unwillingness to cherish what they have and to throw it all away seemingly without hesitation, that more than once as I revisited the story I found myself wondering if those who seek the destruction of the institution of the family might have a point. Seemingly, the Folletts had everything: a comfortable life (Barbara complained that her family had never achieved significant wealth, but all evidence indicates that they had achieved remarkable success and were poised with Barbara to go much further), a wonderful and deep education and cultural understanding, and a broad, supportive and expanding network of relatives and friends. Honestly, there really isn't a lot more that a family can provide. And if that's not good enough, I don't have a clue what institution could provide it. As in every other aspect of life, we have to ask the core question: compared to what? Which is another way of stating the Spanish proverb: God said take what you want, then pay for it.
Again, Barbara was never mistreated or abused in any way, her schooling in language and the arts was superb. Finally, whatever their feelings about each other, both parents clearly loved their daughter. And yet, it all came to an abrupt end a year after Barbara's triumph, and the initial shock of unravelling, once absorbed, would lead in a decade to the destruction of the whole fabric. It is as if some grand cosmic editor had slammed the story down in disgust and demanded a re-write — "There is too much happiness here. It's revolting. Audiences will hate it. I want conflict, misery, betrayal . . ."
Of course, in a staged drama it is easy to apportion blame and leave the book or theatre or TV with a satisfying, if not to say smug feeling, that "now I understand that." Or, more typically, "At least I would never be so foolish." Don't count on it. It's the "Made-for-TV Syndrome," write large and with flaming letters. Real life gives us no such release. Plato was right: don't trust the poets (i.e. writers and playwrights). Keep them away from the impressionable. Lock them away if necessary.
[I'll probably get more complaints from the preceding than anything I have ever written.]
So it was that on her 14th birthday, Barbara received a letter from her father Wilson, who had eased himself out of the house ostensibly for career reasons a year or so earlier) explaining the reasons for what he had done — what she had undoubtedly sensed but had refused to believe. The combination of child and genius makes it impossible to believe she did not know something serious was up. As for the reasons, who can say? No doubt the continued strained relationship between Mr. Follett and his wife had been a major factor. No doubt finding a more agreeable someone else (a "companion" as the book refers to her) helped as well. It always does. It is possible there may have also been a rationalization that he had done all that he could for Barbara and in any event she could be confidently trusted to handle adulthood from here on. If your child had accomplished what Barbara had done, might you not feel the same? She had, after all, already surpassed her parents as a writer and would soon pass them again as an editor. Who could have imagined anything less for her than complete success in literature and/or academia or wherever she ultimately chose to go?
As for his other daughter, five-year old Sabra, she would have to make do on her own as best she could (he appears not to have mentioned Sabra in his farewell letter to Barbara). She didn't quite have Barbara's promise, in any event. She was five years old and still struggling with words for God's sake . . .
[If the reader finds the above, admittedly a somewhat sarcastic assessment of Wilson and his actions harsh, I can only say that I honestly regret that impression. I do not mean to single the man out for any sort of blame. The nature of family dynamics preclude that. It's impossible to assign full blame to any single party when a family begins to dissolve. And sometimes the dissolution is for the best. Moreover, the indifference Wilson had for Sabra was clearly shared by his wife as well. The whole family appears to have abandoned this little girl, the consequences on her psychology being unknown, though I believe she did go on to find success in the academic world. Frankly, it's all a bit creepy, but I will let the reader do the judging.]
In the end, safely removed from the mess by decades, all we can say is these things happen. The Folletts would take what they wanted and would in due course all pay for it. Wilson would continue to provide monetarily for the family, but except for a single "confrontation" (details not given so it is unclear that it was in person) regarding her sailor boyfriend from the Vigilant (whom her mother appeared to like) and one brief time several years later when good ol' Dad stopped by to help with the furnishing of Barbara and her husband's retreat, the two would never see each other again, nor did they communicate with one another.
Wilson must have known his actions would not be well-received by Barbara. The way he exited strikes me as the action of the kind of person who preferred to avoid conflict, particularly with his wife and her ferocious temper, but even his daughter as well, who was always strikingly reserved when it came to people. That is interesting. Recall, the man went into hiding for nearly a year before dropping the bombshell. As the end approached, there was no heart-to-heart talk with anyone in the family, least of all Barbara. Lord knows what he must have written to his wife, and the mind reels at what her reply must have been like, but we're concerned solely with the farewell letter to Barbara. No doubt he hoped that would be that. He might have been thinking that her hypothetical response, bad as it might be, would be accepting and she would be big about it and get over the business and quickly move on. To be fair, perhaps that would not have been such a vain hope with almost any other 14-year old. Thanks for the great birthday gift, Dad, but . . .
It didn't work. In a tone as polite and as cold as a tax audit, she replied as follows (quoting from Barbara, p. 99):
I did receive your letter, yesterday afternoon, and I read it (as you must suppose) a good many times before I came to any conclusion or conclusions concerning it. And now that I think I have, I feel that I must point out two ideas in that letter that seem like ill-concealed weakness, and that cannot help but make me suspicious: (1) Because you do not give any clue as to what your answer almost was, and especially because you call attention to the fact that you have given no clue, I am tempted to think that the answer you had in your mind was on that you are now ashamed to reveal. For, had the intended answer been the right one, why all this secrecy about it?
And so on. Good grief. This is strong stuff, and coming from a girl of 14 not only is it astonishing in it's clenched-teeth restraint, but also in the clearly expressed sadness, along with its sense of mounting contempt. But Wilson took the blow and nothing changed. His Rubicon had been crossed. From this point on, Barbara's life begins to accelerate, to begin a struggle to free herself from the destruction of her family of which the father's abandonment was the first step, and to achieve the transcendent freedom she had longed for almost since she had began to write. Sabra was packed off to the relatives. A few months later, at Barbara's strong urging, she and her mother take a long trip (about a year and a half total) to the West Indies, Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii . . . Not exactly around the world, but close. Returning to America, Barbara meets an intriguing, literate sailor (still unidentified, but referred to in the book as "A."), second mate of the schooner Vigilant and begins a relationship with him that will last until she meets her future husband (who has been identified) at age 18. She will have her hair cut, usually a traumatic event for a young woman, but tomboy Barbara has no qualms. She keeps this short hairstyle for the rest of her life. She finds a new, supportive literary and artistic family (also not yet identified — sigh). [This could be Alice Dyer Russell. See the letters to "A.D.R." at Farksolia. Bluejay] She begins to gather friends. And along with her mother, she co-writes and co-edits her last published book, Magic Portholes. Barbara does not want any credit, however, and except for one final novel (never published), and of course her letters, her literary career is over.
Magic Portholes was a success, her mother's first book free of her husband's tutelage. It's timing given the deepening depression was about as perfect as could be. Naturally, it spawns a sequel, Stars to Steer By, which would be written and edited without Barbara's help. Barbara by that time was in Europe on a honeymoon that would last for nearly two years.
But the fact of the matter was, Barbara would not have worked with her mother again. The editing sessions on Magic Portholes were volcanic. If Helen chafed under Wilson's editing, one can well imagine how she reacted to be corrected and overridden by a 16-year old, who no doubt resembled her father in many ways. It was probably just as well that Sabra was not around (the family appears to have only re-discovered their second daughter about ten years after Wilson's leave-taking.)
Thinking about Magic Portholes, I was reminded of Heinlein's sour comment on collaborative writing — "twice the work for half the pay."
Nevertheless, the book works and is now a fascinating document of a time and place that is gone. It is simply not possible to do this freelance ocean hoboing — surviving on random typing and reporting jobs — anymore. At least, it would be far more dangerous and much more expensive. The warmth of the Folletts comes through. as does Helen's deep love for her daughter. Though the language may strike contemporary readers as somewhat insensitive at times, they are deeply moved by the people they meet. For Barbara in particular this is a great "coming-of-age" experience. We know this from her letters which mirror the text of the book. And for readers who know what is coming, surprisingly it appears to do the trick in the putting the pain of her father's abandonment behind her. It doesn't, of course.
Stars to Steer By
The sequel works, but not as well, except for the long closing chapter on the Vigilant. The book on the whole lacks Barbara's exuberant prose and vitality. The local color is there, but much of it seems flat, by the numbers, compared to Magic Portholes. Though Barbara has to resist the offer to become a Tongan princess and finds herself briefly on center stage in the fight against New Zealand imperialism (really), it all seems kind of flat. Likely Helen was trying to avoid embarrassing her daughter, but a lot appears to have been lost. The editing seems perfunctory and the book's rhythm suffers as a consequence: the Folletts go here, do this; the Folletts go there, do that.
Only when we board the Vigilant and we meet the remarkable second mate who will become Barbara's first love does the book come fully alive. It is possible that Helen was working directly from Barbara's notes or letters at that point, because as noted she really did like the mysterious "A." We are presented with an all too brief picture of the last days of sail that is funny and at times appalling. Like gifted photographers who always seem to be at the right place and time, the Folletts show up just when they need to for the month long voyage to Hoquium, Washington, and by the end of it as readers we are glad they did.
The book, by the way, is dedicated to Sabra: Thanks Mom. You and Sis went on a great trip and all I got was this lousy dedication . . .
May 28th, 2007
I always am grieved at the world.
Following her return with her mother to America (1929), and for the next three years, Barbara by accident more than design, began a tentative process of coming to grips with her emotions, the integration that would have permitted her transition to mature adulthood. To keep living, it has to be done, and in fairness to her, few do it well.
Two events were prominent in that process. First, was the long-distance romance between Barbara and the second mate of the Vigilant, a man identified in Barbara only as "A." Driven by letters (at its peak, three/week) and mutual longing, it was a crucial factor moving her away from her art into the messiness of human reality. Though she had started a new novel, Lost Island, (having abandoned her pirate book) that book appears to have been intended more as a personal memoir than a serious work for publication. A writer typically starts with herself and moves outward, but for Barbara she was going ever deeper into herself. Given her increasing contact with all manner of human beings and her great observational skills, this should have been seen as alarming, but of course no one noticed. More on the novel later.
Returning to "A." There is a certain wonderful quaintness about her relationship with this literate sailor, who comes across as a fascinating person. Her first serious involvement, conducted with utmost propriety, both were doing everything right. Two people were getting to know each other in the best way possible: letters. For those with modern sensitivities who worry about the relationship between a man likely in his mid-twenties and a teenage girl a good decade younger, there is no need to panic. It appears they didn't see each other once during this time– again, in the best Victorian romantic tradition.
From the start, the relationship must have seemed unlikely. Child literary genius, remote, highly-educated . . . and a genuine salt o' the sea sailor, though an educated one (both found that Lord Jim was their favorite novel). They had met on board the Vigilant (the meeting is detailed in Stars to Steer By) and as near as I can determine never saw each other again. It is not clear if they even exchanged pictures. This is what we call "doomed." And it does appear that just before Barbara finally ended it — having met "S." whom we will learn about shortly — the frequency of the letters had dropped off markedly (from three times a week at the beginning, as noted, to once every few months near the end). It is if both sides realized the preliminaries had gone as far as they could and, unfortunately, it could not be. Nevertheless, the effects of this relationship remained with her to the end and during the very difficult time of the ever deepening depression from which both were struggling to survive, it sustained her.
Before proceeding to the second major item during this period, I will comment that I think it would have been much better for her if this relationship had worked out. That probably seems obvious, but I am not intending to put it that way. It would have given her a tie to the sea she loved and it would have given her the freedom she craved while she gradually settled into the realities of married life, presumably sometime around her thirties. Being married to a sailor couldn't have been easy, now or then, but Barbara's personality, her attachment to the sea, she might have been more adaptable than most to such a life. Life planning, however, was never one of Barbara's strong points. And to how many of us is it? The record shows she and "A." never seriously discussed the matter, but only alluded to it. Perhaps disaster could have been avoided, but who knows? Given her brittle psychology, it could just as easily be argued that Barbara's life may have ended in as final and mysterious a fashion as it ultimately did. What is crucial here is that the failure of this relationship brought an end to the process of her emotional integration, as she reverted to emotionalism in some of its worst escapist forms, thus setting the stage for the final tragedy.
[I am currently in the process of identifying "A." and I think I am getting close. I'm hoping he wrote a private memoir of his life which would be a fascinating document. He may even have published documents on his life at sea, but these are mere hopes at this point. I am confident he did not keep her letters, however — Barbara's mother was certainly unable to retrieve any. Keeping love letters, for reasons obvious and not, is something men typically do not do.]
The second significant event in her emotional life was the play "Green Pastures." McCurdy writes the following about the effect of the play on her: ". . . few things moved her so deeply as Mac Connelly's Green Pastures. The simple religious faith expressed in the play, the vision of a Creator who can with a single thunderclap produce a universe and who is yet only a pure-hearted, kindly patient, infinitely wise . . . pastor, somehow broke open her fountain of tears." There is no question that is part of the effect of the play and there is no doubt she responded to it, but here I must disagree with McCurdy (finally!) and probe the matter from a different angle.
Now, I have not seen the play, which is understandable since no theatrical company in America would perform it now. Contemporary sensitivities view would such a thing as a PC nightmare, filled to the brim with the worst kinds of stereotypes, not a role model or federal judge anywhere to be seen. However, I have seen the movie (1936 — the thirties being the next to last decade such a thing could have been produced) and since it was directed by Connelly, I feel it is an honest depiction of his work and more importantly his intent. What the play is about is a remarkably sophisticated theological interpretation of the evolving moral nature of God. Far from being the "pure-hearted, kindly patient, infinitely wise" and so forth Pastor, God is presented in the film as being a moral prig of the worst type, an angry Jehovah with no patience, initially with no conscience, and who repeatedly wipes out his creation over such appalling sins as gambling and skirt-chasing. This is the Old Testament God, a one being vice-squad with no qualms whatever about its actions, a creature of vengeance determined to bring unquestioned order to his world, a Super-Stalin who underneath the kindly mask is actually quite frightening. But in the play, unlike world history, something remarkable happens and God develops a conscience. In gradually increasing remorse and determination to do better, he comes to offer the ultimate act of sacrifice and atonement for his past actions — the life of his only Son (there will be no other) to make up for what he had done wrong, and to provide a path to redemption for both mankind in general and himself. Moreover, there is an implied promise that he will never again wipe out his most imperfect creation. Now whether one believes this or not, accepts this interpretation or not, is offended or not, and Barbara most emphatically was an atheist, this is a remarkably telling theologically argument. If you are willing to go with it, and admittedly few would which is why it is so heavily disguised, the Bible overall begins to make sense. It becomes coherent as a moral document. The grand vision of the book would be of a judgmental, cold father, yielding over the millennia (four, using Bishop Usher's notorious chronology) to become "human" in the best sense of the word, or to become a "man" as Barbara might have put it. A man as much as a God, thus in many ways like his Son. The play must have offered her hope as well as a release, a way out of the Follett family's impasse — that was still drearily working its way through the court rooms some three years after Wilson's departure. But if it was a hope, she would not admit it to herself. And if it was also prophetic, it was so in a grimly ironic fashion. Redemption for the father would indeed come, though not for her. The sacrifice necessitated, when it came, would be of his beloved daughter.
