About Barbara Follett

Barbara Newhall Follett was born in Hanover, New Hampshire, on March 4th, 1914. Her parents were the teachers, essayists, and literary critics, Helen Thomas Follett and Roy Wilson Follett. (Wilson Follett, my grandfather, was an exceptional scholar and was 1909 Oliver Wendell Holmes Scholar at Harvard College, a full scholarship given to Harvard’s highest-ranking freshman. He’s now best known for “Modern American Usage,” which was published in 1966 three years after his death; it’s still in print, although in a much-revised form. When Barbara was born he was teaching English at Dartmouth College.)

The Folletts chose to school Barbara at home, believing she would receive a better education if free to pursue her own interests—which centered mainly on the nature and landscape surrounding her.

A turning point in Barbara’s young life occurred when she was four and became fascinated with the clacking of her father’s typewriter. In a very short time she was typing stories, poems, and letters on her own portable machine. At five years, four months she wrote to Mr. Oberg, a friend and repairer of antiques in Providence, Rhode Island:

The goldfinches come every afternoon and eat their supper on the clump of bachelor’s-buttons right on the left-hand side of the path that leads from the back door to our road. There are ten goldfinches, five males and five females. Before they eat their suppers, they sit on the clothesline and swing in the breeze. I wish you could be here to see them.

Day before yesterday Daddy killed a snake in the potato-patch; then he threw the snake away with a stick, and then he threw away the stick. The next day Ding [Barbara’s grandmother on her mother’s side, who lived with the family] and I went down Ridgeview Place, and there were the snake and the stick. The snake was about three feet long.

Soon Barbara had her own study in the Follett home in New Haven, Connecticut, where her father was an editor at Yale University Press, and was composing stories on her typewriter, revising them with a pencil, and retyping a final copy. By the time she turned six she had worked on the 4500-word “The Life of the Spinning-Wheel, the Rocking Horse, and the Rabbit” over a period of several months. It begins:

Once upon a time, though I can’t say exactly when, there lived in a far-off country a spinning-wheel, a rocking-horse, and a rabbit. They knew many of the people in that country. They lived in a house with many pretty things in it, such as I am going to tell you about: amethysts, turquoises, opals, pearls, diamonds, and rubies, and precious stones of all kinds.

One day when Mrs. Spinning-Wheel had her head stretched out of the window looking down upon the glorious garden of flowers, she was saying to herself, humming a low, sweet little song,—”Oh dear! how I wish Mr. Horse were white!”

Mr. Rabbit was hiding in a corner behind the door, and he heard what Mrs. Spinning-Wheel had said. “Ha! Ha!” said Mr. Rabbit to Mrs. Spinning-Wheel, with a wiggle of his nose, “Mr. Horse shall be white, as white as you want him to be!”

“Eh?” replied Mrs. Spinning-Wheel.

“I say” began Mr. Rabbit a little louder. But Mrs. Spinning-Wheel interrupted him, saying:

“What do you mean to say to me?”

“I mean to say to you,” said Mr. Rabbit, “that Mr. Horse shall be as white as you want him to be.”

“Ah! Now I get you,” said Mrs. Spinning-Wheel, with a merry little laugh. “But,” said she, in a few minutes, “how are you going to make Mr. Horse as white as snow?”

“I am going to take a fairy’s wand,” said Mr. Rabbit to Mrs. Spinning-Wheel.

“A bright idea!” exclaimed she.

“Well then,” said Mr. Rabbit, “tomorrow morning I’ll go off for the wand. But now Mrs. Clock says seven and so I should think we might as well go to bed.”

And so they all went to bed.

