"I have sometimes amused myself by endeavoring to fancy what would be the fate of any individual gifted, or rather accursed, with an intellect very far superior to that of his race. Of course, he would be conscious of his superiority; nor could he (if otherwise constituted as man is) help manifesting his consciousness. Thus he would make himself enemies at all points. And since his opinions and speculations would widely differ from those of all mankind — that he would be considered a madman, is evident. How horribly painful such a condition! Hell could invent no greater torture than that of being charged with abnormal weakness on account of being abnormally strong."
~Edgar Allan Poe
"I always am grieved at the world."
It has often been said that true child prodigies seldom mature well. All too often, their early brilliance soon flames out into desperate unhappiness, early death, or a simple nonproductive adulthood where they are never able to live up to their early potential.
Of all these prodigies, arguably the most haunting of the lot was the strange, fey literary marvel Barbara Newhall Follett. By the age of 13, she had published a brilliant and acclaimed novel, established deep friendships (augmented with a remarkable correspondence) with intellectuals three times her age, and, most importantly, showed a profound sensitivity to and understanding of nature rare among even adults. So deep was her connection to the "uncivilized" world of Mother Earth that one almost believes she was a "changeling," brought by the fairies into an uncongenial and utterly alien human environment. "Her Life and Letters" is the closest thing we have to date to an in-depth study of Follett. Cooke, a blood relative, (his mother was Barbara's half-sister,) has compiled Follett's many extant letters, and it is clearly a labor of love memorializing this aunt he never met, but obviously reveres. Wisely, he does not clutter the collection with too much editorializing, allowing Follett's vivid voice to speak for herself. It is, in effect, an epistolary autobiography.
Follett was born on March 4, 1914. Her father, Wilson Follett, was an editor at Knopf, and her mother Helen was a former schoolteacher. Barbara's parents took great pride in her obvious intelligence, and encouraged her interest in writing. She was home-schooled, which allowed her intellect and prodigious imagination to follow their own eccentric paths. By the time she was four, Barbara began using a typewriter to compose everything from thank-you notes to short stories. She also took to writing long, articulate letters to her many adult friends. (Including her mother. When Barbara was eight, she wrote Helen an astonishing lecture sternly advising Mrs. Follett to get rid of her boring friends, or if that was not possible, at least "talk about something really worth while...'Make your talk more interesting.' Just try this and see if it doesn't work.")
She created an imaginary world called "Farksolia," with its own history (a surprisingly "Game of Thrones"-like one,) wildlife, and language ("Farksoo.") Farksolia, she enthused, was a land most beautiful, but "very peculiar and strange in almost every way." For several years, her imagination was fixated on this far-off planet of her fancy. She spoke of her longing to visit Farksolia, and wrote poems in "Farksoo":
"Ar peen maiburs barge craik coo
Peen yar fis farled cray pern.
Peen darndeon flar fooloos lart ain birdream.
Avee lart ain caireen ien tu cresteen der tuee,
Darnceen craik peen bune."
By the age of eight, she was playing the violin and piano, writing plays and poems, and starting work on her first novel, "The House Without Windows."
"Windows" is set in an imaginary paradise called Mount Varcrobis. The novel centers around a little girl named Eepersip, who, in Barbara's words, "ran away from loneliness." Eepersip leaves her home and family to live in the wild. Her loving parents make a search for her, but she manages to elude them. Eepersip gradually sheds her shoes, then her clothes, making for herself magical dresses of flowers and leaves. At one point, Eepersip lures her little sister Fleuriss into joining her, but although the girl loves Eepersip, they both eventually realize Fleuriss does not truly belong in the wild, and she returns to her parents. Eepersip will miss the girl, but she is also relieved to again be free of human companionship. All she wants is to live among the beautiful plants and her animal friends.
The novel ends with Eepersip becoming one with her beloved nature:
And, when the sun again tinged the sky with colour, a flock of these butterflies, of purple and gold and green, came swooping and alighted on her head in a circle, the largest in front. Others came in myriads and covered her dress with delicate wing-touches. Eepersip held out her arms a moment. A gold-and-black one alighted on each wrist. And then--she rose into the air, and, hovering an instant over a great laurel-bush, vanished.