As so often in Barbara's brief life, the hope once shown, dazzling and beautiful as it was, was soon crushed. Enter Mr. William Nickerson Rogers (1907 — 1963), the man identified in Barbara only as "S.," her future husband, a young man of 25 with a secure trust fund when they met (1932). Son of a wealthy family, though they too must have been impacted by the Depression, he was an engineer in training and by all accounts one holding promise of success in that profession. Note: the identification is not 100%, but having considered the evidence over several months, I believe it is solid.
[In the interests of disclosure, I confess he is the one person in this unhappy tale I do not like. With everyone else I can at least feel if not sympathy, then empathy, but try as I may the man leaves me cold and the more I think about him, the colder I become. Nevertheless, I believe I can still be fair.]
At age eighteen for Barbara, things began to move rapidly. "A." was consigned to the realm of the "non-existent" (though not really, as we shall see) and there began a two year "honeymoon" (She and William were not officially married until 1934. Times had changed — farewell to the last remnants of that Victorian tradition!). They traveled to Europe, Spain and Germany primarily. Towards the end of their trip they stayed in the Black Forest, a special place to her mother who would later wrote a whole book on it. This was a very interesting time (in the worst sense) in Europe and given the frequency of her letters to her "California friend," it is a pity that the letters of this period in Barbara are barely alluded to. Always an acute observer, she might well have had some fascinating insights, as well as foreboding, as to where all this might be leading.
At the end of this presumably happy period, Barbara returned to the America to resume her life as a stenographer. Her husband to follow shortly to work as an engineer, and thus to begin the long process of career establishment. A wedding picture of her (age 20) can be found on page iii of Barbara.
Lost Island is not only an odd work, in that it is much too close to her life, more a meditation than an actual novel, but it was also a risky one for her personally. The novel exists in two versions: version A deals with her (i.e. "Jane," the heroine's) relationship with a thinly-disguised "A." Version B concerns her relationship with both "A." and someone who closely resembled her future husband. The whole thing ends miserably with the heroine returning to the Maine woods, nature being the only thing she can rely upon. Here is the concluding passage:
She looked straight up at the sky through surges of silver-green. Big bright clouds rolled by smoothly. She stared at then a long time, and then felt the swift sensation that she, her pine tree, and all the woods, all the world were falling slantingly. She held on and watched, and drifted more and more into the swinging illusion of the thing. She and the pine tree were falling through space together. It was a long fall, and an oddly companionable one. She laughed a little at that. Life was relentless, but there was nothing more it could take away from her. She clung to her tree, ruthlessly divested by life of an entire world, a complete paradise — but the magic had been and it was hers — as much hers and as real as anything could be in a transitory earth where no one could entirely possess anything.If the reader wishes, substitute "ship's" for "pine," mast" for "tree," "sea" for "woods."
It is unclear if her actual husband ever read any part of either of the book's drafts. If he had, he might not have been pleased, so my guess is that he was unaware of the book's contents, perhaps even of the book's existence. She finished the final draft and packed it off with all her other writings to her mother just prior to her marriage. Even without the question of propriety, I doubt neither William nor anyone in his family had any interest in her writings or any other aspect of her artistic longings. Such happens, as I well know . . .
Certainly his family must have regarded her history as a child novelist as curious, in the same way they might have regarded her if she had been a child gambler or evangelist at some point (well, that's all behind her now . . .). Not exactly scandalous, but still. Likely, he and his family (and perhaps Barbara's mother as well) were hoping she would find happiness as a traditional stay-at-home supportive wife for their son. That is not a sneer: Barbara certainly tried. It is clear from her quoted letters that she was eager for William to succeed and impressed with the success he was able to achieve in these difficult times.
In fact, that is the one thing that truly stands out in her letters when she writes about him: approving of her husband's career and emotional stability. She doesn't seem to say anything else. There is a serious question, in my mind at least, whether she actually liked the man. Of course, she "loved" him (doesn't everyone feel that in marriage?), but I have to wonder how much both parties covered up their actual feelings. If opposites attract, initially, they also repel over the long term. The marriage was unquestionably crucial to her, as we shall see, but it is not unknown for women to be in love with marriage, and yet be fairly indifferent, even contemptuous of the man they are married to. Such may have been her mother's feelings, for example. Nor is it unknown for men to keep hoping the "leopard will change its spots" (William's phrase).
With her father's help, there is no doubt that Lost Island would have been published, but working with Dad at this point was an option that was psychologically forbidden. Her anger towards her father had not diminished in the slightest. It appears he was not even invited to her wedding. Better to be a stenographer riding the subway with the proles to work than to humble herself before that man. She did make some efforts at publishing the piece. However, my sense is that these efforts were perfunctory. After all, she hardly would have wanted to embarrass her new husband. In any event, art as therapy almost never works. Though the novel would never be published, for a while it must have served as a kind of emotional work in progress for her. But it was another dead end.
Her career as a novelist was over.
The big news on the weekend of Barbara's disappearance was the wide-release of the film "Gone With the Wind." Then as now there were event movies and GWTW would go on to be. in real terms, the biggest of them all. Though its bizarre mix of feminism and Southern romanticism, not to mention the presence of Butterfly McQueen playing the Jar Jar Binx of the era, can lead to uncontrollable wincing in today's audiences, it seems to have been perfectly timed by marketing for the audiences of the day, as the greatest war in human history was in its incipient stages. The film resonated, if you will, and one suspects that the audience understood that whatever America's isolationist sentiments, and they were quite strong at the time, staying out of this one was probably not an option. Exactly two years after Barbara's disappearance, America was indeed fully engaged in the conflict.
Over the six years of its duration, people would be killed in this war in one of a myriad forms at an average rate of 1100/hour, roughly one every three seconds, approximately 70% of them being civilians. And yet, against this backdrop, I am asking you to consider the fate of one troubled human being, who cannot in any way be considered a casualty of that war. Why? The late, great film critic Gene Siskel once said that when the scope is large, and there was nothing larger in history than WWII, go small. Otherwise you will lose the audience. Or as Stalin (a mediocre film critic at best) might have put it: one death is a tragedy, 55 to 60 million deaths is but a statistic. And there have been enough statistics in this piece already.
Nevertheless, could her tragedy in some way illuminate the enormity of that global conflict which still impacts so much of our world? There is speculation that the war was one of the factors weighing heavily on her mind as she left her Brookline apartment to vanish into the night in best melodramatic fashion. Her life span, from the opening year of WWI to the opening year of WWII is suggestive of a metaphor somewhere. None of her quoted letters allude to the conflict, however, and it seems unlikely that McCurdy would have passed on the opportunity to mention it if there was evidence of it in her letters. The Folletts simply were not political, in the sense that we understand today where radical families are fairly typical, if not altogether common. Helen Thomas's book on her stay in the Black Forest region (Third Class Ticket to Heaven — sheesh — 1936) completely ignores the politics of Germany - which earned the book not only bad reviews but even bookstore boycotts. Whether one approves of their indifference or self-centeredness (you choose) is not the issue. The Folletts were social observers, good ones too, and the world of radical politics simply did not register long-term on them. Barbara during her final months was completely absorbed or focused (again, you choose) on herself and her problems, understandably so. The collapsing world around her likely did not intrude.
So what happened that night? It is the question that has haunted me for years, but which was one I did not truly want to investigate. I think over the last several months, however, as I became determined to "solve" the mystery as best I could and put this behind me, that a possibility did emerge. There is no chance of proof, of course, and interested readers are welcome to read Barbara and come to their own conclusions.
[We can certainly say by that evening she knew the marriage was over and worse, that her husband had been stringing her along for months.]
This is what we know of her final moments in the apartment, noted presumably by her husband: she left with $30.00 cash (1939) and her "short hand notes" from her current or new job. Until I can obtain the police file, and given my fruitless search so far, good luck on that, there is not much more that can be said. I do not even know if she took her purse. We do know she had very likely been using barbiturates on and off for nearly 3.5 months, and at unknown dosages. And, of course, no physical evidence of her fate was ever found and that too is a clue.
Here are the realistic possibilities. Was she murdered? Possibly, but that seems highly unlikely. Crime rates were much lower than now, stranger murders were extremely rare, and Barbara had no known enemies. So, could her husband have done it (which is always the police assumption now, though I am unsure if it would have been then.) It appears this possibility was never seriously considered. There is no evidence and I see no reason to pursue it. There would have been no motive for him to have done such a thing in any event. The marriage was over, he was free of her, and without any children or significant property, there would be little cost to him. It makes no sense to imply otherwise. Moreover, there is nothing in William Rogers's life, as viewed through her letters, to suggest he could have done such a thing.
Could it have been an accident? McCurdy entertains what I call the "Shangri-la scenario," that Barbara might have headed for the Maine woods and there in the mountains been swept away by an avalanche. The vision is a compelling one. It ties in with her writings and it feels right: like the hero in the movie "Lost Horizon" (1937), we watch him disappear into the blizzard as he tries to make his way back to Shangri-La , understanding that the odds of him making it back to the paradise are nil. I don't know if Barbara saw the movie (McCurdy, unfortunately, does not give us any information as to what she might have gone to in the way of cultural events during the five years of her marriage, what books she might have read, what movies she might have seen.) but she might have responded to it if she had. Certainly if there were ever a made-for-tv movie of her life, that is how it would end. Followed by a shot of Spring with butterflies rising from a meadow or something equally mawkish
Or could it have been suicide? Outwardly, it does not appear that she was suicidal that night. If so, why take the money (it was the holiday season so she may have intended to do some shopping) and why above all else take the notes? That detail makes no sense in any scenario — unless, she was in a highly confused state. If she had been hitting the barbiturates hard during the final month (from her last letter 11/11/1939 to her disappearance), she could very well have been in a long-term sleepless state, not thinking clearly, and not knowing "where she was going or what she was going to do" (a line from near the end of the movie "Days of Heaven" (1978)).
So my "solution," which is possible and may even be plausible, is that her demise had features of both suicide and accident. I believe that when she left her apartment that evening she was indeed in a confused state. Like Ken Kesey's heroine in Sometimes a Great Notion, she was not going anywhere, just going. Her husband was likely taking off to spend time with his family (the alarm over Barbara's disappearance, based on my admittedly imperfect search of local papers (e.g. the Brookline Chronicle) does not appear to have been sounded until after the holidays). She just seems to have fallen through the cracks for all three families: her husband's, her mother's, and her father's. Her employer apparently presumed she too had gone for the holidays. Everyone else thought she was somewhere else. No action was taken by anyone. She put on her coat, mumbled good-bye, closed the door behind her, walked out of the apartment building, and that was it.
I think she wandered the streets for hours, taking the bus and subway transit, going farther and farther away from Brookline. At one point in the early morning hours, the so-called witching hours, I believe she boarded a ferry. She was fascinated by ships and it is known she loved to watch the churn of the propellers (this from Stars to Steer By) and listen to the pulse of machinery. It is of course highly probable she was exhausted. In the cold of the night air I imagine she was shivering badly. In the darkness and cold she might very well have been alone and scarcely noticed. Looking down, the city lights reflected in the water, I think she may have leaned over and at some point, too tired to maintain her balance and overwhelmed by despair or perhaps she simply convulsed, slipped and fell into the frigid, churning water.
It is of course far easier to disappear on water than on land. There is no need to speculate further, just that if something like the above had happened, it is certainly possible that nothing would ever have been found. And even if it had, it is vital to understand that police departments were not networked at that time (that would come in another two generations) so there was little communication between them and no general alarm had yet been sounded. If her body have been found, well, one suspects these kinds of things happened often enough during the Depression and the police would have noted it and given the lack of identification, pursued it no further.
It is quite possible that Barbara Newhall Follett was dead by the morning of Friday December 8th, weeks before the missing persons bulletin was issued at the request of her mother.
As we near the end of our quest (only two more installments to go!) to understand Barbara and what happened to her, it is important to realize above all else how crushing her disappearance must have been to those who knew her. It is something that only a person who has actually gone through such a loss can truly understand. What can be said is this: When someone like Barbara vanishes, it is inevitable that there will be a long period in people close to her cannot accept what has happened. Disbelief coupled with grief, as it might be put, severely slows the realization. The process of "moving on" is delayed, perhaps even permanently in some cases — the milk truck may not stop here any more, but the life train is permanently stalled at the station. All of which is to say that at some point, years afterward, most had come to understand that whatever had happened to Barbara, there was no turning back any more than there was a coming back. The pebble had been pitched into the pond. The ripples continued.
William Nickerson Rogers got his wish of a new career: he left engineering to become, of all things, a police chief. It's possible that his involvement with them in the case of his missing wife may have intrigued him sufficiently to make that radical change, but who can say? Based on the scant information that I found, it does not appear he married again. He died in 1963 at the relatively young age of 56.
Wilson Follett was finally able to achieve a measure of emotional closure with his daughter in an open letter he published in 1941. But it was as far as he could go and we can only presume he died heartbroken, also in the year 1963.
As her literary career receded, Helen Thomas Follett became active politically and involved in the civil rights movement. After 1959, working with Harold McCurdy, she was determined to bring her daughter's story to the public. Barbara was published in 1966, The House Without Windows was re-issued as a paperback in 1968. She died two years later.
Harold Grier McCurdy (born 1909) had lost a daughter himself when Helen Thomas approached him. He would be drawn to the story and would work on it on and off for five years. With his knowledge of literature and the psychology of genius, plus his own personal loss, he was perhaps the perfect biographer for her. Barbara was, I believe, the book he was destined to write and it would become one of the great psychological biographies of the 20th century. He died at his home in Chapel Hill in November 1999.
The fate of "A" remains a mystery. Perhaps he died at sea before or during WWII. He should have had a literary career of his own. The search for him continues.
Sabra Follett, the forgotten daughter, appears to have come through the best of any of them. She was always popular (there is a picture of her at age 21 at a Columbia University function which can be found by entering her name using a well-known image search program — she is the young, cute one.) It appears she married. It also appears she had an academic career, but her ultimate fate, along with the fate of her sister's literary estate, also remains unknown.
The author, his ultimate fate too remains unknown. For many years, he did go searching for Barbara. Once or twice he thought he had found her, but of course he was mistaken. Barbara can only be sought. She can never be found, certainly not by mere mortals. As she prophesied, to even those with the gift of a "mind to believe," she can only be seen fleetingly. And try as he did, belief was an aspect of mind he would never possess.
June 18th, 2007
Every liberation is not a deliverance
The notion of "resonance," to which I have alluded to at several points through this long notes-towards-an-essay of the life of Barbara Newhall Follett, is not intended to be the basis for a theory of aesthetics. It's intent is to incorporate psychology at both end of the artistic process: into our understanding of artistic creation as well as communication, and thus shed some light on the power of both. It would, of course, build upon the ideas of metaphors and symbols. It could be a grand program indeed, but pushing the idea any further is ill-advised at this point. My hope is more restricted: in the context of this one person's life, that the beginnings of resonance theory, if you will, shed light on Barbara's writings and possibly her tragedy as well. And by implication the creativity of artists, our receptivity as an audience, and the dangers of art.