In her very early years Barbara had few friends her own age to play with, but her animal friends (both real and stuffed) and her vivid imagination kept her company. From a letter to Mr. Oberg from January, 1922:

I pretend that Beethoven, the Two Strausses, Wagner, and the rest of the composers are still living, and they go skating with me, and when I invite them to dinner, a place has to be set for them; and when I have so many that the table won’t hold them all, I make my family sit on one side of their chair to make room for them. My abbreviation for the Two Strausses is the Two S’s. Beethoven, Wagner, and the Two S’s have maids; Beethoven’s maid’s name is Katherine Velvet, Wagner’s maid’s name is Katherine Loureena (she got the name Loureena when she was a little bit of a girl because she loved to skate in the Arena), and Strauss’s maid’s name is Sexo Crimanz… Now I am going to tell you about a funny accident that Wagner had. One morning when I had two chairs set out, one for Beethoven and the other for Wagner, I hadn’t pretended long enough to get my family used to them, and Daddy suddenly grabbed the chair that Wagner was sitting in, but I held on to it squealing: “Hey, that’s Wagner’s chair!” Then he went around to Beethoven, and I was looking suspiciously at him all the time. But he turned around again and didn’t bother Beethoven. I suppose that when he got around there, he thought that Beethoven was there.

Also in 1922, Barbara began to form her ideas about the planet Farksolia and to develop the Farksolians’ language, Farksoo, which would soon come to occupy two catalog-card files—one for the Farksoo-English dictionary and the other for English-Farksoo. In a May, 1922, letter to Mrs. Lathrop, who had sent her a copy of Walter De la Mare’s “Down A-Down Derry”:

I have now started a story about kittens, and the most important character is Verbiny the princess who found the mother-cat in the woods, caught her, and tamed her. One of the four kittens had a black back arched up like a kangaroo rat’s, and at the top of each white stocking was a band of yellow. All the kittens catch little crickets and grasshoppers, and one of the kittens catches a bay mouse, and a kitten named Citrolane catches two sparrows, one with each paw. But just a little while after the kittens are born they want so much to see what is on the other side of the fence that fences in their property that they climb up over it and jump down and almost land on a porcupine, be he good-naturedly steps aside in time. In a chapter called Springtime I have written down a little poem in a secret language that Verbiny called Farksoo. In the secret language it was this:

Ar peen maiburs barge craik coo
Peen yars fis farled cray pern.
Peen darndeon flar fooloos lart ain birdream.
Afee lart ain caireen ien tu cresteen der tuee,
Darnceen craik peen bune.

I will now translate it as best I can.

As the (and maiburs means a flower that comes in May) begin to come,
The air is filled with perfume.
The dandelion fluff floats like a (and birdream means something very beautiful).
Also like a fairy in her dress of gold,
Dancing to the wind.

Harold McCurdy, in his book “Barbara: Unconscious Autobiography of a Child Genius,” suggests that Barbara invented her complex imaginary worlds because she wanted to escape the one adults had made, with all its greed, cruelty, and violence. She also wanted freedom and independence: themes that would persist throughout her life. He also suggests that Farksolia was particularly attractive because in the past it had been ravaged by war and destruction and had barely escaped depopulation altogether, and now its future rested in the hands of a six-year-old and a baby. And, of course, in “The Adventures of Eepersip,” the first version of which Barbara wrote to present to her mother on her ninth birthday in March, 1923 (it was Barbara’s custom to give presents to others on her birthday), Eepersip runs away from home and lives very happily in Nature. In Barbara’s words:

It is about a little girl named Eepersip who lived on top of a mountain, Mount Varcrobis, and was so lonely that she went away to live wild. She talked to the animals, and led a sweet lovely life with them—just the kind of life that I should like to lead. Her parents all tried to catch her, with some friends of theirs, and every time she escaped in some way or other.

Due to illness Barbara was unable to finish Eepersip quite in time for her birthday, but did complete it a few days later, and at the suggestion of her father she revised it over the course of the summer. But in October the Follett home burned down, and the only copies of the manuscript went up in flames. Heartbroken, Barbara turned to new stories to write, but returned to Eepersip in early 1924 and worked at it over the next two years, revising it carefully all the while. Her father thought this new version, which Barbara was much happier with, warranted publication. Alfred A. Knopf agreed, and published “A House Without Windows, and Eepersip’s Life There” in January, 1927. The first printing of 2500 sold out before the publication date, and a second printing of (I believe) 5000 was ordered. The book was well received, and was reviewed in the New York Times, the Saturday Review of Literature, and The American Girl (I’ve posted those reviews on Farksolia.)