She was a fairy--a wood-nymph. She would be invisible for ever to all mortals, save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see. To these she is ever present, the spirit of Nature--a sprite of the meadow, a naiad of lakes, a nymph of the woods.
"The House Without Windows" would be a remarkable production by an experienced author. When it's remembered that it was written by a child not yet into her teens, one begins to think there was something downright uncanny about Barbara Follett.
|Follett in 1922|
In 1922, her family rented a cottage in the New Hampshire woods. Barbara was in her element there, spending most of her time exploring the wilderness. She wrote a friend, "I wonder if you know, by any chance, that I am now in the home of Beauty and Nature. This is where nymphs, fairies, gnomes, elves, live. Nowhere in the world, I believe, is there a place so fertile and luxuriant...It is a windy day. The silvery white-caps bring me tidings from Nature, tidings from the mermaids." Her father took her on camping trips, which she adored. She wrote ecstatically of the "stars quietly trembling" in the "mermaid-haunted lake," the fairies and water-nymphs she believed were all around her, the "Night-air fairies and night-air-queens."
She made no secret of the fact that she thought much more of animals than people. In one of her many letters she complained, "How one can look at the fuzzy yellow ball of a little chicken and then want to kill it is more than I can see...The chicken never did anybody any harm; it is human greed that makes us kill them...I am a friend of all Nature save human beings, and for this reason can be brought to see the right side of things."
In 1927, Knopf published "The House Without Windows," which was an immediate critical and commercial success. Reviewers gushed over the child author's "perfect prose style" and curiously adult grasp of words and ideas. The "Hartford Courant" enthused, "Critics are marveling at the fluent English, at the instinctive artistry of it, at the happy revelation of the heart of a little girl. Educators are amazed at the background of reading and observation it shows, combined with a power of self-expression which few adults achieve."
|Follett at work, 1928|
The following year, Barbara persuaded her parents to allow her to join the crew of a lumber schooner, the "Frederick H.," on its voyage from New Haven to Nova Scotia. After her return, she wrote, "Oh! there is nothing in the world more thoroughly delightful than being under sails, the schooner leaning before a north-west gale, the green and foaming waves raging all about, the sails full and bellying out with wind, the howling and whistling of wind through the white canvas, the raging white bone the schooner would have in her white teeth, the far cant to leeward o that we had to use the table-racks, the calling out of "Hard-a-lee!" when we tacked, the bustle of mens' feet to the blocks and sheets; or in a calm for several days, nothing but the swell which rolled you out of your bunk at night, so that she almost rolled water onto her decks, and everything rolling and thumping, doors banging in the cabin, bottles and dishes jingling, the groaning of the booms as they would swing in and out, the billowing and flapping of the idle sails, the pattering of reef-points; and the sailor-life in general...it was all just exactly as I had dreamed."
The voyage provided Barbara with the material for her next book, "The Voyage of the Norman D.," which was published in 1928. It too was hailed for its mature literary craftsmanship. Unfortunately, just as the young author's career was blossoming, her personal life began falling apart. Her father, the person she loved most in the world, announced he was abandoning his family for a woman only six years older than Barbara. Worse still, when Knopf, disgusted by this family scandal, fired Walter, his wife and children were left penniless.
Barbara was bitterly angry and hurt by this betrayal. She was never close to her father again. She rejected him, as he had rejected her. Barbara dealt with her pain by retreating, Eepersip-like, to the outdoors. As she would float on a raft in the middle of Lake Sunapee, she reflected, "how external all those things were, and how unimportant, and how beautiful the lake was, and how huge the universe was, and what a fly-speck the Earth is (God must have to use a microscope,) and what They were missing, squabbling away in the cottage, and how fortunate I was to be able to keep myself from being drawn into it--and numerous helpful thoughts of this kind."
The sound of a little girl whistling past the graveyard.