The basis of resonance is the notion that all artistic creativity flows from the subconscious, which operates under its own rules and whatever the hidden processes of the mind are, they cannot be forced to fit into the logic of the conscious mind. Art can, of course, be analyzed retroactively via logic, the presumption being that at some point artistic creations have escaped their subconscious origins and have achieved the light of day. However, it cannot be stressed enough that the domain of logic, particularly conceptual logic, is not the source of our creativity. We can communicate our understanding of the experience of art, crudely via language, but in terms of the raw experience or the creative act, language has little, perhaps nothing to say — except for a writer.
[The subconscious is overwhelmingly more powerful than the conscious mind, in any event. In computational terms it is at least six orders of magnitude greater. It is the central fire, raging barely under control, and it is moreover, quite dumb. Likely not the happiest of beginnings for artistic genius but there you have it.]
Consider the subjective and objective aspects of resonance: the subjective aspect of resonance is the creative. The objective is the communicative. For the latter, this implies the necessity of a formal symbol code of some sort to bring meaning to art. For a writer it is far more vital: the creative and communicative aspects of art are inescapably bound to language. Unfortunately, and this might be considered my first conjecture, when writers, more than most artists, are cut off from their source of creativity and expression, they are at grave personal risk. They frequently may have no other way to communicate. And a writer who cannot communicate is doomed.
"Resonance" is best understood as a kind of equivalence relation, one based on feeling, however, and not conscious identification. It is pre-conceptual. For an artist, anything erupting from the subconscious can become a source or provocation for art. It is from that point on that the resonances compound: if A resonates with B (ARB) and B resonates with C (BRC), the implication is that ArC, little-r designating a weakened resonance, is part of the art. Thus it won't take too many links before the chain of "arcs" becomes very weak — unless the conscious mind intervenes and determines that this is worth pursuing. Few are so skilled, however, which is one reason that writers are well-advised to reinforce their personal resonances with myth. Myths prevail across time because of the feelings they generate across in all peoples. Ignoring them would be like a painter who travels to the shore and then refuses to look at the ocean.
Resonance, powerful as it is, is merely a necessary condition of art. It is not an explanation. That would require an understanding of the readers' or viewers' subjective experience of art and that would take us into deep waters indeed. Suffice it to say, by the time the essential resonances have been established in a work, by whatever mechanism including accident, a first step towards an objective basis for communication to the reader has been established. But who knows what the ultimate impact will be? That is why, difficult as the question is regarding the nature of art, what makes great art is enormously more mysterious and strange. I simply have no idea. I question that anyone does. Centuries of criticizing kitsch will not enable the remotest understanding of what makes great art. Like Augustine's thoughts on time, I may think I know great art when I see it, but as soon as I try to explain it, I'm at a loss. I have viewed or read the works of any number of talented artists, but I simply do not know what would enable any of them to become great, i.e. for their work to endure through time instead of being merely endurable.
[If you know, please pass the secret along to me.]
Returning to Barbara. We have already mentioned as an example, the possibility of one source of her artistic technique was her ability to conflate the sensual realities of mountains with ocean, or earth and sea, and given that, to smoothly move from one to the other for poetic effect. After completing THWW, for example, she wrote to a friend that she wished should could have spent time near the ocean as research for writing the sea-based section of her book, but I honestly think it would have made no difference. The method works and the result would have not been improved had she lived by the ocean for years. This may strike some as odd, but I believe an essential aspect of great art is found in its simplicity. There may be multiple levels of comprehension and understanding involved, but at each level the design is simple. Too much knowledge can be a crippling thing for a writer.
One of the consequences is that artists who do not work in forms that are conceptually based (literature and its derivatives, such as plays and poetry, even films in some cases, as distinguished from visual arts e.g. painting and sculpture) will be urged to import huge amounts of theory to make up the difference — to serve as a cover for "literature envy." This was, I believe, the primary point of Wolfe's "The Painted Word," and it remains a depressing feature of the visual art world to this day. In fact, concept-based paintings/sculptures never work. They are acts of pretense, as well as failures of nerve, barely one step removed from the "if-you-don't-like-this-you're-a-fascist," rubbish. The value of visual/plastic art is in the feeling it imparts not the explanation the artist gives you. If an artist has to explain his/her work, the work at some fundamental level has failed.
WIthout feeling, and the subconscious can be understood as a vast engine of emotion in addition to all the other mischief it causes, there really is little point in art. Conceptually based forms, such as plays, are ill-advised at being too cerebral - an accusation which happily cannot be applied (irony alert) to opera. It's a delicate balance and even Shakespeare showed signs of faltering near the end, e.g. Hamlet. The feeling that one gets at the conclusion of that morbid play is, well, relief mostly — it's over and thank goodness there won't be a sequel! The individual pieces of the play, many in perfection to be sure, fail to hold together: the grand symphonic emotional structure is lacking overall (one of the reasons I think music is the perfect art, playing directly upon our emotions, while being the most difficult to comprehend and write about, especially in terms of subjective experience). We are a long way from Romeo and Juliet at this point.
What might she have done had she lived and returned to writing? For someone gifted in language, and highly intelligent, tapping into the "central fire" could yield unlimited artistic possibilities. Unfortunately, art gave her freedom to express her longings, but not the deliverance from the world she desired above all else. That is something art can never do. In that spirit, let us consider two metaphors for Barbara.
Days of Heaven
The first example, one I think Barbara might have liked, is the film "Days of Heaven." Like Barbara, the heroine is in love with two very different men, Bill (symbol = fire) and the farmer, never named (symbol = wind). The two female characters are Abby (symbol = water) and the 13 year-old narrator of the tale, Linda (symbol = earth). Linda we learn wants to become a "mud-doctor" (thus acknowledging Abby's strong influence on her) when she grows up. One can keep this up for quite a while — there is far too much in the way of symbolic richness here to spend much time on it. The conflagration that consumes the farm/Eden where all four live for a time, for example, when wind meets fire, resonates effortlessly against the world war that America can no longer ignore or keep at bay.
Abby is a classic femme-fatale as innocent. She loves both men but in her innocence grasps too late the danger she presents to them both, as well as to herself. When she boards the troop train at the film's end as a hitchhiker (the Marxist metaphor of the "freight train of history" is another device brilliantly used by director Terrence Malick throughout the film), she has lost all control over her fate: like Barbara that final night, Linda tells us of Abby "she didn't know where she was going, what she was going to do," a comment that applies to all the surviving characters. She has lost both men who were so vital to her life, the psychological foundation of everything she was. Recovery for Abby is not possible, though death is not a certainty for her. We cannot know what alternatives will be presented and which she will choose. Her fate is left undermined at the end of "Days of Heaven." There is hope, however, that something resembling human life will continue. Certainly Linda appears to be made of strong stuff and if there is to be a future, she very likely will be the one to embody it. Like Stapledon's future vision (see below), this is a random, godless universe these characters inhabit, though one very much imbued with the power of myth — "Days of Heaven," itself is a re-telling of the Biblical tale of Abraham and Sarah. Nevertheless this is not a Biblical allegory. This world, set at the closing years of America's Belle Epoque (1916-7) is in all essentials indistinguishable from our own. The emotions are powerful underneath, but at the surface muted. That makes the film's telling all the more poignant and profound.
For me, the best depiction of Barbara's tragedy is to be found in the novel Sirius (1944), by philosopher and science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon (like Barbara, an atheist). The novel was published five years after Barbara's disappearance, and while it has some similarities in theme to his earlier work Odd John (1933), it avoids the sci-fi trappings that weakened that novel. Now it is highly doubtful that Barbara, who was in full emotional rebellion at that point, ever read any Stapledon. His cerebral meditations on the problems of supermen in the future would have left her cold. Sirius overall works much better, however. The theme of Sirius is the exterior conflict of the individual against social norms, resonating against the interior conflict of the individual against itself (i.e., the conscious intellect against its incredibly powerful evolutionary baggage.) It is a love story between Plaxy (the daughter of the scientist who created Sirius) and this highly-intelligent dog.
The novel doesn't even shy away from the possibility of a physical relationship between the two. Strong stuff even today, one wonders what readers must have made of it at the time of initial publication.
Sirius, a border collie with an intelligence high by even human standards, is the result of a breeding program that achieves spectacular success, though only once. Stapledon was nothing if not courageous in following through on his premise, which was that Sirius under the protection and guidance of his human family (understandably, Sirius finds relationships with his fellow dogs to be either unsatisfying or violent), the uber-dog is under control, even happy to a degree. It writes love letters, even contemplates writing a couple of books. Unfortunately, as soon as his human family begins to disintegrate, so too does Sirius. In the end, even his love for Plaxy is unable to prevent his destruction, self and otherwise. Caught half-way between "dogness" and humanity, Sirius is all but doomed from the start. To much of the outside world he is a freak, Satan incarnate. It is a conclusion he is moving towards himself.
Sirius is intended to be a metaphor for the human condition at the extremes. Stapledon appears to believe at some point in the future of humanity such a conflict would take place, it would be inevitable in fact, and while in the short term humanity would likely win, on the basis of sheer numbers if nothing else, in the long run the outcome was much more in doubt. The key question that remained, however, would the super-intelligent victor be able to survive on any terms that we would consider less than psychologically disastrous? I'm guessing that Stapledon would have said there was hope, but would have been hard pressed to give any detailed reasoning as to why. C.S. Lewis, who loathed Stapledon's novels, would have insisted that Christian redemption offered the only hope there was, for man or Superman.
Such was his statement of belief (belief is hope on steroids), and such it would remain.
Like Sirius, Barbara's most satisfying conversations with anyone outside her family, were with a cleric. Sirius found religion fascinating, resonating as it did from a human devotion to God to a dog's devotion of his human family. Like Sirus also, by the time of her approaching maturity, Barbara was increasing at war with her conscious, rational upbringing. Unable to modulate her desires, what is typically adolescent growing pains for most teenagers (though here too the results often turn tragic), became an impossible to solve existential dilemma. She could act to reduce or translate the pain through her art, for a while, but when art failed her, and then her marriage, she was utterly alone. Barbara like Sirius was always on the edge. She must have hoped that marriage, or at least a stable relation with one human being, would provide a foundation for her life, but when it collapsed she found herself in a room with the walls closing in.
I think without the barbiturates there would have been a chance for her, but on reviewing the whole of her life, one as to feel that, like Abby and Sirius, it was a very slim chance.
Plaxy at least stayed with Sirius to the end, their hopeless love for each other never wavering. This is in striking contrast to Barbara's husband, who was increasingly alienated from her and near the end apparently completely indifferent to her and her fate. Thus he became representative of the network of families that did not know what to do with her, how to talk with her, and thus was indicative of a world that from Barbara's point of view, rejected her.
Were it not for the point, the immobile point,
I recall a saying that goes something like this: "Millions long for immortality (i.e. heaven) who do not know what to do on a rainy day." True enough, but in fairness to those who long for such life beyond life, I believe there is more to their faith (faith being belief on steroids) than relief from Sunday afternoon boredom. At the very least, for some it is clear their vision of heaven is that of a really good time. For others, the alternative is so awful, even an eternity reading holy scripture is preferable. But for many I think the appeal is in the prospect of redemption: that is, after a difficult life, they will at last be able to spend time with the people they loved, to make up for their lost time and personal failings, and to achieve a moral and emotional fullness that life of earth invariably denies, along with a forgiveness that is seldom attained. This psychological need is as strong as it gets, and we should acknowledge the power it has over many.
There you have it: the range of heaven from a place of a garish (and non-stop) orgy, to the most tearful (and eternal) re-unions with the beloved. Unfortunately, there is absolutely no evidence for any of these most extraordinary of wishes. And certainly Barbara, looking down at the black waters of her final night, would have rejected them. More to the point, it is doubtful she would have even wanted such. But what of her family and friends?
In any lifetime, there will be events that are tragic, or embarrassing at best, and the accumulation of them over the span of a human life can be very painful indeed. I consider my own life nothing to brag about on the happiness/triumph scale, but I cannot begin to imagine what Helen and Wilson Follett went through, before giving up a couple of years after their daughter's disappearance. Her absence must have created the most abhorrent of vacuums in their lives. Barbara was one of those people who, as the phrase goes, "sucked up all the oxygen." Her vitality and intelligence were likely overwhelming to most people. The few who were with her most of her brief life likely wondered if they were in the presence of a superior life form (something like people thought when they were with John von Neumann). For her to vanish as she did, must have been the single most devastating event in their lives. Might each of them in their final hours have accepted the most irrational of hopes, if their was any chance at all of seeing their daughter again? Who can say?In discussing immortality/resurrection, I doubt that I can add anything new to the debate, not that such has ever stopped me before. However, in looking for a way to bring this series to a close, some thoughts seemed warranted. An awful lot of the world's thinking is directed along these lines, after all. We get nowhere by ignoring it.
Physicist Frank Tipler is probably the most well-known contemporary scientist who has thought deeply on the matter of resurrection/immortality. His book, The Physics of Immortality (1994), collects his ideas into a fascinating exercise that still makes for interesting reading. I can't quite call it a theory what he has attempted, yet I confess that for several years I was quite attracted to it. Moreover, to Tipler's credit, he did make specific predictions regarding physical constants and the fate of the universe — were his ideas correct. Unfortunately, the predictions were not realized and the grand vision of a universe that collapses upon itself to a point Singularity, and in so doing becomes a computer able to simulate all possible worlds, leaping forth from that Singularity in a cosmic dance of staggering, majestic beauty, has no evidence to back it up. I don't want to go into his ideas too deeply here, because that would require I also review the sequel, The Physics of Christianity. And there Dr. Tipler and I part company. The book is such an embarrassment that the less said about it the better. Suffice to say, Russell's dictum remains true: whenever science and religion get together, it is religion that prospers and science that suffers.
So if resurrection is not part of the physics of the universe, is there any way it can be accomplished (on a reduced scale) by intelligent intervention? For example, Hans Moravec has suggested that it might be possible to transform a sufficient cold neutron star into a supper computer possessing some 10 to the 55th-power elements. That would translate into a awful lot of possible states and if we grant a good enough simulation is an emulation, i.e. indistinguishable from the real thing (that, too, being one of Tipler's arguments), amazing possibilities are opened up. And presumably there could be other mechanisms once a theory of quantum gravity is attained.
But enough. Even if we argue that dead worlds and people could be resurrected in this fashion, it hardly seems that we have achieved what the religious want, not only a life reborn, but a moral order to existence: redemption as well as resurrection. One variant of the life after death idea (though it is hardly original with him, I think Buddhists have it as well), is used in the recent book by Douglas Hofstadter, I am a Strange Loop. In essence, the idea is that we can absorb a mental construct of the loved person and thus provide mentally a kind of temporary immortality (i.e. until we, serving as the host, die ourselves).