In 1927 Barbara’s fascination with the sea reached fever pitch. Fortunately, and after much perseverance on Barbara’s part in stating her case, Helen and Wilson consented to let their daughter accompany the crew of the Frederick H., a three-masted schooner, as a deck-hand on a voyage north from New Haven to Nova Scotia that summer. On her return Barbara wrote a lovely memoir of her adventure, based on letters she wrote describing her trip, and Knopf published “The Voyage of the Norman D.” shortly after her fourteenth birthday, in 1928.

All was not well at home, however. For the past year Barbara’s father had been in New Haven less and less often; his work as an editor had taken him to the Knopf offices in New York, where he met Margaret Whipple, Alfred A. Knopf’s bright young secretary (at least I think that was my grandmother’s job at Knopf). Barbara missed her father very much, and wished that he would return home for good. From a letter dated April 29, 1927:

Dear Daddy:

It seems to us that New York must be a sort of Louis XI’s palace, full of snares, temptations, pitfalls, traps, and everything else for enticing and entangling its helpless victims.

[Barbara goes on to describe a beautiful spot she has found hidden far in the woods near their house—I’ll post the text of the letter on the site soon—then continues:]

I intend to make a great many visits, basket and shovel in hand, to this veritable Eden-of-cultivated-things-gone-wild, and I hope you will come along

“… up to the pig-sties,
and sit on the farm-yard rails!
Let’s say things to the bunnies,
And watch ’em skitter their tails!
Let’s–oh, anything, Daddy–
So long as it’s you and me….”

And there really are bunnies skittering their tails. We saw an adorable small-sized one, as we came down, who flickered his white puff-ball, and he skittered from bush to bush, crouching quietly and melting “Into the landscape.”

But Barbara’s words were not enough. Wilson sent a letter received two days after Barbara’s fourteenth birthday, saying that he wanted her mother to grant him a divorce. It appears that this letter may be lost, but Barbara’s reply survives, and it is heart-breaking. From that moment on, Barbara communicated with her father very rarely indeed, and didn’t spend any significant time with him until 1937.

Barbara had been devoted to her father, and his sudden departure was certainly a terrible, disillusioning blow, but such was Barbara’s passion for life—not only for nature and adventure but for writing about her ideas and experiences and sharing her stories with others—that the family crisis did not dampen her spirit for long. Instead, she persuaded her mother that an adventure at sea should be their next step. So they set sail from New York to Bridgeport, Barbados, in September. From there—with no itinerary in mind or any idea when they would return to the mainland, and without much luggage (a suitcase and two bags that held their typewriters) and with barely enough money to survive (fortunately, food on the islands was plentiful and often free, since they made friends everywhere they went)—the two explored the area by steamer and schooner for several idyllic months. Then, with no desire to return to a New England winter, they seized the chance to extend their adventure to the South Seas. They sailed through the Panama Canal to Tahiti, to Fiji, to the Tonga Islands, to Samoa, and finally arrived at Honolulu in May, 1929. There they secured passage to Hoaquim, Washington, aboard the five-masted schooner Vigilant, which had as her second mate a 25-year-old man named E. Anderson. Anderson and Barbara became very close during that voyage; soon Barbara had fallen in love.

