Letter to A.D.R., April 28, 1930

Alice Dyer Russell, born in 1881, was an author from Pasadena, California and an old friend of the Follett family. She was married to Bert Russell (1874-1933), a patent lawyer, and they had two daughters: Elisabeth and Phoebe. (A third daughter, Mary, died the year Barbara was born, having lived only two years.) Barbara wrote regularly to A.D.R. between her return east in March, 1930, until her disappearance in 1939. They are simply wonderful letters, and I’ll be posting all the ones I have, in chronological order, starting with this on, describing work on Helen’s “Magic Portholes.”

Washington, D. C.
April 28, 1930

Dear A. D. R.:

Still here, and working like fiends. The writing becomes more magnificent every second; it really is grand, and it really must “go,” I think. There is no longer the faintest trace of a “narrative style” about it; the whole thing has split itself into little episodes, each one a complete little entity, with a definite climax and a definite “point.” Some of them are screamingly funny, others quite sad and wistful. These episodes are split from each other by little section-marks consisting of a triangle of dots. There isn’t even any attempt at strict chronological truth any more. The imagination has come into its own.

These episodes are not even uniform in length–they are just as long or as short as they want to be. Some are eight or nine pages, others half a page. The whole book, every line in it, is entertaining and thoroughly charming, I think. There’s not the repetition of an idea; and even the sea-stuff is varied to an extreme. The characters are uproarious, picturesque, consistent. Negro characters, nautical characters, scientific characters, and ourselves–anyone who knows us would find our self-portraits just true enough to be very humorous.

But it is heart’s blood, believe me! I wish I could draw an accurate graph of Helen writing an episode. One one side of such a graph would be the progress of the episode; on the site at right angles to it would be Helen’s corresponding state of temper, in which high would mean very bad. Thus, the beginning of the episode would be very high, where she realizes that it’s got to be written. The temper remains about the same while she flounders around–then she gets an idea, and the temper drops abruptly to a very happy frame of mind, near the bottom of the scale; there it remains a short time–then difficulties galore are encountered, and the temper line shoots to the very peak of the scale, and the apartment is an accurate representation of the nether regions, for a while, varying in length from half an hour to two days; then the difficulties are worked out; and with another abrupt drop the temper-line returns to a frame of mind in which the universe seems to be her special oyster, and a very nice one.

To be entirely fair, I own that my own temper-line would have to be marked in such a graph, along with hers; and I think the curves would be more or less similar, though not quite so exaggerated… Well, maybe I’ll work this out sometime. If I do I’ll send you a copy!

The other job seems a bit indefinite; though I’ve already hauled in a good deal of pocket-money from Dr. P. Helen now tells me that I’m absolutely indispensable to her, and must go north with her, and help clear out the house, and so on. But if I see the prospects of landing a job here, nothing shall daunt me!

The job performed by the Russells in Pasadena, on Saturday afternoon, was a nobel job. The hair started curling up tight as soon as it was set free; it doesn’t bare the faintest resemblance to what it was then. It has a wave in it that hardly anyone will believe is natural! And it is really the best thing that ever happened. While I’m on that subject, I believe I will quote from Anderson’s latest. I wrote to him from Baltimore, sitting at the saloon table of my beloved Marsodak, asking what would happen to me if I should cut my hair off (tactfully not saying that it had been done, you see!) And here is what I got back:

“It seems that I am called upon to remark upon two matters of some importance, if one can consider the matter of a haircut of any importance. As you are probably bobbed, and even possibly shingled by this time, there’s nothing to do but yield with good grace, and submit a word of commendation upon good sense, and convenience, in place of an approving glance. Bobbed hair is really charming, you know, when it doesn’t hang straight down like rope-yarn from an Irish pennant. As you assure me that yours is wavy and inclined to curl, we may count the tresses well lost.”

In the next breath he springs the Arctic adventure, the absolute out-of-touchness with the world for four months, and the element of risk and danger–all quite unconcernedly, and in the same somewhat humorous and heavy literary style. He then professed great concern for my personal welfare. At that time there had been quite a tempest, financially and otherwise, and I sort of expected I should have to walk the streets any minute for any kind of labor I could find. During this crisis, I wrote to Anderson. And he came back with putting his worldly fortune at my disposal, at any time, and with expressing great grief and concern over it.