I highly doubt this is either a meaningful or effective approach, and as long as I am going to dismiss Tipler, I might as well dismiss Hofstadter as well. In brief, while an individual may absorb aspects of another's personality, e.g. outward behaviors and verbal statements typically, having lived with them for years and so forth, to conclude such could form an autonomous individual within his/her consciousness self is an altogether unwarranted leap. It just doesn't work that way. You may think you know the other person, even after living with them for years, but you really do not and cannot. Today, some 70% of divorces in America are initiated by the wife. I am confident this comes as a remarkable surprise to the majority of husbands who have presumably been in close, steady contact with them. These hapless men have discovered, in admittedly a remarkably crude fashion, that whatever the essential core of the other, it has eluded them and will continue to elude them. Worse still, as much as it eludes themselves. Hofstadter's immortality-lite is fool's gold that has no basis, no matter how fancy he dresses it up with stuff borrowed and blue from Godel's theorem. Astrology makes more sense.
These ideas serve only to raise both false directions and false hopes, and I am certain they would ultimately satisfy no one. A future world my decide differently, of course, having come up with different mechanism(s), but right now we have more pressing problems — e.g. keeping this world intact, along with our lives and freedoms. It seems to me more valuable to accept the reality of a finite, random world and people (for which we have plenty of evidence) and do with our lives what we can in the time remaining. There is little time in the best of circumstances and waiting for a fantasy hardly seems healthy.
Barbara is gone. There is no way to bring her back and no way to return to her, via time-travel (another immortality fantasy), or any other means. If your faith argues otherwise, I will not dispute it, however. I was once informed by a lady, a person I loved deeply, that these issues would be understood and resolved — if I had "true faith." A statement that has haunted me (plug alert — and one that served as a basis for my novel). It also distressed me greatly that she told me this while in a furious state. Devastated as it left me, I would not back down then or now to get her back. The lesson I was to have learned was unacceptable: never think about these things, never talk about them. Such is not how progress is made.
But what if, despite everything, I am wrong, and I have been so on rare occasion. I am, after all, no less prone to fantasy than anyone else. Suppose there is an afterlife and I still get in (ok, this really is a fantasy). My angry ex-friend probably would not be happy to hear I had arrived, but in due course I would find her and gladly tell her that I admit my error. It is even possible she would forgive me after an eternity or two.
But before that great moment came, I like to imagine that heaven operates as follows: upon entry, I am given a wish, a single choice, to meet the one person who has meant the most to me/has been the greatest influence on my life. I would be allowed one question of that person. Of course, this being heaven and all, the "authorities" (not sure how to put that) would know without even asking. My entrance grade might be barely passing (that at least seems real enough), but for that one moment of eternity, I would have what I wanted. I would stride (or however one moves in heaven) passed the people I have loved (including her), passed my heroes and villains (who certainly are a source of intense curiosity to me), passed relatives and friends, passed the women who have meant everything to me (and rapidly passed those who likely still have it in for me), passed the honored dead in all their manifold billions, and I would approach Barbara, surrounded for all time by her family and her friends. She would look at me in solemn acknowledgment and I would hear her thoughts.
"I know who you are."
I would respond, truthfully, "I can hardly be said to know you at all."
She would smile and reply, "By the rules of heaven, what is it that you want to know?"
And I would ask: "What happened to you that night?"
March 18, 2008
. . . Or a haunting spirit of the night.
Of the pieces that have appeared on this site, none have captured the attention of readers more than my sprawling, experimental, and not altogether focused series of the life of Barbara Newhall Follett, the young literary genius who vanished the evening of December 7, 1939 just three months shy of her 26th birthday. I received encouragement, advice, and criticism, all of which are gratifying. They were in fact more than I could have hoped for. Though the intent of the series was both to work out my thoughts regarding her life (I really was at the stage I wanted to put it behind me) and how it had affected my life, along with a plea that her literary legacy be preserved so the story not be forgotten again, it seemed to have accomplished something more: reawakened the feelings, positive and negative, regarding the tale for those who have been haunted by it since they first encountered it, typically through McCurdy's book, Barbara. I admit to having a vague hope that I would be able to communicate my feelings to find kindred spirits if you will, and to the extent I was able to do so, I believe the series accomplished its purposes. Once the series was completed, it was certainly not my intent to do anything more beyond that – though any items of interest that might fall my way I promised to share. But attempting to "solve" the mystery? No. The thought of rummaging through Barbara's letters (should I ever locate them) for telling or salacious details would have filled me with horror. The letters were for historical and literary value only. Re-opening the case, investigating the mystery was simply out of the question. For reasons of both time not to mention the death of almost all those who had been directly affected by the story, it was not to be. But over the months, it became clear to me that Barbara's mystery still cast a spell. The haunting, if you will, continued and it turned out that it was not so easy after all for me to close the book on her and move on.
So I write this follow up piece reluctantly, but write it nevertheless. I have done to an extent what I had no desire to do. Thanks to some crucial information provided by one correspondent and inspiration provided by the others, I was able to locate her letters and the door was now open for me to go rummaging through them to my heart's content. All that I can say in my defense is that I am by temperament a cautious individual and am hesitant to draw conclusions without strong evidence. But what I did turn up was shocking enough, at least to me, so reluctant as I was, I would write a follow-up series. By the end of last year, in fact, I realized I had to give it a try.
In brief, since reviewing her letters of 1929-30 and 1938-39 (plus the post-disappearance letters of her mother, Helen Follett), I have come to drastically revise many of my earlier conclusions and opinions. No doubt other surprises await, should I wish to pursue them (to be determined), but what I found was troubling enough. The matter, in other words, is now at the stage where the risk is justified. I regret if I upset people or frustrate them by what I have done. It was certainly not my intent. Nevertheless, I will tell what I know and what I don't and what I conclude. Where there are areas of uncertainty, and there are many, I will point them out as well. You the reader can take from there
Note: For those of you who are curious, I am willing to discuss the matter via e-mail. However, while I will report on what I have found in the future, I believe this series will in fact close the book, if for no other reason that I have probably taken it as far as I can. Without help, there is really little more I can do.
The Casper Hauser of Our Time
I have to admit I am still getting the hang of this new-fangled Internet thingy, so while it is embarrassing to admit, I really have no choice but to do so: I had in my previous series, in my ignorance, overlooked some obvious sources of information. Well, I said I would never pretend to know more than I do.
The original ground rules for writing the first Barbara series was to rely exclusively on McCurdy's book. That would be my only source of information and I stuck with it. There was nothing else I had access to. It did occur to me from time to time as I was preparing the first series that McCurdy's wonderful book while the only source might not be a perfect one. Nevertheless, I trusted and respected the author and had no reason at the time to question any of it. Let me be blunt on this. I admire the heck out of McCurdy and what he must have gone through those five years to bring the book to fruition is nothing short of amazing (more on that later). But as the warning goes, i.e. to beware the man with one book, one should be also be worried about the historian (amateur historian in my case) with only one source. Especially since that source is not the original documents.
Let me be clear about this need for access to the original documents, since it is vital in what is to come. Henry Ford once said that history was bunk. I think he was on to something. But allow me to be more positive: if you like reading history and want some real excitement in your life — and who doesn't? — go to the source documents and uncover the "history-in-the-raw" as I like to call it. I guarantee, the source documents will never cease to astonish you. They may even gross you out (a lot gets edited out before the polished scholarly work is published, believe me), but you won't be bored.
Now, it has been said that anyone's life told in sufficient detail is shocking. Raw history, versus "pasteurized history," will confirm that truth. A couple of examples: "Mormonism: Shadow or Reality," a phone-book sized collection of original documents on the founding of the Mormon Church, and "Blacklisted by History" which examines the career of Senator McCarthy (1946 -1954), again using only the original source documents. The results in both cases I found to be extraordinary and quite unsettling. Should you read either (both can be found on Amazon.com), you will be left thoroughly distrustful of the established histories, so much so that I believe, as I myself have done, you will restrict yourself to the very few historians you admire, and even then you will be suspicious. You might even be tempted to stop reading history altogether. "The law is a ass," one Dickensian character said. He might well have been talking about most history.
Once I knew where to locate Barbara's source documents, the only hope I had for getting nearer the truth, the quest would not be denied. As noted, one of my correspondents had informed me that he knew their location, the library where the letters were stored. This was the entire 2000 page collection of her writings, catalogued, if not in excessive detail, and armed with that knowledge it turned out to be remarkably easy to get copies of the letters I wanted. I couldn't believe my luck. Recall – these would have been the only sources of information, other than interviews with Mrs. Follett that McCurdy had access too.
[Certainly if he had interviewed Barbara's father, he never mentioned it, and given the degree of the Follett family tensions, which continue to this day, I highly doubt that he did. Similarly, any request to interview her former husband would also have been turned down flat. But fascinating stuff turned up regardless. My correspondent had also pointed to a revealing incident that took place in late 1929, when Barbara while in California, ran away from her guardian at the time, determined at age 15 to avoid college and to live her own life.]
One cannot help but be sympathetic to Barbara at every stage in her life.
The incident is not in the book, though it is to be found in contemporary newspaper accounts – it appears she was a minor celebrity at the time. If only People or Us had been around . . . The fact that McCurdy does not mention this incident, like the dog that didn't bark, raises an obvious question — was he in fact aware of it? If he was, why was it not in the book? And if he was not, why didn't Mrs. Follett inform him of it? Even more remarkably there is no record whatever of this crucial incident in her letters — there is an eight month gap from May 24, 1929 to February 1930.
It is simply not credible that Barbara, who was a prolific letter writer, would have written nothing regarding her running away during this time. It was the first indication I had that there had been something of a fiddle with her letters.
In any event, once the letters were located that was just the beginning. I had to decide what I needed to examine if I were to do what I could to clear away the fog and cobwebs (fogwebs?) from her life. In truth, the thought of reading her original letters was as noted embarrassing to me — I didn't want to come across as a voyeur. I knew, as any reader of the book knows, that the letters quoted in Barbara had been edited to presumably make them more palatable (as McCurdy stated in the Foreword: "We had no desire to gossip, much less wound anyone.") Sad to say, one man's tawdry gossip is another man's vital context. If you are going to go the raw history route, which any real historian must, you have to see and review and weigh and judge it all. For a fiction writer, editing is everything. For a historian, editing is death.
While I had hoped, given my trust of McCurdy, that what had been excluded in the book was non-essential, I was soon to discover it was anything but. Given that letters were missing, large chunks of letters in fact, leaving behind some highly visible gaps, I had no choice but to grasp at what I could to fill in the blanks. I was the first person to inquire into her literary effects since the early ‘80's, and was according to the library records, the first to examine her letters since Helen Follett placed her daughter's literary estate in the library, sometime in the late 60's. I was on solid ground now, but very much on my own. There was no turning back.
Conclusion 1: While as a poetic statement of her life and an introduction to her writings, Barbara continues to have value, as a biography it can no longer be considered reliable. And for those seeking clues as to the reality of Barbara as a human being, as well as an understanding of her disappearance and the murky circumstances, this most wonderful of books is of quite limited value and frequently all but useless.
I regret having to write the above for it is likely to give a misleading impression. As always, we must ask ourselves: what were the alternatives McCurdy had? If he were determined to preserve the story and bring it to the light of day, what options did he have? Without McCurdy, the story would have been utterly lost, barely ranking a footnote, a curiosity in the history of literature. There were also other things he could have been doing with his time. But he took the time, years of it, and brought his enormous scholarship and reputation to preserve this tale of a lost literary genius, writing it under conditions that must have been quite difficult psychologically. "Walking on eggs" doesn't begin to describe what he must have gone through.
Supposition 1: Writing the book would have undoubtedly been cathartic for both parties (McCurdy's daughter had died in 1958, unknown circumstances), but that cannot fully explain his determination to bring this project to a conclusion. I believe from the moment he had encountered her writings, McCurdy began to fall in love with Barbara, a dead woman. There is nothing unusual or necessarily Freudian in this. It happens all the time actually – it is simply one more strategy, albeit an extreme one, to avoid intimacy and/or pain. For women, this frequently involves a flight from a male partner or the possibility of one. To do so, such women will nurture and lavish their affection on a dead relative or lover to escape the attentions of, well, anyone. We all know such women. Similarly, a man will employ the strategy to flee into the past for redemption, or to an alternate imaginary world, one that still offers the possibility of love. I neither condemn these people nor recommend such actions. It is simply part of the human condition and like everything else, requires enormous work to overcome. For an example, and as usual I have to go to art, I refer the interested reader to another event of 1958, Hitchcock's film Vertigo, which deals with exactly that theme: recreating a dead love. I do not know if McCurdy had seen it, but given his strong interest in psychology and art, he may well have. It is one of my favorites. And, of course, I too had fallen in love with Barbara.
Now that the parties are long dead, with one possible exception, there can be no substitute for, no re-building upon what he accomplished. The moment was there, both parties seized it, and Barbara's story survived, barely, and compromised. Helen Thomas's misgivings had joined with the love they both felt for Barbara. Those were the constraints that bound the book.
Regrettably, by suppressing and glossing over crucial information, McCurdy did, I believe, in all innocent intent, a disservice to the readers. He overly romanticized the story and left the reader with what I suppose can only be described as a "misleading impression" – that of a woman who was a "spirit of the night," who was gone from our world yet in some strange way was still with us, a Casper Hauser of the mind that instead of coming from another world or dimension, had returned to it, leaving us forever to wonder as to who she was and what her life meant. Barbara the human being had indeed vanished at the end of the book, and that was the problem.
For the sake of all concerned, I believe he should have published some sort of disavowal of the book — and perhaps he did, though I have been unable to locate it — perhaps in a private memoir of sorts concerning how the book had been come about. Such would have explained there was more to the book than met the eye, and while there was, and is, a mystery there is nothing that cannot be explained outside of the terms of mundane human reality. Part of the reason I say this is because it is clear from Mrs. Follett's letters regarding the disappearance of her daughter, which unfortunately do not pick up until some 9 years after Barbara had vanished (another batch of letters gone missing!), that she was increasingly desperate to find any clue as to what had happened. She was also becoming increasingly suspicious.
I will be getting to those letters and what they imply soon enough, but it is evident given both her health problems and her fragile state of mind, by the time she met McCurdy she must have been near the end of her rope (" . . . it cost her something to remember her lost child.") No doubt. While one can only imagine the incredible sensitivity and patience he must have brought to this near impossible task of forming a coherent biography out of Barbara's letters, her writings, and her mother's recollections, I am under no such constraints. I have broken them.
If you prefer the story as written, then stop here now.
We will begin with this item, quoted from the Boston Globe column "ASK THE GLOBE," June 6, 1994. I came across this gem when I was doing research for this follow-up piece. It is worth quoting — for the most part — though not for any reason the Boston Globe would appreciate, I'm sure:
Q. What ever happened to the child prodigy writer Barbara Newhall Follett? My mother read me the book she wrote when she was 11 years old . . . called "The House without Windows." I understand that when Barbara grew up in Brookline, she disappeared one day. Did she ever return?
R. "Apparently not. A brilliant writer who had educated at home, Barbara was deeply unhappy. At the age of 16, she ran away from her parents [sic] home in Pasadena, Calif., and when tracked by detectives [sic] to a San Francisco hotel, tried to kill herself by jumping out a window. Her parents later separated and Barbara's own early marriage foundered. Living in Brookline, she found work as a secretary and hated it. She was last seen on Dec. 7, 1939, leaving her Brookline apartment with $30 and a shorthand pad.]