It must have been terribly hard for Barbara to leave Anderson when they landed, and made doubly hard considering she had to readjust to life on the mainland. Helen and Barbara went south to Pasadena, where they stayed with family friends (I believe the Russell family, including Alice Dyer Russell, with whom Barbara kept a regular correspondence for many years). Helen and Barbara fought about what to do (Helen had a fiery temper, and no doubt Barbara rose to the challenge); compounding matters was the fact that they were out of money. Two wealthy friends of Helen’s came to the rescue. Mrs. A. Brown and Miss Mildred Kennedy paid for Helen to return to Honolulu where she could work on her book about the voyage, and they put Barbara in the care of a guardian, Dr. Ture Schultz, who enrolled her as a student at Pasadena Junior College. Barbara might have been curious about the idea of going to school for the first time, but she soon found everything about the situation “poisonous.” In late September she ran away to San Francisco, where she planned to live alone and support herself as a typist. The authorities had other ideas and had her arrested, but not before Barbara had escaped through her hotel room window when the police arrived at the door. (Decades later, the Boston Globe described this escape as a “suicide attempt,” which is utter nonsense.) Barbara spent a few days in detention, steadfastly refusing to return to the custody of the guardian. The saga was reported nationally in the press, much to her parents’ chagrin. Finally a decision was reached—behind closed doors to keep the press away—between Barbara and the adults. Details are murky (at least in my mind), but I think Barbara returned to the Russell family in Pasadena; met Anderson at least once when he answered her plea to come; and, according to McCurdy’s book, had a confrontation with her father and Margaret Whipple over Anderson. Not unexpectedly, and to Barbara’s contempt, they disapproved 0f the relationship. On her sixteenth birthday, on March 4, 1930, Barbara had her friends cut her long hair, which she had had braided in pigtails for many years: It was “…one of the best afternoon’s works I ever accomplished—or perhaps ever shall,” she later wrote to Alice.

Also in March, Helen and Barbara returned to the east coast, aboard the S.S. Marsodak, which sailed from San Diego through the Canal to Baltimore. They worked together for a few feverish months finishing “Magic Portholes” in Washington, D.C., and then moved to an apartment in New York where Barbara had a few job opportunities to investigate. She had also started work on her third novel, “Lost Island,” which she was very excited about. She looked forward to hearing again from Anderson, who was serving as mate aboard the schooner C.S. Holmes on the first of three summer trading expeditions from Seattle to Point Barrow, on the north slope of Alaska. For work Barbara wrote synopses of books for Fox Films, typed for hire, and studied shorthand, while yearning to hear from Anderson, who was scheduled to return in October. They resumed their correspondence, writing to each other sometimes several times a week, and Barbara learned that the sailor had scheduled a return trip to Alaska in the summer of 1931, saying he was saving up “For A Purpose.”

Barbara and Helen spent the summer of 1931 in a cabin in Vermont, where Barbara continued to work on “Lost Island.” She also met a group of students from Dartmouth College, including Nickerson Rogers, who had graduated that year. Nick loved hiking and camping in the mountains as much as Barbara, who had not had the opportunity to do much of it since her father had deserted her. Nick, Barbara, and two of Nick’s friends drove up to Katahdin in Maine for a hiking trip, and the four began to make plans to walk the 4000+ miles of the Appalachian Trail, from Katahdin to Mount Oglethorpe in Georgia, the next year. Barbara was growing more and more fond of Nick, soon describing their relationship as “semi-platonic.” Yet she still harbored feelings for Anderson. Nick and Barbara visited each other over the winter, and in the summer she quit her job and New York and spent several months with Nick in the mountains and wilderness of New England, exploring the country between Katahdin and Vermont by foot and canoe. By now Barbara had severed her correspondence with the distraught Anderson, who wrote her a letter in October, 1932, beseeching her to choose him over “Dartmouth.”

But it was to no avail. That same October Barbara sailed with Nick to Europe. They spent about a year living as carefree gypsies, for appearance’s sake pretending to be man and wife, exploring Spain and hiking in the Alps and the Black Forest, before returning sometime in late 1933 to Nick’s home in Boston, where they got married. They lived in a series of apartments in Boston and Brookline—Barbara working as a secretary and Nick as an engineer. Barbara rewrote the ending of “Lost Island,” dedicating it to “E.A.,” but did not succeed in finding a publisher for it; she also wrote several shorter pieces about her outdoors excursions with Nick, again leaving them unpublished. She continued to write to Alice in California and very occasionally to her mother in New York, but whether she wrote anything else I don’t know; if she did the writing does not appear to survive.

