March 7, 1928 – Letter to Wilson Follett

176 Armory Street, New Haven, Connecticut
March 7, 1928

Dear Daddy:

I did receive your letter, yesterday afternoon, and I read it (as you may suppose) a good many times before I came to any conclusion or conclusions concerning it. And now that I think that I have, I feel that I must point out two ideas in that letter that seem like ill-concealed weaknesses, 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 one that you are now ashamed to reveal. For, had the intended answer been the right one, why all the secrecy about it? (2) Because the question of the divorce was brought up, that seems to me to put all idea of choice out of the picture, and it also seems to betray what was in your mind. For, in the desiring of a divorce from Helen (and I shouldn’t have let her give it to you, anyhow), how is it possible that this answer which “rang clear as a bell” in your mind was the right one?

Then there are others–other points–though those are the chief ones that have anything to do with your letter. For instance, Helen clearly and decidedly eliminated the idea of divorce long before she and Miss Whipple left New Haven. I was in the room at the time, “neque temere incognitam rem pronuntio.” Besides this, Helen was actually not asking you to return to her, but to return to the family. Aren’t we ever again going to cross the ranges of mountains in all weathers, or play about in Sternway, or steer a real windjammer though the seven seas, or take sailing-lessons from Mr. Rasmussen–as we once planned?

Such things do not reconcile themselves. For instance, if you now finally and determinedly drop all that, leave it behind, kick it out of the way, then how am I to believe that they actually and truly meant all to you that they seemed to at the time? And if they did, then how am I to believe that you don’t feel any more the lure of The Maine Woods–the lure of that mountain that we have always had vaguely in our minds? This is the time of year when you are wont to have feverish spells of mountain-lure–why aren’t you having them?

In short, and taking all this into consideration (as I hope you do), the whole wretched affair strikes upon me as being so absolutely nightmarish, insane, unthoughtof, that I can hardly convince myself that I ought to take it seriously. It seems to be like the last thing on earth that a person with any fragment of a brain or of a sense of responsibility would do. Doesn’t it seem that way to you?

Then there’s another very important thing. You say Helen needs me, and right you are; but I need you, too. Thus, when you think that out, how am I to manage? She needs me, and I need you; but there aren’t two of me, are there? And I can’t cut myself in two parts, and then set the parts fighting as you and Helen are fighting–can I? Besides, though you say a great deal, both in this letter of yours and at other times, about the destructive and “poisonous” relationship between Helen and yourself, you must remember (for even I can remember that) that it hasn’t been true except during the last year or so; and that, even now, there is hardly anyone in the world who still doesn’t believe that you and Helen are an ideal pair. Why, you are the only one who even entertains that wild though! And, after all this, who is going to consider your thoughts the right ones? And besides, you cannot impress it upon me or anyone else that a relationship with a young girl of twenty is going (I mean, in the long run) to be anything but a worse nightmare than even you think your relationship with Helen is.

Now that I have said my say: there only remains one more thing. I feel that it is my duty to relate to you truthfully and accurately the details of my conversation with Miss Whipple. For I have an idea that she has gone to you, complaining that she has been maltreated in your house and by your daughter; and I have also a feeling that you are going to sympathize with her, and let her tell you what a beast I am, and all that. Well, you know that my memory is fairly sound on detailed conversations; and I here promise and swear that such fragments as I can’t remember I won’t set down at all.

To begin with, Miss Whipple asked Helen to telephone me where I was with Sabra, to tell me that she wanted to talk to me. And so I came. Naturally, we couldn’t launch immediately into that conversation, and so at first there were only a few friendly remarks. And then—

W. You see, Barbara, I think he would be happy and contented with me; and you wouldn’t object to his being happy and contented, would you?

B. You think you can make him happy?

W. I do.

B. Well, but is that a very honourable sort of happiness?

W. I don’t know; you see, I suppose I’m in love with him.

B. Well, then I think you ought to try and get out of love just as quick as ever you can. Besides, can’t you be on friendly, happy terms with him, without taking him away from his family?