Helen Follett shared her daughter's need for escape. In September 1928, the two of them sailed to the West Indies. Their plan was to earn a living by writing magazine articles about their travels. Sadly, the trip proved to be a disaster. Mother and daughter began quarreling with each other, and in Tahiti, Barbara suffered a breakdown. Helen wrote bitterly, "Bar has had a smash--emotional and nervous. It was bound to come sometime when the condition was right for it...Follett's attempt to smash his family for his own individual freedom has worked one hundred percent. Bar is now the victim."
In May, 1929, Barbara and her mother visited Honolulu, and sailed back to the mainland on a schooner, the "Vigilant," where Barbara became infatuated with the second mate, Edward Anderson. She and Anderson would continue a romantic correspondence for some years. Anderson was an intelligent, articulate, philosophical man whom Barbara described as "a rock and a shelter."
Upon returning to the U.S., Barbara and Helen made their way to Pasadena, California. Unfortunately, relations between them continued to deteriorate so badly that it was agreed that the two needed to separate. Helen returned to Honolulu, where she found a job at a museum and began writing a book about their travels. Barbara would stay in Pasadena with a family friend, take classes at a junior college, and see a psychiatrist.
|"Honolulu Star Bulletin," August 26, 1929|
At least, that was the plan. Barbara hated Southern California and its "poisonous" atmosphere, hated school, hated life. After only a few days, she ran away to San Francisco. Police managed to track her down, and she was put into custody. Barbara told a reporter for the "Oakland Tribune," "I hate the idea of school...I was not given the conventional upbringing and it is too late to try to standardize me now...Both of my parents are literary--perhaps that is the trouble with them, and with me...What I hate about it all is the sordidness and vulgarity of being arrested. It has none of the beauty of grief or tragedy in it. If it were beautiful, I wouldn't mind so much....all I ask is to be let alone to do what seems best to me." She sighed, "perhaps some day it will be literary material."
|"Honolulu Star Bulletin," Oct. 1, 1929|
Barbara was returned to Pasadena and placed in the custody of friends while awaiting Helen's return from Hawaii. Barbara, Helen, and Barbara's younger sister Sabra then moved to New York. Sixteen-year-old Barbara found a job writing synopses for the Fox Film Corporation and took business courses at the Packard Commercial School. She also started another novel, "Lost Island." It shared the "House Without Windows" theme of escaping to nature. In the novel, a couple is stranded on a desert island. They become lovers, and all is idyllic. Then, they are "rescued," and the trouble begins...
Despite all this activity, Barbara was bored and unhappy in New York. She wrote, "I certainly don't think there is much to be said for this so-called civilization...I wish we were back to the cave days." She mourned, "My dreams are going through their death flurries."
In the summer of 1931, Helen and her daughters rented a cabin in Norwich, Vermont. It was there that Barbara met a young man named Nickerson Rogers, who became her close companion. (Although she wrote a friend that she still had Ed Anderson "in the back of my mind--in reserve, so to speak.")
The following year, she and Rogers hiked the newly-created Appalachian Trail. The couple then set off on a journey which took them to Gibraltar, Morocco, Spain, France, and the Swiss Alps. They passed themselves off as husband and wife, which amused Barbara no end. She wrote a friend, "You have no idea how much fun it is to be married, I mean when you REALLY AREN'T...We have agreed that the first requisite of a happy marriage is not to be married."
When they returned to America, Barbara accompanied Rogers to his native Boston. There, she worked on a book about their Appalachian hike, continued revising "Lost Island," and earned cash by working as a church secretary. Barbara and Rogers ceased to play-act about being a married couple and turned themselves into the real thing on July 7th, 1934. Rogers got a job at the Polaroid Corporation, where he showed promise of becoming a successful businessman. Barbara was bemused by her new-found conventional domesticity. She wrote, "My family has so long been associated in my mind with financial failure. It is hard for me to conceive that one member of it--me--could even be associated with, let alone married to, somebody who is going to be able to make a normal living!"