As their years in Boston passed, Nick’s job kept him increasingly busy and their trips to the mountains grew sparse. Barbara missed her adventurous life but was not at all unhappy with her new, domesticated life. She remained very fond indeed of her husband. In the winter of 1936-37 she also found a new activity that delighted her: “interpretive” dancing as part of Mary Starks’s Dance Workshop Group. She and Nick also started renting a cabin in New Hampshire (for the astonishing sum of $2.50 a month) as a base for skiing and hiking, and she renewed ties with her father, now married to Margaret and living with her and their baby girl, Jane (my mother), in Bradford, Vermont. Barbara wrote to Alice on July 20, 1937:

We helped them move up there in early June, and since then have spent one week-end with them. I am very fond of them both. They are mellowing down somewhat, too, I think, what with a little less strain and worry. Of course I can never really be myself with them; they are 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. He subsides into himself, and says nothing at all. 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!

Nick and Barbara continued happy in 1938. Nick was busier and busier and was now working as a “special salesman” at Polaroid. Their vacation time did not coincide. Nevertheless, Barbara’s wanderlust was assuaged with a three-week canoe trip with two friends “in the wilds of Canada—and when I say ‘wilds,’ I mean it, too; there was one stretch of four days when we didn’t see or hear another human being, though we were on the move all the time. We fished, swam, sunned, and paddled and paddled and PADDLED from one lake to another, one river to the next, each one being lovelier and wilder than the one before. We camped on idyllic little islands and beaches.” In the same letter to Alice, of October 4, 1938, Barbara continued:

Part of my vacation–almost a week, in fact—I spent with Follett and Margaret at Bradford. I had one heavenly day there, during which I helped F. get caught up on his gardening. We worked together till we dropped, and it was lovely. After that things kind of petered out. They were having a financial crisis at the time (just for a change!) and that was weighing them down. There was a bad spell when they thought they were going to be thrown out of the house for non-payment of rent; but that passed, and there seem to be articles coming in the Atlantic now (my grandfather ended up writing about 125 articles for that magazine). Margaret goes through occasional very bitter spells, and then recovers.

In the summer of 1939 the Dance Workshop Group’s composer and pianist, Marjorie Houser(?), Marjorie’s younger brother, Lee, and Barbara drove across the country to the Bennington School of the Dance, Mills College, Oakland, where Barbara took a workshop. She also visited her good friend, Alice, in Pasadena. And it was while at Alice’s that she received the devastating letter from Nick that ended her vacation and returned her at once to Boston. (That letter does not survive, as far as I know.) On her return Barbara found the apartment empty: Nick had gone to New York and did not return until Friday morning (Barbara had arrived on Tuesday). Conversation with him confirmed her fears that “there IS someone else.” Barbara refused to ask Nick any questions but rather “just dug my nails into my palms” and never found out who that “someone else” was (it may have been Anne Bradley, who became the second Mrs. Nickerson Rogers).

Barbara blamed herself for Nick’s behavior, desperately wanting him not to leave her, and was hopeful that things would work out. On August 22 she wrote to Alice:

I think I’ve persuaded him to give me my chance. He is a very kind person, really, and hates to hurt people. He hated to write that letter; that’s why it sounded so awful. I think that, if I can really prove that I’m different, why maybe things will work out. He still doesn’t quite believe, as he says, that a leopard can change its spots! He thinks that in a month things will be all wrong again. So I say, at least give me that month! I think I’ll get it, and I think I can win if I’ve got the strength. Just this morning he said something that made me feel sort of hopeful. I think he is a steady enough person, and a kind enough person, and also enough of an easy-going person, so that he won’t go making drastic plunges if he doesn’t have to; and if I can make a pleasant sort of life for him, I think he’ll hang on. That’s what I’m banking on, and I’m putting my heart and soul into all the little things.