W. People in love just don’t do that–that’s all.

B. Then what do you want; what do you expect?

W. I want to marry him.

B. Yes; but I might raise objections to that.

W. You see, your mother told me that if I married him I’d ruin your whole life, smash all your ideals, and all that. Well, I don’t want to do that; you may not believe it, but I don’t. Would it ruin your whole life?

B. I don’t see how I can tell whether it would or not. It might not ruin the whole of it; but don’t you see–it isn’t that–it’s simply the fact that it’s dishonourable and unfair, that’s all. Good heavens, Miss Whipple–don’t you see what you’re doing? Can even you, “in love,” as you say, think that it is fair to take a man away from his family as you’re doing? You can realize that you are not in the right of it, can’t you.

W. Unfortunately, I’m not.

B. Indeed, and I think it’s extremely fortunate that you’re not. Besides, do you want to know what I think? I suppose you don’t, but here it is, anyhow: I think you’ve taken an unfair advantage of him when he was and is in a physically low condition–exhausted with work, powerless to resist your “love,” as you call it. Because I can tell you I am absolutely sure that, if he were in his right mind, he would never think of such a thing–never even listen to it for a minute.

W. (shrugs her shoulders; enter H.) Well, Barbara’s been trying to give me advice.

H. You can’t blame her; she’s only fourteen and she’s having her father taken away from her.

(Here follow scraps of conversation; among them H.’s definite assertion that there will be no divorce.) [Enter Taxi, shortly.]

B. (advancing menacingly upon W.) Besides, I have another thing to say to you, and it’s this: If I were in the painful position you’re in; if I were doing what you are trying your best to do, I wouldn’t stand up there, so extremely unashamed of myself.

W. (mockingly) Thank you; –that’s all I can think of to say.

B. Goodbye, Miss Whipple; I’m going to swear at you behind your back when you’ve gone.

W. Mm-hm;–all right.



Now, there remain only a few general remarks. (a) You told me, over the telephone, Monday afternoon, to “hold my horses; and everything will be all right.” Naturally I believed you (must I begin to train myself not to?) Did you want my horses held so that they (my horses) wouldn’t get in your way–interfere with your plans? I cannot think of any other explanation; especially if this is the “all right” that you promised. (b) I never realized that my whole life has been simply a jumble of two persons “poisonous” to each other. I won’t believe it, that’s all; I won’t. ( c) I can also tell you that in the conversation between Helen and Miss Whipple, there were no dramatics at all, which was very fortunate; all that got out of Helen’s system on Sunday. It was a cool, calm, deliberate conversation–and, as I said before, “non temere rem incognitam pronuntio.” (d) Consider Sabra, among all the other things you have to consider. Can’t you see that she is not possibly able to grow up decently in the midst of this whirlpool? Why, she will have to spend all her time struggling to keep herself from being sucked down into it–and, as yo know, she can’t quite swim yet. And besides, you can see–can you not?–that she can’t in any way get along respectably with only two out of the three of us? It wouldn’t matter which two you picked, she needs the third–she needs us all.

Well, I think that’s all–every detail–every scrap. I depend very much on you; and I trust you to give another heave at the capstan bars, to get the family anchor started toward the surface again. After all, you have the strongest shoulders for heaving of us all! And, really and truly, you don’t want the family anchor to remain forever at the bottom, do you?



  1. Flitterveen says:

    Heartbreaking–until Barbara reaches the last few lines of her conversation with Miss Whipple. We all knew she was plucky, but wow. Just wow.

    I guess it’s also still heartbreaking.

  2. Bruce Edward Watts says:

    Thanks for posting this entire letter. The conversation with Miss Whipple is very interesting. What was she doing talking to Barbara and Helen after Wilson asked for a divorce?

    I know what the word sternway means but I do not know where “in Sternway” (Capital S) is. Anyone have an answer?

    This is indeed heartbreaking, particularly the part about Sabra as she was only five at this time I believe.

  3. wilsmythrl says:

    I truly ache for her. If I could step back in time to give her something – advice, a shoulder, some clue to make all of the devastation during that time vanish, I would.

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