We will stop there. So few statements, so many errors. To begin: Barbara did not grow up in Brookline (the questioner's error, granted, but it should have been corrected by Mr. Answers). It was not her parents' home that she ran away from. She was still 15. Her father's leaving the family (when she was age 12) was traumatic, but Barbara was not by nature a "deeply unhappy" person. She recovered; she fought for her happiness throughout her life. Her letters show her to be a fully alive, strong and balanced individual, with a vibrant sense of humor – she never seemed, though I suppose interpretations could differ, to take herself that seriously. She was a romantic, exuberant, but never manic. As revealed by her letters, her reactions were proportionate and appropriate to the circumstances she found herself in, and she displayed shrewdness right up to the end.
As for the "jumping out a window" bit, from the two contemporary newspaper accounts I found (unfortunately, the only sources I have, but at least there are two), it's not documented that any such thing happened so I cannot confirm it. Neither the L.A. Times nor the Hartford Courant mention the supposed suicide attempt. It is possible, though how the Boston Globe got its information I do not know, that she tried to escape out the window, not jump. She was not afraid of heights and would certainly given her feelings at the time have found such recourse worth a try.
Moving right along, her parents had already been separated for three years. She did not "hate" working as a secretary ("stenographer"); that was how she planned to support herself should her running away have been successful and she worked in the field for many years. Later, she decided that being a business woman was not for her. Understandably, she much preferred artistic expression, but she was fully and maturely aware of the realities of her and her husband's economic situation. Her marriage was not that "early" (she married at age 20, after an engagement of two years, hardly unusual in those days.)
One more example why one shouldn't trust newspapers, and certainly not any dippy "Ask Mr. Answers"-type columns.
But since it refers specifically to the incident that persuaded me to write this review of her life, as we move beyond McCurdy in search of her life, I felt there was no harm in starting with it, as in its own twisted way, the item does give some context to the flight from Pasadena, Calif., which is not in Barbara. Here is the story to the best I can reconstruct it.
One year after the divorce (though legal haggling over money would continue on and off for some time), Barbara got the idea for what would become an almost two-year, almost around the world cruise. Her mother agreed, reluctantly at first, but soon with mounting enthusiasm. It would become an odyssey that Mrs. Follett would parley into two books (Magic Portholes and Stars to Steer By). The voyage would take the pair to the Caribbean and then to the Pacific islands, Hawaii, to the West Coast and finally back to New York. It was on the return voyage from Hawaii on board the schooner Vigilant that she met her first of two great loves: second-mate E. Anderson (the mysterious "A." of the book — the Folletts seem to have an annoying preference for the use of initials), whom I have still not been able to find anything about, including his full first name.
Given their limited monetary resources, the plan was to support themselves on the whole of the voyage by freelance work, editing and writing essentially. Though I don't recommend trying it, it was not a bad idea at the time. Overall the experience would become a wonderful adventure for them both, and one well worth immersing oneself into for those into "vanished times and places" genre of travel literature. But for our purposes, the main result of the voyage was that for two years Barbara would experience near total freedom. This would serve to amplify her already strong tendencies in that direction. At age fifteen, she viewed herself with justification as far more adult than child.
In sum, it got their minds off the divorce and their problems (as two-year ocean cruises tend to do). Unfortunately, it left them both nearly broke (as two-year ocean cruises tend to do). Cash shortage is a frequent theme in Barbara's letters and seems to be something of a family curse. All in all, however, the idea worked and was reasonably well executed.
But when Barbara and her mother arrived on the West Coast from Hawaii (late July. 1929), their financial situation was dire. According to the newspaper accounts, two "wealthy friends" (recall: the Great Depression had not yet started), described as "elderly women engaged in scientific research," Mrs. A. Brown of Concord Mass. and Miss Mildred Kennedy of Boston had to come to their rescue. It appears they travelled cross-country to Pasadena to clear up the mess. A plan was worked out among the adults: Mrs. Follett would return to Hawaii to work and replenish the Follett's cash so to complete the journey home, and Barbara would be entrusted in the care of Dr. Ture Schultz of Pasadena. Starting that fall, she would be enrolled "as a student in Pasadena Junior College." It would be the end of her absolute freedom, but it must have made perfect sense at the time to Mrs. Follett. It probably made even more sense to Brown and Kennedy who may well have been appalled by Barbara's tomboyish bordering on sailor ways. It was long past the time for her daughter to get serious about school work, to prepare for adulthood and becoming a mature young lady. So forth and so on.
Barbara had other ideas and soon had a plan of her own.
Quoting again from the L. A. Times (the headline blazes: CHILD WRITER IN REVOLT), Barbara stated she "found the arrangement ‘unbearable.' The situation was ‘poisonous.' She felt ‘suppressed, crushed, and almost insane' at the curtailment of her freedom. So she ran away to San Francisco."
She was over thirty years ahead of her time.
Concluding the interview: "'I am an expert typist,' she said. ‘I have used a typewriter since I was 4 years of age. I corrected the galley proofs of my own books. I have lived all my life with scholarly, well-informed, cultured people. Though I am only 15 and inexperienced in the business world, I am better equipped than most who enter it and succeed.' No doubt about that.
Barbara explained: " . . . the plans that had been made for me. I did not want to enter college and nor live the standardized existence. I have never been to school in my life. Perhaps I might like it – I do not know. But this I know: I do not want to like it." Emphasis added. As a statement, it is a brilliant summary of teenage rebellion. I wish I could have said it at age 15.
Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone
Having left poor Dr. Schultz a "note of explanation," she fled by "stage" no less, that would lead to her (quoting the L.A. Times writer Floyd J. Healy) "beating the wings of her young aspirations against the bars hedging the freedom of youth . . ." (you can't make this stuff up, folks). As is frequently the case in such winged aspirations, Barbara soon found herself in a Juvenile Detention Home. It was, she said, "a sordid, humiliating experience . . . Four little girls in their blue uniforms in their cages next to mine. Looking through the bars, one of them even tried to wink at me."
Soon Mrs. A. Brown and Miss Mildred Kennedy showed up to retrieve her and that is when matters blew to the full. The "young literary genius protested to such effect . . . ," as one can well-imagine, that the court was duly impressed. Barbara was not turned over to her would-be elderly guardians and there the newspaper accounts, those I could find anyway, abruptly end. As is so typical of newspapers, then and now, just when the "story" gets interesting, it is dropped.
So what happened next? Trying to piece together the story was not easy, but in broad outline, and if I am wrong given the style and speed of internet discourse, I am certain to be corrected, I believe this is what happened. Her mother was in Hawaii or heading there, and since there was no way to reach her and even if they could no way for her to readily return, giving up Mrs. Brown and Miss Kennedy did the only thing they could do before returning home: contact Barbara's father. Now Wilson Follett has gotten some bad press and certainly does not come across altogether sympathetic in Barbara, but he seems to have come through fine for Barbara on this one. He contacted the Russell family, also in Pasadena, whose three daughters (Alice, Elizabeth, and Phoebe) were much closer to Barbara's age and were writers/artists in their own right (how he came to know them is unclear, but it is possible he had dealt with Alice as an editor.) The family agreed to take in Barbara until her mother returned. All talk of schooling was dropped. This arrangement appears to have worked out much better. Alice D. Russell was I gather a modestly popular writer of the time and she and Barbara hit it off perfectly. In fact, it is clear Barbara took to the whole family. There is even a friendly letter from Barbara to Mr. Russell in the collection. Alice (always referred to as "A.D.R" in Barbara's letters) would in fact become her closest friend and correspondent until Barbara's disappearance ten years later.
As far as the Pasadena business is concerned, all's well that ends well, one supposes.
What are we to make of this? It's a remarkable incident that may or may not shed light on Barbara's later vanishing. It leaves open the possibility that in 1939, like she did in 1929, she fled a miserable situation to find freedom and happiness once more. Yet the circumstances were hardly the same and the fact that there is no documentation of the eight month period that encompasses what I came to call the "Pasadena Adventure" has an ominous feel to it. What was really going on? Why was none of this, which could have been so illuminated Barbara's psychology, in the book? It would have been a perfect segue for McCurdy's speculations about her disappearance at the end of Barbara, but there is nothing.
At the very least, where did the letters go? Why the cover-up, if you will? It's all speculation at this point but it shows how much of Barbara's life is murky and how far the mystery extends before and after her disappearance.
Supposition #2: I can only guess that what is missing showed Barbara in an unflattering light, at least from the POV of her mother who is I fear a suspect in the letters disappearance, not just a person of interest, and Mrs. Follett decided that no one should ever know of these letters. The problem is that regardless of the nobility of her desire to protect Barbara's legacy, vital contextual information was lost when these letters were destroyed. The grim irony of this is that there is no question that is the last thing that Mrs. Follett would have wanted, but there it is.
The letters of Alice D. Russell might shed light on this, but for now they too are equally lost.
This protectiveness, if that is what it is, is not without precedent, i.e. where the literary executors of an estate have felt it advisable to destroy some or all letters or even the entire works of an author, sometimes in deference to their wishes, sometimes one can only assume by malicious whim. I personally dislike intensely the destruction of any aspect of a writer's work or heritage for whatever reason and I loath with every atom of my being the people who do such things. The problem is once the process starts, where does it end? A letter here, a manuscript there, and pretty soon you are left with what only be described as the Cliff's Notes of a person's life. I realize a lot of this material may be unpleasant and not for the squeamish, and should be handled with more sensitivity than most writers/scholars bring to the task, but that is life. It bears repeating: one man's trivial and distasteful gossip is another man's crucial and human context. If we can't handle that trade-off, then we risk turning all history into fantasy. For what is history, if not a vast network of interlocking biographies?
A Personal Statement
Today it is possible for a person to go through college learning almost no history, or history slanted so decidedly by one perspective, that the student is better off learning none of it. This is the monumental tragedy of our time, a guarantee for disaster, an epitaph for all our freedoms and desires. We are presented now, today — this is not a warning of things that might happen — with entire generations, based on the inane conversations at work I must endure and what passes for political and social commentary that I can barely bring myself to read, who know nothing of life beyond their own dreary misadventures, if that, and what trash television pours into their empty little skulls. It's not that these people don't try. They don't even know they have to try or if they did how to try. We are becoming not just a nation, but an entire world, of zombies.
I'm off my soapbox. Now we jump forward to Fall, 1938. Comments (0)
April 1, 2008
His Comely Mug
It was the first letter of the year ("1938-39"), dated October 4, 1938. It was in one of the packets I had ordered from the library. Because of that simple fact, again there was a strong sense that letters were missing and presumably destroyed. In this letter to her writer friend Alice ("A.D.R") Russell, Barbara wrote about her husband appearing in the September 12, 1938 issue of Life magazine. The letter shows Barbara was in an exuberant mood. There are no clouds on the horizon, no sense at all of a gathering storm. She writes: "By the way, did you see his comely mug in Life … in connection with the article on Polaroid? And did you recognize him? (The young man whose rear view shows in the picture above is Nick's brother Howard.)" She would buy several copies of the magazine to give to friends and relatives.
This is an important point to keep in mind. Barbara had an extended network of family, including a half-sister because of her father's remarriage, and friends. These people were in contact with her on and off right up to the end. She was seldom alone, isolated, or in cut off from this world. 1938, as near as can be determined, was in her life a comfortable time. Nothing intruded. She obviously liked her husband, that comes through strongly in the letters, but she as not beholden to him and she had her own life and interests. And it appeared she liked Howard, her brother-in-law.
So what about that article on Polaroid? Since there are no limits to what I will go through to research a piece for my readers, I went on-line (I am getting the hang of it), and ordered a copy of that issue of Life. This was, the site assured me, the real deal: a genuine issue of the magazine, a true relic, not some lame photocopy facsimile. Since one of the key points of this piece is the absolute requirement of using original documents as far as is possible, this was as close as I could get to just such a thing. The price of the issue in 1938, btw, was a lousy 10 cents. It cost me 30 bucks. But it was worth it, I think. I was in for a treat.
Getting a real copy of that magazine proved to be, psychologically, a mixed blessing. It was like being presented with a shiny new time machine, the dream of the ages, all sparkling circuits and chrome controls, but with the unfortunate feature that it would only take you to a time and place you really did not want to go. It was like a siege perilous that sent you to a world least suited to whoever you were. I must confess at this point I am old enough to remember Life magazine when it was being published as a weekly periodical and even at that tender age I found something terribly creepy about it. Maybe it was the way they sucked up to power (der Furher was a favorite in the thirties, such a charming cad he was, what a card!), or their smugness about their photography – their incredibly brilliant photographers had given you a picture of something and that was all you would ever need to know. Or maybe it was their clueless moralizing, or their fascination, for example, with the KKK ("The costume-wearers on this page are a small and mischievous remnant of the once mighty Ku Klux Klan. The Klan rides but seldom now . . ." p. 22). Crikey (once again I feel compelled to assure the reader I am not making this stuff up). This is a line that Life would repeat for many years, decades in fact. The truth was they loved how photogenic (from their POV) the Klan was. The Klan was like a cheap celebrity you grabbed when no one else was available, kind of the Britney of the day. The burning "gasoline-soaked cross" (as if readers could never have figured that detail out for themselves) of the "mischievous" attracted them like something attracts flies.
Maybe it was just the way they lumped everything together, there being no gradations: Fascist Fuhrer or Fall Fashion, it all had the same moral weight, the same depth and urgency. Or it might have been the ads. Let's never forget the ads. On the back of the issue is a full-color cartoon of sorts advertisement for the cigarette brand Camels ("CAMELS AGREE WITH ME," it yells at you at the bottom of the page). It has to seen to be believed, and even then you won't believe it. Something about how smoking Camels will help you (the male journalist) catch the eye of the fetching (female) circus performer. They help calm her nerves, you see, (the cigarettes, not journalists) and if you're a smoker of the noxious weed yourself, you would demonstrate to her at once how astonishingly cool and understanding you were.
People loved this publication. It was not a disease as such, but it came terribly close. Certainly it was a grim symptom of something terminal. Glancing through it, one realizes sadly it is little wonder our ancestors stumbled blindly into the most appalling war in human history. It was also, I believe, an accurate reflection of Barbara's view of the world. There is no poignant indication in her letters that she was in any way disturbed by the coming war – she gives no notice to anything happening outside her world. Quoting McCurdy: ". . . the threatening postures of Hitler in Europe, which might conceivably have affected the young woman she then was . . ." Not buying it. Politics was well outside of her range of interest, except for one brief romantic fling as a teenager, from the beginning of her life until the end. She was sharp, she was deep, and she was never resigned. She had long since reconciled herself to her judgment on humanity and there was nothing that ever caused her to reconsider.
Finally, it might also have been the insipid ain't-science-grand type articles, an inane feature to this day of popular news magazines with no understanding of science (e.g. Scientific American). In this instance, the article featured Barbara's husband, Mr. Nickerson Rogers (pp. 38-39), and that is what truly makes it worth noting, at least according to Barbara. No doubt she is right. Sadly, the picture of her husband is not a good one. It is likely he is squinting before a bright light as he dourly demonstrates, holding one large circular filter (a good foot in diameter) in each hand. This is Polaroid's incredible device for polarizing light. He was a company technician-salesman at the time and he does not appear to be altogether happy with his latest assignment. The final shot shows him twisting both filters at just the right angle to result in a wedge of completely blocked light: there result in appearance is a huge split in his head, as if cleaved by an ax. But Barbara, as noted, was quite proud that he had appeared in a national news publication.