Barbara reconnected with her parents, although her relations with them remained strained. She wrote, "I am very fond of them both...Of course I can never really be myself with them, they are so sort of formal, without at all meaning to be. Nick is completely at sea with them. He doesn't get the point at all. He is a simple person, and his family is simple, and all this much ado about nothing, these mannerisms, this literary pomposity, gets him down...I guess you have to be brought up with it to be used to it! And heaven knows I have a hard enough time myself!"
Unfortunately, Barbara's marriage soon developed problems. Someone so unconventional and free-spirited likely wasn't meant for the marital state at all. Rogers' job left him little time for the outdoor pursuits that had originally brought them together. The young couple began quarreling, leading Barbara to seek escape in a new passion--modern dance. She joined Boston's Dance Workshop Group, and in 1939 enrolled in a dance program at Mills College in Oakland, California.
While on the West Coast, Barbara received a letter from Rogers, announcing that he wanted a divorce. Despite their difficulties, this came as a complete shock to her. She feared that, like Wilson Follett, he was leaving her for another woman. Blaming herself entirely for this breakdown of her marriage, she immediately returned to Boston to plead with him to give their relationship another chance. He agreed, but relations between them were, inevitably, uncomfortable. Barbara was hopeful, however. She wrote, "I think I've persuaded him to give me my chance. He is a very kind person, really, and hates to hurt people...I think that, if I can really prove that I'm different, why maybe things will work out...That's what I'm banking on."
By the end of the year, the fragile reconciliation was unraveling. It probably did not help matters that Barbara was now dependent on "sleeping stuff" prescribed by a doctor friend. In November 1939 Barbara wrote a friend, "On the surface things are terribly, terribly calm, and wrong--just as wrong as they can be. I am trying--we are both trying. 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!"
That was Barbara's last known letter. Despite her brave words, the "outcome" was not happy at all. On the evening of December 7, Barbara walked out of their Brookline apartment carrying nothing but thirty dollars with her. She has never been seen or heard from again. On the 21st, Nickerson Rogers reported to the police that his wife was missing, but requested that there be no publicity. Apparently he assumed she had, as was her wont, simply run away from her problems, and would eventually come home.
Weeks went by, with no word from Barbara. Finally, in April 1940, Rogers went again to the police, this time asking that news of her disappearance be made public. Unfortunately, the alert was given out under her married name. No one associated "Barbara Rogers" with the youthful prodigy Barbara Follett, so the case got very little notice. It was not until 1966, when Helen Follett and psychology professor Harold Grier McCurdy published a short book about her ("Barbara, the Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Prodigy") that the world became aware that the once-famous "girl author" had vanished many years back.
In 1943, Nickerson filed for divorce, stating that since December 7, 1939, he "has had no word from or information concerning her existence or whereabouts." He eventually remarried, and passed away in 1980.
What happened to this young woman who began life with such promise, only to see it all end so sadly and enigmatically? Inevitably, some have wondered if Nickerson Rogers was responsible for his wife's disappearance. Among those who harbored dark suspicions about him was Helen Follett, who found it sinister that he had put so little effort towards finding his wife. Some years after Barbara vanished, Helen wrote him, "All this silence on your part looks as if you had something to hide..." However, Rogers seems to have been a nonviolent man, and one who could simply have walked away from his marriage any time he chose. Barbara's fate was most likely a genuine mystery to him.
Suicide cannot be ruled out. Barbara's writing career had stalled, and her marriage was failing as well. It is possible that she came to the conclusion that life was no longer worth living. However, to date, no one has found any evidence suggesting she killed herself.
There is a more optimistic possibility. Barbara was talented, adventurous, and not afraid to strike out alone. It is conceivable that she "ran away from loneliness" to carve out an existence more to her tastes. Perhaps like her childhood alter ego Eepersip, Follett fled to some real-life Eden where she could live as a "spirit of nature," shunning all attempts to lure her back to civilization. In Barbara's case, it would not be at all strange if her life wound up imitating her art.
Most disappearances are surprising and inexplicable. Barbara Follett's could almost be called inevitable.