On November 4, in her last letter to Alice, things appeared to have improved…on the surface, that is. Barbara had found them a new apartment, at 48 Kent Street in Brookline, just up the street from Boston. She was working part-time, dancing part-time, and looking for an opportunity to study that more.

In my last letter I told you things were going well, and I thought they were. They continued to go well for a time—at least I thought so, and I was happy, and decided that the worst part of the ordeal was over. But that was too easy. No such luck! I don’t know what to say now. 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!

A month later, on December 7, 1939, after an argument with Nick, Barbara walked out of the apartment with $30 and a notebook. I have many questions about my family history, but the question that stands out among them, by far, is, What happened to Barbara Follett next?

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  1. Pingback: Barbara Follett Gets New Site - GalleyCat

  2. You did a very good job on this Stefan. You have really nailed the high points and brought the whole story into focus with a minimum of words. The best synopsis of Barbara’s life I have read.

    BEW

  3. Stefan, This is such a good summary of Barbara’s life. I can hardly imagine the worry and upset of those close to her after she disappeared. It is heartbreaking to think that the mystery of her disappearance may never be solved. Do you know, by any chance, what type of work her mother was doing in New York at the time of the disappearance?

    • Thanks, Maryka. I don’t really know what Helen was doing when Barbara disappeared. She was probably writing and planning her next trip abroad (she had recently spent a lot of time in the Black Forest). She would also give talks about her travels and I think continued to promote the typewriter as a tool for child education.

  4. Well, Stefan, good job. I want to ask a bit more of her poems. I will be very happy if you can post more of Barbara’s poems.

  5. The abilities of young Barbara are incredible. What a pity she couldn’t develop them further and enrich literature with more works. Her face is also fascinating – in her eyes and the whole expression there is something unusual which makes me wanna look at her. When I first saw her face I immediately thought: this is not an ordinary person. Thanks a lot for this website!

  6. Goodness, reading Lost Island and then this biography, it appears she really did live her own work as she was writing it. The love she wrote about, the one that really brought her to life, that was the sailor; when she couldn’t have him, she took this Nick fellow, who’s John to the hilt. And attempting to live the world’s happily ever after, she might well have withered until she didn’t even know herself.

    One wonders, then, what became of the sailor, and if one found him, would any better answers as to the fate of B. Follett be forthcoming?

    Wherever she went, I hope she had happiness, even briefly.

    • Many thanks for writing, Mari, and sorry for not replying sooner. I tried hard to track down Anderson while researching my book, and failed miserably. Maybe one day someone will succeed; I hope so since I’d love to know what happened to him.

  7. My impressions based on reading your account of Barbara’s life, doesn’t seem like she was suicidal and her husband Nickerson Rogers doesn’t sound like he was capable of putting away his wife, although that seems plausible given his delay in reporting her missing to the police. The idea of not declaring Barbara’s maiden name. that too sounds disturbing, but may just be circumstantial.

    But on a more positive note, As brilliant as she was, Barbara Follett had many options and seemed very resourceful even with $30.00 in her pocket as she left the Brookline apartment. Her imagination could have taken her anywhere and it probably did. In that final departure, in her mind she determined to finish a chapter in her life’s book at the age of twenty-five with a vision towards starting a new Chapter with a whole new set of actors. It wouldn’t surprise me to find she is published under a discreet pseudonym in the years following 1939.

    • It occurred to me, too, that Barbara may have adopted a new identity and penned some work under a pseudonym. I thought it most likely that she would have gone back to writing children’s books, since she’d had success with that but none of her adult stories. So I dug around trying to find anything about a writer of children’s books during that period–somebody whose identity may have been a secret or mystery–and could find no one that fit that description.