It's not that love is blind, but it does have a blinding effect.
A Stick of Dynamite
In the November letter, she also comments on receiving A.D.R.'s new book. She has a good "chuckle" over it because it ". . . made me think very definitely indeed of a certain situation in California some years ago, especially when everybody got flurried and flustered, etc. I think that consciously or unconsciously you must have been harking back to that." For reasons which are probably obvious by now, this passage is not quoted in Barbara.
The frequency of the letters then drops markedly – there is nothing between November '38 and July '39, but this time at least there is a plausible reason. Barbara stopped writing, because she was too busy practicing with her dance group in preparation for summer classes at Mills College, California. There was also something else: there had been a blow-up between her and her husband ("I had a bad spell. Made a mess of things.") It happened sometime around the end of '38, cause or causes unknown. There are no details, but it was a topic of conversation for some time. Nevertheless, she is confident she can make up for it, but it remained persistently in the background. Her husband had a new job and is apparently happy with it which is a great relief to her. Her plans for dance instruction at Mills College are a great success ("I am loving it"). The hard work, the long practice sessions through the winter months of her "Boston Group" have paid off. She is with several of the "big shots" of dance, she tells her friend. It is a heady, happy experience.
In short, there is no indication anywhere that things are about to go decidedly wrong. She writes that she plans to meet with A.D.R. and other California friends as soon as the summer school completes, which is August 11. In fact, as the Summer School ends in 1939, she has good news. In the letter of August 6 she reveals that while she has "acquired a beautiful charley horse," happily this will enable her to leave the campus even earlier.
Sometime around August 12th, give or take a day, and apparently while still at Mills recuperating, (her husband sent out three copies it appears of the bombshell letter, all to different locations where Barbara might be, including even one to A.D.R. just to make sure his wife got it), she received the letter from her husband. In essence, he stated he had found someone else and the marriage was over. It was that brutal and that sudden. In one blow, it shattered her plans, her illusion of happiness, and her life.
August 15th she was back in Boston. The nightmare had begun. Upon her return to the apartment, no one was around. Frantically, she called everyone she could think of, but learned nothing except that he was in New York, at a hotel where he could not be contacted. Finally, she reaches her "very good friend," Dr. Charlie Dunlop who "already knew a little of the situation from last spring."
Here is an excerpt of the letter from August 17 (a letter not referenced in Barbara) which gives a much better description of what happened on her return: "He came right over to see me, bringing (a) three large, juicy and delectable hamburgers; (b) a bottle of whiskey; (c) some sleeping dope. Well, the combination of these things, plus a good talk with him, just fixed me up. I slept well, then woke up yesterday quite relaxed and almost confident and hopeful – a little scared still, of course, a little strained, but hopeful. I spent the day very slowly and quickly doing domestic things, and time passed fairly quickly. I read and listened to the radio, and got to sleep last night under my own power without benefit of dope." [Emphasis added.]
But from the letter of August 22, just five days later [quoted at length in Barbara) things are not so hopeful. Note: "S."is Nickerson ("Nick") Rogers. Her guilt has returned in force ("But it's really my fault. I had it coming to me, I know.") The following day, her brother-in-law Howard called, saying he would come over to have supper with her that night. That must have been some conversation: sorry about my brother dumping you. He gets like that sometimes, you know. I'm sure in a few months we'll all look back on this and laugh . . .
Nick himself would be showing up around the same time, she was assured. He actually shows up around noon, though it appears the following day. The return of her husband does not help matters. It only makes them worse.
Quoted in Barbara: "I don't know whether I told you he [i.e. Doctor Dunlop] gave me some sleeping stuff. Ever since S. got back I‘ve had to take it every night." [Emphasis added.]
As the weeks progress, Barbara is still hopeful, but it is clear she is starting to catch on. Nick at one point has her search for a new apartment, one large enough for his brother to stay as he will be getting married in January and needs a place in the interim. Nick is also urging her to find work that she will be happy at (she begins to realize this might just be a way to ease her out of his life.) And while there is no evidence of the other woman, a point Barbara and at least one friend grasps, she wills herself to act as if her rival does indeed exist. (Her husband would in fact remarry in almost four years, which gives some credence to the notion there was no one waiting breathlessly for him.)
In this new apartment, we now have the following: a doctor supplying sleeping "dope" (I'm standing by my guess of barbiturates and one suspects in significant, i.e. increasingly dangerous, quantities) as well as liquor (that's swift thinking, doc.) Moreover, we have a cast off wife, an indifferent husband, and a brother-in-law hanging around waiting to be married in the near future, with perhaps his fiancee dropping by from time to time as well.
"On the surface, things are terribly, terribly calm, and wrong — just as wrong as they can be." Barbara, in her last letter, 11/4/39. But her work and her dancing continue — right up until Christmas is the plan.
Conclusion #2: you don't have to be Tennessee Williams to know this is an explosive situation. To gauge how explosive it is, it would help to have the letter of September 11, 1939, the next to the last she wrote (she alludes to it in that final letter). But that letter too is missing and one has to presume destroyed. With no additional information forthcoming, one simply has to take the situation as a given. And by doing so, I conclude, I find it impossible to believe any longer that "on Thursday evening, December 7, 1939 in the early evening, Barbara walked out of her Brookline apartment . . . [with] about thirty dollars . . . and the shorthand notes she had taken during the day." And I find it quite odd that anyone at the time did. Not astonishing, just very odd.
Something indeed happened around that day and time, but walking out into the cold Boston night with the equivalent of a few hundred dollars cash was not it.
Astral AviaryApril 8, 2008
A Haunting Spirit: Further Reflections on the Tragedy of Barbara Newhall Follett (Part IV)Filed under: Blogs — jkel @ 6:11 pm
No fantasy is more prevalent and powerful than the fantasy of a parallel world, one hidden from our senses, yet believed to be as real in its own strange way as our own. The fantasy states we live beside this invisible existence throughout our lives, most never knowing it nor having idea it is even there. But ,the fantasy hints, some of us can wonder, suspect, and imagine this hidden world. And a gifted few, artistically or spiritually, are granted the magical means/powers to perceive this alternate reality and can enter it to either escape the endless boredom of this one or flee its unrelenting terror. Thus the fantasy serves as both a refuge and a solace to our day-to-day existence and like its metaphysical equivalents, time travel and heaven, it is very old. Psychologically, it began with the dread of death and blossomed from there. The fantasy speaks to a need very deep in the human psyche and can either spark our creativity or our anguish, or both, but the longing is ever present from the first love loss in life – perhaps a pet, a friend, a relative, or a spouse – to the finality of our own demise. There are many, many such fantasies and I will not attempt to give even a short list.
At a young age, Barbara was seized by this fantasy of another world (one she called "Farksolia" – a word remarkably rich in acronyms, Frail Oaks being a personal favorite) that could be known only by her. What is even more remarkable is that she seemed also at that early age to have grasped the reality implicit in the longing to know this world – that not only was a special means of perception required: the gift of "minds to believe, and eyes to see." But to actually cross over to it, presuming my interpretation of The House Without Windows is valid, the only mechanism was through one's own death. Death was the "objective correlative" to this fantasy from its inception (and so it will remain until the last human being has succumbed.) As a fantasy, it would prove to be incredibly powerful to her. Strong and confident as Barbara was, she could never escape the power of Eepersip's vision. There is no question that Barbara was drawn to death (or more accurately its living surrogate – sleep) in the final months of her life. The end of her marriage and the way that it was done was a psychological hammer blow from which she never recovered. This is clear regardless of how brave the words of her letters. Fighting to the end, she fought the depths of her despair and made repeated and determined efforts to right and restore things. She kept her head throughout; she handled it as well as anyone could have. But the longing-dread for the night doomed her.
Whatever the cause of the blow-up between her and her husband in winter 1938, a blow-up she alluded to and spoke about with her friends over a period of several months, it must have been a beaut. Having been on the receiving end of such a thing myself (as I think most married people have at least once), I can attest that while such psychological conflagrations leave no physical damage (usually), they deeply scar one's soul. The older the couple the more likely they are to weather it, but it will not be forgotten, cannot be forgotten. For a young couple, particularly without the bond of children, it can well be terminal for the relationship.
Thus I am not entirely lacking in sympathy for her husband Nick, but I have come to dislike him over the course of my research. It is clear he made the decision to divorce her before she left for dance instruction at Mills College. This last blow-up he decided was the final straw, which implies there might well have been prior ones and that they were likely getting worse each time. What had drawn him initially to this 18-year old free spirit when he was an infatuated 25-year old had become but seven years later a nightmare, one he was no longer willing to endure. Massive changes in relationships of course happen frequently. I recall coming across a statistic that any man who marries at 25 has an 80% chance of getting divorced within a few years. Nick and Barbara Rogers almost made it. There were other factors. Simultaneously, he was unhappy with the direction of his career and he wanted a fresh start. It is obvious that he remained much closer to his own family, especially his brother, than the Follett's, who must have struck him as strange. In sum, he wanted out and he wanted out badly.
Where I part company with Nick was his determination for revenge. The sending of the letters, three of them so she was certain to get at least one just as her dance classes completed and she was about to start her vacation visiting with her friends, was a master stroke of psychological cruelty. He likely planned it through spring '38 and probably worked on the letter and the copies for some time as soon as she had left with her friends for California. He knew the story of how Barbara had received the farewell message from her father and the effect it had on her — Nick proceeded to replicate the circumstances of that abandonment as closely as he could. It worked. It broke her and from then on he had control of her for the first time in the marriage and he used that control to the full. I think he was actually surprised how effective his action had been, though whether it gave him any second thoughts is impossible to know. By the time he sent the letters, he was moving beyond the marriage with each passing day. Having never quit a marriage before, of course, he was likely unsure what to do when she returned (her letters strongly hint at that uncertainty in him), but it is equally clear the goal of divorce was never abandoned. He strung her along, but the pressure on Barbara never relented. I think her brother-in-law Howard felt sympathy for her, but he would never have crossed his brother on this, and likely tried to stay out of it – not an easy thing to do given the confines of the apartment the three would find themselves in near the end. Whether she turned to Howard at some point is impossible to say. By the time Barbara wrote the lost letter of 9/11/39, she was starting to unravel. There is a sense that her husband was withdrawing ever deeper into himself. He had no intention of forgiving her; both were becoming strangers to each other. Possibly he had even come to hate her. He would soon be acting as if he did and Barbara must have felt that hatred each night she hit the sleeping "dope."
Into Doubt and Uncertainty
When I opened the final packet dealing with her disappearance, I was in for the deepest shock of all: most of the letters were gone. From the time that her mother first found out about Barbara's disappearance to the letter that opens the pack (2/8/49), a period of just over nine years had passed. All my hopes for finding the initial correspondence with Nick, his brother, and possibly even Dr. Dunlop vanished at once. What was there was damning enough, as we shall see, but why everything prior was gone I have no idea. Who could have removed the letters, and why? There is something very odd about this and the more I went through the packet (again I had the library check to confirm nothing had been misfiled), the more persuaded I became that there was much more to the story than McCurdy stated.
So where do I start? The packet starts out with a letter to Mr. Andrew Burt and it is a disappointment. The gist of it was that Mr. Burt could barely remember Barbara from a time about 15 years prior. Then there is another letter, over three and half years later. This time it is to Nick, reminding him he had promised to return those letters of Barbara he still had in his possession. The letter is unsigned so I do not know who sent it, though I have a guess. The theme of the letter, though friendly, was that Nick had not been forthcoming in any aspect, which was the theme throughout the packet.
Starting in November (11/11/52) things change. There is a flurry of letters from Mrs. Follett regarding the case. Why after well over a decade of inactivity she is finally roused to action, is unclear. Mrs. Follett states in a letter to the Boston police: "The problem of Barbara Rogers' disappearance from the Boston area was left to her husband." There is a strong sense she is beginning to realize that was a huge mistake. In fairness to her, everyone else seemed to have trusted him as well. No private detectives were ever hired (admittedly not a minor expense, then or now, and the Follett's were always short on cash). The police investigation itself seemed half-hearted at best. Precious time was lost and the case grew cold.
Here is the money quote from that letter: " . . . I trusted Mr. Rogers to keep me informed of any developments that transpired through his own personal efforts and through those of the police. I was led to believe that the police of both Boston and Brookline had been informed of the circumstances. Only rarely, perhaps two or three times did I receive any word from Mr. Rogers, always to the same effect – that my daughter was still missing. No details concerning his efforts or those of the police were mentioned. . . . Because of the long silences without news of any sort, my trust in Mr. Rogers had been changing, by degrees, into doubt and uncertainty."
In the next letter we learn that the Brookline missing persons alert was not sent out until 4/22/40, four and half months after her disappearance (it's not clear when Mrs. Follett contacted the Federal Bureau of missing persons). That is why I could find nothing in the Brookline paper for December. Rogers made the initial request two weeks after Barbara vanished, but asked it not be made public until 4/22. Also on December 21/22, at the request of the Brookline Police Department, he went to Morgue on Charles Street in Boston. Not surprisingly, no identification took place.
4/22/40 was, in fact, the last date Rogers ever communicated with the Brookline Police Department. The information "went out to 8 states," but of course, nothing was heard back. If he did look for his missing wife, it does not appear he looked very hard. As the letters continue, there is an understandable sense of increasing frustration and anger in Mrs. Follett.
Mrs. Follett then makes an appeal (thirteen years to the day of Barbara's disappearance) to the Social Security Administration, trying to see if there are any records of Barbara but even in those days Social Security refuses to help, citing the equivalent of privacy concerns. I can only imagine what kind of response you would be given today if you were to attempt to mine historical data out of them. Note: If anyone knows if such is possible or has tried it, I would be interested in hearing from you.
The final letter, 3/11/53, is perhaps the most dramatic of all. Here we learn that while Nick has been in contact with Sabra (who apparently served as the go-between the two families), he still refuses to see Mrs. Follett: "All this silence on your part almost looks as if you had something to hide concerning Barbara's disappearance." She informs him of her efforts over the past few months: "You cannot believe I shall sit idle during my last few years and not make whatever effort I can to find our whether she is alive or dead . . ." She concludes: "Kindness to others is often a rewarding experience to ourselves."
To Die Alone
I had originally intended to call this series To Die Alone instead of A Haunting Spirit, because it was that sad vision of her fate that I had come to accept as the most likely end of her life. But I found the original title so gloomy and depressing even I couldn't go forward with it. But in closing my thoughts on her life, it makes sense to use it. Concerning my original speculations, and comparing them with what I know now, in some ways my conclusions have not changed. I still believe Barbara died the night of December 7, 1939, and that the "sleep dope" was a contributing factor, perhaps the crucial factor. If my belief is correct, then she was taking barbiturates in increasing quantities along with alcohol, to attain the sleep that was increasing denied her. The strong possibility of an overdose cannot be denied. As a consequence and as already noted, I no longer believe she walked out of the apartment that night of December 7, 1939. The haunting image of her locking the door behind her as she walks slowly out into the cold night of a world going mad is touching but wrong. There are just too many reasons not to believe it. She did not walk out of the apartment, but walked into the "house without windows" and from there to Farksolia for the first and last time.
Since I have gone this far with my speculations, why stop now? I want to bring them to a conclusion, one that I think is reasonable, though of course nothing here can be deemed proof. Almost all of the people involved are dead and the extant records are few but a pattern has emerged.
Conclusion 3: I do not believe she committed suicide. I am not accusing anyone of murder. Moreover, callousness and psychological cruelty are not crimes. What I believe is that on the morning of December 8, at least two and possibly three people knew exactly what had happened to Barbara Follett: her husband, her brother-in-law, and possibly Dr. Dunlop. I absolve Dunlop of responsibility for her death because what he was prescribing was within the scope of known medical knowledge of the day. It would be another two generations before the dangers or his prescription were fully realized. Her death was thus accidental, the result of an overdose by someone desperate for sleep, a story common then as it is today. And to avoid scandal and embarrassment, her body was disposed, how and where unknown.
With Nick still present in her life, it was the night that was her terror. During the day, she was able to hold herself together, confident and rational, but in the dark silence of the evening there was no where for her to go. She was left to her own devices to attain the sleep that was "oblivion." And it was sleep she needed and desired more than anything else.
What bothers me most about this are the missing letters, letters that might have given additional clues. The mere fact that these letters are missing, and likely gone forever, suggests as much. Consider that from August 28th to the day of her vanishing, she wrote only two letters and one of them is missing.
Supposition 3: Nick himself destroyed some of the letters. It is also possible more than one person had a hand in destroying some of them.
So there we have it. Barbara the human being in her unbearably sad, lonely death replaces Barbara the legend. I still have hope that additional sources of information might be found (perhaps the letters of Barbara's closest friend, Alice D. Russell), which would help clarify some aspects of Barbara's last days. It is possible that someone even now might recall a whispered conversation from long ago. There might be a sealed confession somewhere, people might remember things that struck them as odd at the time, or there is a tradition of a family secret. But I certainly have taken this as far as I can. I like to think my efforts have been appreciated, but I have my doubts. I wonder now were I to attend a Follett family gathering, not terribly likely but go with me on this, would it be unwise for me or anyone for that matter to bring up the topic of Barbara? Old wounds and hurts die hard indeed, family hurts being all but immortal. And lord help me, I imagine, were I ever to show up at a Rogers's family gathering. Yet, having come to dislike Nick Rogers as much as I have, even over a span of nearly 70 years, I confess it is far more likely there is nothing here anyone would ever fret over. As for his brother Howard and Dr. Gibson, I can't say I think very much of them either, but who now would possibly care?
In the end I feel sorry for almost all concerned, but particularly Mrs. Follett, who suffered increasingly in her life, the loss of Barbara being the greatest tragedy of all. And, of course, my deepest sorrow is for Barbara. What a sad, empty end to such a magnificently promising beginning. It shouldn't have been that way, but "should" and "fair" are merely invented concepts which people sometimes try to implement in human institutions — only to do so with typically disastrous results. I could say that Barbara's life and death could serve as a warning, or a "caution," the word Mrs. Follett preferred, but all history is a series of warnings and as far as I know, none of them have ever been heeded, even when understood. There is no need for any more. Let there be an end to warnings and let there henceforth be only promises to do better, if it is not too late.
May 4, 2008
AstralAviary Going into Hiatus for a Few MonthsFiled under: Blogs — jkel @ 8:29 am
While I may make a small post from time to time, because of health issues and my need to focus on how to deal with this, I have decided to put the site on hold for a while. One of the health problems is particularly serious, and while I am not adverse to turning the site into a "health blog" (I'm unsure of the terminology here) — if I thought I could get some money out of it – the odds are there are plenty of such blogs out there already, so I won't. As for the problem itself, let us say unless it is cured at some point in the future, not too many years hence I will be going on a "date with Barbara." Which is about as coy a euphemism as I can come up with regarding the end result. Nevertheless, I'm not terribly concerned at the moment, just in more of an intellectual muddle than usual. I mean I am coming up to the end of the line anyway of what has turned out to be pretty much a wasted, useless life, but I still hope to have some fun between now and then.
This is the last entry in the blog.
Astralaviary, the Barbara Newhall Follett Archive
(All footnotes are Bluejay's, not the original author's.)
[back] Despite its patronizing attitude and tiresome stereotype characters and dialect (it was written by a white man), Green Pastures apparently has a few good points too. It was one of only six pictures from the Hollywood studio era to have an all-black cast. It gave work to hundreds of black actors, and it is probably the first picture to cast a black man (the amazing Rex Ingram) as God. Some older black viewers also give it high marks for its choral music by the Hall Johnson Choir.
[back] September 22, 1929. CHILD WRITER IN REVOLT! Barbara Follett Fights Return to College So Hard She Wins Further Delay. Three days in the juvenile detention home have not lowered Barbara Newhall Follett's passionate resistance against returning to college and the care of her mother's friends in Pasadena. The young literary genius protested to such effect.... Wow.
Furthermore, the New York Times has: GIRL NOVELIST HELD IN SAN FRANCISCO; Barbara Newhall Follett, 15, Ran Away to Avoid Going to School, She Says. SAN FRANCISCO, Cal., Sept. 20 (AP).--A desire for freedom and an aversion to school led Barbara Newhall Follett, child novelist of New Haven, Conn., to leave her friends in Los Angeles and come to San Francisco, she told Juvenile Court authorities today. ....
[back] "One of the most elaborate literary cases I have come across is described in a biography of Barbara Follett, a writer who achieved early fame as a novelist, but tragically and mysteriously disappeared while still a young adult. According to her biographer, she was engrossed for several years as a young girl and teenager in the creation of an imaginary world called Farksolia. This book included her detailed accounts of the plants, animals, and people of Farksolia and excerpts from a dictionary of its language, Farksoo (e.g., "Ar peen maiburs barge craik coo" means "As the mayflowers begin to come"). Marjorie Taylor, Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999), p. 139.
All the latest news on Barbara is at Farksolia: Stefan Cooke is the grandson of Wilson Follett's second wife, and refers to Barbara as his aunt. His Farksolia page has her letters and other detailed information as he finds it. The complete text of Lost Island is up and his book Barbara Newhall Follett -- A Life in Letters has just been published.
Psychologist/novelist Maryka Biaggio's The Point of Vanishing (Milford House, May 2021) is out now. Biaggio analyzes all of Barbara's published and unpublished writings along with the Columbia University material studied by J. Kel, and comes to her own conclusions about what really happened.
There is a forthcoming stage play about Barbara, by Anna Jacobs collaborating with playwright Anna Ziegler. Stefan Cooke at farksolia.org should have updates.
Australian author Nike Sulway has a chapter examining Barbara through the lens of J. Kel's blog entries, in Recovering History through Fact and Fiction: Forgotten Lives (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, April 2018).
Laura Smith’s book about Barbara, The Art of Vanishing, is out as of February 2018.
There is also Chippy's site for Barbara.
Barbara at The Lineup with more amazing pictures from Stefan's collection
Late Night Library discusses The House Without Windows in their podcast from April 16, 2015.
Here is an interview with Paul Collins about Barbara on NPR.
(Collins is the author of Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism. If you are the parent or relative of an autistic child, or if you are autistic yourself, please read that book.)
Here is an article on Barbara from Lapham's Quarterly, again by Paul Collins. I'm reprinting his article on Barbara here only because these things tend to vanish the way the Astral Aviary author's material almost did.
In a New Hampshire apartment during the winter of 1923, this typewritten notice was fastened squarely against a closed door:NOBODY MAY COME INTO THIS ROOM IF THE DOOR IS SHUT TIGHT (IF IT IS SHUT NOT QUITE LATCHED IT IS ALL RIGHT) WITHOUT KNOCKING. THE PERSON IN THIS ROOM IF HE AGREES THAT ONE SHALL COME IN WILL SAY "COME IN," OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT AND IF HE DOES NOT AGREE TO IT HE WILL SAY "NOT YET, PLEASE," OR SOMETHING LIKE THAT. THE DOOR MAY BE SHUT IF NOBODY IS IN THE ROOM BUT IF A PERSON WANTS TO COME IN, KNOCKS AND HEARS NO ANSWER THAT MEANS THERE IS NO ONE IN THE ROOM AND HE MUST NOT GO IN.
REASON. IF THE DOOR IS SHUT TIGHT AND A PERSON IS IN THE ROOM THE SHUT DOOR MEANS THAT THE PERSON IN THE ROOM WISHES TO BE LEFT ALONE.
Through the door could be heard furious clacking and carriage returns: the sound, in fact, of an eight-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 three 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 any 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.
"In a multitude of ways," Wilson Follett reported, "we become more and more convinced of the expediency of letting the typewriter be, so far as a machine can, the center and genesis of the first processes."
By five, 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 seven, she was versifying upon music:
When I go to orchestra rehearsals,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 eight 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. Neighboring children who didn't understand were brusquely dismissed.
"You don't understand why I have my work to do --because, at this particular time, you have none at all," she snapped in a letter to a complaining playmate.
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 needed, 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."
There's a peculiar comfort in imagining the companionship of great composers, for it is among them that a child prodigy is at home. Mozart rules the hopeful parent: homeschooled, composing harpsichord minuets at the age of five, playing the Viennese court at six, visiting Johann Christian Bach in London at age eight. He was one of the earliest celebrated child performers, and like Barbara, he was born to the profession -- his father was a violin master. Then again, in some arts, there is almost an inevitability to the appearance of prodigies. Pablo Picasso's charming Bullfight and Pigeons -- drawn in 1890, when he was nine years old -- can still elicit admiration at exhibitions and wise nodding. Ah, even then his talent shone through.
And yet others pass by more quietly. We do not dwell upon Bobby Fischer, even though by the time he was eight his mother was having to write newspaper ads to find him worthy chess partners. And no parent today buys Zerah flash cards for their young genius, though math prodigy Zerah Colburn was once as famous as Mozart. The son of a Vermont carpenter, Zerah's talent was exhibited in 1810 at the age of five. Soon Zerah was gaining audiences with John Quincy Adams and letters of introduction from Washington Irving. By eight he mentally calculated in front of an audience that a Fermat number was not in fact prime, an almost unthinkable feat for even an adult mathematician. Yet the danger of Zerah's overbearing and hapless father was obvious enough that Bostonians raised a fund to educate the boy in New England. His father turned the money down: there was a bigger fortune waiting on the road.
Today, we hear of Mozart, but not of Colburn. Little Barbara might skate with one, but not the other.
By 1926 -- many drafts, one baby sister, and one manuscript-destroying house fire later -- her book had the title of 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 -- "a blue letter with the famous white BORZOI seal" -- she wrote to a friend what happened next:
I simply threw myself on the floor and screamed, either with fear for what it might contain, with joy for getting it at last, or with terrific excitement of the whole thing. There is a feeling, after you have been waiting a long time for anything, there is a feeling that, when it really comes, it must be impossible -- a dream -- an optical illusion -- a cross between those three things. . .
She had just turned twelve.
The House Without 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." They 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:
"Look, I'd dress you like this, with ferns and flowers and butterflies. . . The bees gather honey from the flowers, which they would share with us."
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." Follett's next plan -- "to become a pirate" and take to the sea for her new book -- was announced in the Times.
Barbara was famous.
CONGRATULATIONS MY DEAR EEPERSIP, one telegram arriving at the Follett house read. YOU HAVE DONE WHAT MANY AN ADULT HAS FAILED TO DO.
But one critic was unimpressed.
"I can conceive of no greater handicap for the writer between the ages of nineteen and thirty-nine," thundered Anne Carroll Moore in the New York Herald Tribune, "than to have published a successful book between the age of nine and twelve."
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's qualms were not with 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. "It is playing with fire," she warned. "What price will Barbara have to pay for her ‘big days' at the typewriter?"
Barbara needed to be outside playing with children her own age, Moore declared -- and to grow up unburdened by early fame. "There are no satisfactions comparable to a free and spacious childhood with a clear title to one's own good name at maturity."
Yet there was some precedent for Barbara's career. Seven years earlier, eleven-year-old Horace Wade published his thriller In The Shadow of Great Peril. More books followed, as well as encouraging letters from F. Scott Fitzgerald, and a job from William Randolph Hearst at the Chicago American. Wade's writing lacked Follett's aspirations -- it was genre stuff, full of "chums" and dastardly outlaws -- but it hinted that the child author could grow into success.
Others, though, were protected from their juvenilia. The most famous child author before Wade appeared just one year earlier, with Daisy Ashford and her ludicrous tale The Young Visiters: Or, Mr. Salteena's Plan. Opening with the immortal line "Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him," the book was a classic of unintentional hilarity. It was harmless to Ashford; she'd written the book as a nine year old in 1890, and published it from the safe distance of twenty-nine years later. She became a celebrity for having been a child, but was not a child celebrity.
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. "I am very much amused at the favorable reviews which are being written -- I do not take them at all seriously -- but I do take seriously an article which distorts into a miserable caricature my living, my education, my whole personality."
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 a ship's crewman. That she was thirteen 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, Follett'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.
Follett sketches her first interview with the schooner's captain with droll eloquence:
I spoke to the captain first of all, but very vaguely and dreamily, gazing about me -- fascinated, enraptured, all the time. I looked at the long, huge booms, with the sails frapped closely round them; at the great, splendid masts; at the many ropes descending over blocks and made fast on belaying pins along the side of the boat; at the double and triple sheet blocks; and, above all, at the ratlines and shrouds, into which I longed to go up. The next minute I had jumped upon the spanker boom and crawled along to the very end, hanging slightly over the water, where I supported myself by one of the wire lifts.
The book's confidence stunned reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic. Follett 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 fourteenth birthday just twelve days before the publication."
But in that week before publication, Wilson Follett delivered devastating news. He'd recently turned forty, 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." But 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 and alone 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 sixteen 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 its 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 teenaged author turned older and abraded by Manhattan:
Not even a cat was out. The rain surged down with a steady drone. It meant to harm New York and everyone there. The gutters could not contain it. Long ago they had despaired of the job and surrendered. But the rain paid no attention to them. . . New York people never lived in houses or even in burrows. They inhabited cells in stone cliffs. They timed the cooking of their eggs by the nearest traffic light. If the light went wrong, so did the eggs. . .
By 1934, Follett 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, the manuscripts finally stopped. Instead, she found a kindred soul in an outdoorsman named Nickerson Rogers, and they eloped.
America's next great novelist was now without a high-school degree, without work, and a teen bride. 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.
Some prodigies flourish, some disappear. But Barbara Rogers did leave one last comment to the world about writing -- a brief piece in a 1933 issue of Horn Book that earnestly recommends that parents give their own children typewriters. "Perhaps there would simply be a terrific wholesale destruction of typewriters," she admits. "An effort would have to be made to impress upon children that a typewriter is magic." So is the child at it, but Follett doesn't hint that she had now been spending years battling poverty. The father who gave her that typewriter doesn't appear in the piece, either. She'd been so angry at him in one letter that she snapped, "He isn't what you'd call a man."
But her tribulations were as appallingly timeless as the fairy tales that she so loved. Decades later, Bobby Fischer would be left by his mother at seventeen to essentially fend for himself, and while that may not have created his famed eccentricity, it hardly helped. Nor was the fact that she'd allowed him to drop out of school at the age of sixteen.
And what of the promising mathematical prodigy, Zerah Colburn? After traveling to Europe to be exhibited by his father, the boy did not return for twelve years -- his father now dead overseas, and Zerah himself nearly broke and his talents squandered. Financial straits might have led to his publication in 1833 of A Memoir of Zerah Colburn, Written by Himself. Unknown today, it is the first child-celebrity memoir. Colburn was so alienated from his existence that he wrote it in the third person -- as if he too were gawking at this famed phenomenon called Zerah.
A washed-up performer at nineteen, he arrived back in Vermont and knocked on the door of his former home. "They inquired of an elderly woman who was at the door, if she knew where the widow Colburn lived? She replied that she was the woman. . . his own mother was as ignorant of the child she had nursed and provided for until he was six years old, as if she had never seen him before."
Zerah Colburn had also disappeared -- so thoroughly that he couldn't reappear even when he wanted to.
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 under her married name, went unnoticed by the press:
Brookline. 139 4-22-40 3:38 pm Maccracken. Missing from Brookline since Dec. 7, 1939, Barbara Rogers, married, age 26, 5-7, 125, fair complexion, black eyebrows, brown eyes, dark auburn hair worn in a long bob, left shoulder slightly higher than right. Occasionally wears horn-rimmed glasses.
It wasn't until 1966, when Helen coauthored a slim academic study on her daughter, that the press realized Barbara Newhall Follett was missing at all.
In the intervening years, Wilson Follett wrote a peculiar anonymous essay for The Atlantic -- "To a Daughter, One Year Lost," in May 1941 -- which expressed muted guilt and amazement: "Could Helen Hayes be lost for ten days without a trace? Could Thomas Mann? Could Churchill? And now it is getting on toward forty times ten days. . . "
Helen, belatedly discovering how little Nickerson Rogers had looked for Barbara, spent 1952 urging police to seek someone now missing for thirteen 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, what Barbara Follett got was 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 forgotten by a public that she never trusted in the first place. Her writings, out of print for many decades, only exist today 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," Follett 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."
Sincere thanks for writing this thoughtful story about my aunt Barbara. The younger woman Wilson left Helen for was my grandmother, Margaret Whipple. Their first child was Jane, my mother, who was also something of a child genius. On her second birthday, Wilson compiled a 126-page list of words Jane knew the meaning of and could use in speech: words ranging from "abominable," "accommodating," and "apostrophe" to "zealous," "zenith," and "zephyr."
A small correction to the photo caption. It should read "Barbara Newhall Follett," not "Barbara Wilson Follett." (Editor's note: Thanks, we've fixed it!)
Posted by Stefan Cooke on Sat 18 Dec 2010 Thank you for this wonderful article. I read The House Without Windows at twelve years of age, and it expressed my dreams--I felt the author had to be a soul mate. I knew some of the details of her life (that she vanished at age twenty-six, for instance, I knew), but not of her struggles against poverty. Will your work and interest maybe result in reissues not only of The House Without Windows but her other work? That would be marvelous.
Posted by Francesca Forrest on Sat 18 Dec 2010
When will Barbara's writings be re-issued?
Posted by Carolyn Perkins on Sat 18 Dec 2010
Barbara's writings simply must be re-issued. Upon reading the few excerpts in this article, I couldn't help but get emotional at the beauty and poignancy of it.
Posted by Roxanne Wodarczyk on Sat 18 Dec 2010
So wonderful that Wilson abandoned his first daughter and played loving dad to your mom, Stefan. Not sure your comments are respectful of Barbara's memory, given the damage Wilson did to his former family. But men are quite selfish creatures, aren't they?
Posted by Margaret on Sat 18 Dec 2010
@Margaret - I intended no disrespect at all to Barbara's memory.
Wilson Follett did play "loving dad" as best he could ?€” to both Barbara and to his and Margaret's three children, in my opinion. Sadly he felt the need to abandon Helen, Barbara, and Sabra (B's younger sister), just as he later left my grandmother and the kids on a farm in Bradford, Vermont, to try to earn a living in New York City. I have the correspondence between Wilson and my mother and they loved each other dearly.
Posted by Stefan Cooke on Sat 18 Dec 2010
Stefan -- Thank you! I'm especially glad to hear that you like the piece. One of BNF's letters mention meeting Miss Whipple -- Barbara was, as you'd guess, pretty sharp with her. But her letters show her reconciling with her father and stepmother a bit in her final years, though apparently Wilson never did know what to make of Nickerson Rogers. By BNF's account, he regarded Nick as some sort of mountain man. (These things are relative... Nickerson went on to teach at Phillips Exeter.)
Margaret, fwiw, it is indeed hard to read BNF's files without feeling a shock and great sadness, and even indignation. But -- unlike the people in this story -- we have the advantage, or perhaps the burden, of reading these things while knowing all along what it was leading to. One can hardly blame someone's descendants for their affection. And Mr. Cooke did, after all, lose his aunt too.
Posted by Paul Collins on Sat 18 Dec 2010
great story. very interested in reading this now - what an unfair tease, as these books are not available anywhere in the library or for sale (except for $150 paperback). any plans for reissuing?
Posted by jean weiss on Sat 18 Dec 2010
what an interesting story. fwiw there are several copies for sale, at collectible prices, and over 50 libraries have copies so borrowing through interlibrary-loan via your local library may not be impossible
Posted by Fiona on Sat 18 Dec 2010
I heard Paul Collins' commentary on Barbara Newhall Follett on NPR this morning and found myself utterly entranced. Her story is so sad, strange and beautiful that I am left with this powerful urge to speak to her. I would like to give a copy of her book, The House Without Windows, to a friend for Christmas but available copies sell at three to eight hundred dollars. Where can I find more information about this fascinating person? Did Mr. Collins collect his research from The Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Genius? Are there any photographs of her other than her picture in the snow accompanying the article?
Posted by John Horan on Sat 18 Dec 2010
I am mostly at a loss for words at the moving and superbly rendered honoring of Barbara's work and personal history that you Mr Collins have so deftly brought to life for us.
I can not thank you enough Mr Collins, it has caused me to reflect on my own family's complex, and as all human stories, difficult at times history and circumstances, and as well on my own part and participation in a received family history and legacy.
For myself, it is often difficult for me to make sense of the happenstances, choices, and history of my own family. In many ways similar, I am left as a reader of Barbara's story, and now Mr Stefan Cooke's living story that he was so gracious to share some deeply important details of, feeling a sense of having to accept that some questions simply will have no answers.
I also wish to thank with great sincerity and respect you Stefan Cooke for having the wherewithal and self-restraint and courage to provide the information and responses you did to Mr Collins' story. You have in fact done your family, and your Aunt Barbara, and yourself if I may say, great honor Mr Cooke.
The retrieving of the memory, and these very deeply human details, from the mists of long past history will only serve to bring Barbara's work and the life she lived forward into the present where it will quite likely now be re-read, re-approached, and become a living experience and memory for many.
What a profound opportunity and outcome - thank you Mr Collins, and thank you Stefan.
How timely, how utterly beautiful in it's truth and pathos.
Posted by Adam Cassel on Sun 19 Dec 2010
Thank you, LQ...what a beautiful and tragic story.
Posted by Joe Montanaro on Mon 20 Dec 2010
_House without Windows_ may be suitable for reissuing by New York Review of Books Classics, which has a children's collection.
Posted by Elizabeth Foxwell on Mon 20 Dec 2010
I, too, have been haunted the last several days by Barbara's story. I've managed to find a reasonably priced copy of Barbara's autobiography, which I look forward to reading. And I hope her books will be reissued now that her story is perhaps reaching a new generation of people. Thank you for the article.
Posted by Tim B. on Wed 22 Dec 2010
Profoundly moving story. I came upon Barbara N. Follett quite by accident while I was looking up another author and was so very pleasantly surprised by this great writer. I echo the sentiments of others when I say, when will The House Without Windows be re-issued? Mr. Collins, it is a joy to read you, your strong flow and tidy facts enhance the story of Barbara N. Follet and make her even more intriguing in retrospect.
Posted by Katie Dierks on Wed 22 Dec 2010
Thank you for this amazing essay - I read it rivited and emotional. I felt her drive and passion for writing, like a living thing. Her double abandonment was almost too much to bear. Sincere thanks again for bringing her life, her words, to our attention.
Posted by Suzy Rigg @radiantlady on Thu 23 Dec 2010
A fascinating story! I've never heard of this young woman, and I have no idea why.
Posted by Audrey on Wed 29 Dec 2010
Thank you for this haunting piece.
I join others in hoping for republication of her work and share with you this piece from "The Voyage of the Norman D" that I found on another blog:
"Oh! Then was the sea like a living creature -- cold, but with a mighty, throbbing heart. I was walking on the heart of the sea; I was sleeping on it; and I could always, night and day, feel it beating beneath my feet, or beneath my back. Or perhaps it was the life, the heart, of the ship that I felt. For now I knew that our schooner was superbly alive. She carried, amid the snow of her sails, a living heart and soul."
Posted by rainey on Sat 1 Jan 2011
And that missing description is absolutely heart-rending.
I'm curious about reports that copyright renewals were filed in her name in years after her disappearance ... is it possible to hope that she escaped to an island of her own?
Posted by Sara on Sat 1 Jan 2011
An entrancing tale. Thanks, Lapham Quarterly and Paul Collins for offering up what may only be the beginning of the story. Meaning, is there any indication from her writings and efforts of self-expression that she would just disappear without a trace? Or (and the dreamer in me prevails), could she have pressed on in another guise or another incarnation upon whom can only speculate to be her enduring works?
Further, it causes me to wonder: how many more talents are similarly out-of-print - works of authors just begging to be re-discovered and lives of authors to be mythologized...?
Posted by Matt on Mon 3 Jan 2011
After reading her biography, I offer up a theory about what happened to her. In her letters to her friends at the end, she talks about the dissolution of her marriage and her attempts to save it. Her husband (despite his story that there was another woman, who he never actually named) told her that he wanted to save the marriage, but wasn't sure it could be. Barbara blamed herself for the lack of connection in their marriage.
All this was happening a few months before she disappeared. I think what happened was that on Dec 7th, her husband told her he wanted to end the marriage. Understandably upset, she left the house in a hurry, with only $30. This explains why her husband took so long to report her missing... as far as he knew, the marriage was over and she left. But when two weeks went by and she still didn't turn up, that was when he reported her missing.
What I think happened was that she decided to head out into the wilderness to clear her head. This is completely consistent with her prior life. She was at heart a woman who loved nature, and that's where she felt most comfortable. But this being early December in the Northeast, it wasn't a particularly safe time to be out. She most likely was caught in a storm, avalanche or deep freeze, and died.
Her body might have been found years (even decades) later, but of course no one knew who it was (and there probably wasn't much left of it). This being 1939 after the Depression, I'm sure homeless bodies were found all the time out in the wilderness, so it wasn't all that unusual.
I would love to believe that she changed her identity and had a happy life after that, but when you read her letters, it's clear this wasn't someone who was shy about writing to people. She clearly needed to communicate her feelings to the friends in her life. It would be very out of character that she would go completely silent and start a new life.
As for the "foul play" theory, based on her letters, she consistently describes her husband as gentle, though sometimes moody (given that the marriage was falling apart, not surprising). There's nothing to indicate any capability for violence.
Anyway, thank you again for this fascinating tale. I hope that her books will be reissued, and she will "live again," even if only through her writings. Perhaps someone will even collect her poems and unfinished books and publish those someday.
Posted by Jack D. on Mon 3 Jan 2011
Thank you, Paul Collins, for a fascinating article. I have two questions:
You wrote that in 1929, Barbara ran away to San Francisco and hid in a hotel, "But she'd been reported as a runaway, and when police burst into her room, they narrowly kept her from escaping through the window." An article in the Boston Globe, June 6, 1994, states that she ran away, "and when tracked by detectives to a San Francisco hotel, tried to kill herself by jumping out a window." I haven't seen the original 1929 news stories. Do they make it clear whether she was attempting suicide or merely escaping?
Second question: have you heard if any publishers are considering new editions of her books?
Posted by David B. on Fri 7 Jan 2011
A strange coda to her disappearance:
The House Without Windows's copyright was renewed in 1954 by someone identified as Barbara Follett.
Posted by Wilson Koh on Fri 7 Jan 2011
Thanks for the comments! I noticed the copyright renewal in the name of "Mrs. Nickerson Rogers" when I first came across the subject in 2000, and went about contacting "Mrs. Nickerson Rogers" -- only to discover the then still-living second, not the first, wife of Mr. Rogers. (Though our conversation was itself well worth the search.) Nickerson Rogers divorced his first wife (in absentia) in 1943. The renewal appears to be pro forma, for what I've found since then was that in fact a great many "author renewals" were in fact done as a matter of course by publishers whenever the old 27 year term came up.
Still, I suppose one can hope!
Posted by Paul Collins on Sun 9 Jan 2011
A wonderful and touching story.
Posted by Narwe on Thu 10 Feb 2011
This is really beautifully written. I came upon this article through artsandlettersdaily.com. What a treat! Thank you.
Posted by Ryan Buckley on Thu 10 Feb 2011
Those interested in Barbara's story may also like to read about William Sidis, a tale best told by Samuel Rosenberg in his Confessions of a Trivialist. It's a story about the son of a professor who believed geniuses were made not born, and before William's disappearance, was home schooled and entered Harvard at twelve. Other parallels are uncanny, equally as tragic, and he lived around the same time.
Posted by Bob Smith on Thu 10 Feb 2011
My goodness. How horible. How wonderful. I want to read her books. I shiver to think what might have happened to her.
Posted by Kate Strand on Thu 10 Feb 2011
One of the most haunting pieces I have ever written. Thank you. A friend sent it to me saying that Barbara was like Mary MacLane, and I do see the likeness.
Posted by Michael R. Brown on Thu 10 Feb 2011
I just want to say that Zerah Colburn was not a math prodigy in the sense that he was actually good at mathematics--he was just profoundly good at summing numbers. Also, I think many, many people do dwell on Bobby Fischer; they just all happen to play chess.
I don't mean to be annoying and picky, (The article was great!) I just felt moved to comment on those two points.
[[Evlynar Johanson on FB]]
Posted by Evlynar Johanson on Sat 19 Feb 2011
I didn't make clear my comment was meant for Lewis Lapham and not Paul Collins.
[[ I had just come across this site - and did not know Lewis Lapham was still editing ]]
Posted by Evlynar Johanson on Sat 19 Feb 2011
Thank you. I feel as if someone opened a chest filled with summer vintage dresses and dressed this late, gray and rainy afternoon with a touch of wonder and the smell of violets.
She did trust violets, I am sure. Some time all a human being needs to feel better is a cup of tea and words like these.
.....Bluejay's main page