“I only pray,” he says, “it doesn’t cast you into the day-laboring class. I’ve been in it long enough to know what it amounts to, and what it’s probably end is. The sort of existence that leaves a woman a slattern at forty, and a man a dolt. Or if they have some perception, leaves them with a sort of misanthropic cynicism, bereft of ideals and appreciation of life…. This must all seem very serious and dull, coming from me.”

Maybe I’m prejudiced somehow, but I think knowing a person like that is a great adventure.

I could also quote ad infinitum from the letter which arrived just before the last one, in which he remarks that there i one thing I have in common with my father–“the tendency, or ability, to dream.” Then he said that my dreams were “beautiful and sane,” instead of being “distorted, perhaps through long suppression, who knows?” Then he became somewhat grandfatherly, saying that dreams would have to be put on the shelf for the present, under these entirely practical conditions. Then he charitably said: “Sure! Don’t I know? Haven’t I sat on deck in the moonlight, and let fancy put on it seven league boots, and go roaming?”

Well, enough of this! This takes me too far away from the immediate present, which I’ve got to set my mind on pretty hard. I keep busy now from getting-up to going-to-bed, and time whizzes. I am happy, one the whole. Not ecstatically so, one couldn’t be; but sort-of at zero, if you know what I mean. Not definitely one thing or another. I am hardly a person right now-I am more like a machine. Typewriting, typewriting, editing, editing, cooking, sweeping, mopping …. That sort of thing. And busy as the devil, every minute, though not about the same things! (I hope.) I want to remain that busy until about next January, when I think I’ll take a vacation of some sort–if not materially, at least mentally and spiritually–come down to Baltimore and look at a ship again, or lock my door (wherever my door will be then!) for a week or so and work on Farksoo and think; or take a train up to New Hampshire and look at the winter woods; or climb Monadnock and sing a song.

Dr. Tyler, who is taking care of Sabra, came down a few days ago, on her way south with some friends; and she dropped in to spend the night. It was very nice to see her, but made us all feel a little queer, if you can imagine it. She talked a lot about Sabra, and made us all very homesick–made me want to send a telegram to Follett and say: “Drop it, you poor fool–and come HOME!” Helen hopes to have money enough this summer to take the cottage in the New Hampshire woods. Then I could have the woods again, and Sabra. I think that is a gorgeous scheme; and I only hope there will be money–though God knows where it is to come from. If we went up there I should still keep busy. More physically than mentally. I should climb hills and swim lakes, and sail my boat, and play around with my little sister (that will be some job, for Tyler says she is a positive “whirlwind.”)  I’ll entertain her, and keep her busy, by building her a little shack in the woods, and making a wild-flower garden, and that sort of thing. And I should hope to do some writing, too.

In fact, wherever I am, and whoever I am with, I am going to keep very busy until about next January. And by that time, if I’ve controlled my temper at all the crucial moments, and my tears at all the appalling ones, and my patience at all the nervous ones, and my sense of beauty at all the hideous ones, and a degree of common-sense at all the flurried ones, and prevent myself from becoming hard and bitter during those damn-fiendish ones that tear your vitals–whey, then, I think I shall have earned a vacation, by about next January.

The cherry-blossoms are over now. We have seen Mrs. Pratt just once–tomorrow she is coming to take us out to Capitol View, and to drive us about a little. She seems like an extremely nice person; and we all sat and talked about the Russells, and old times, and it was very jolly. She described the Russells’ flurried and hasty departure for California, and the two tea-kettles left over; and it sounded so much like the Folletts that we laughed until the tears ran down our cheeks.

Even if I don’t get a regular and permanent sort of job here, I think we shall stay here about a month longer. We are not needed in New Haven till August, and Helen yearns to get as much as humanly possible of the book finished. She works altogether too hard, of course; but by Jove what writing! We hope to get the book completed, and the final copy made, up to Tahiti, before going home. That should be half of it at least. That will be enough to exhibit the King of England himself. There is a good deal of work about the beginning to do–you see, she improved so vastly that she found the beginning positively rotten by contrast, an worthy of the garbage can; so she has rewritten the whole beginning. And it’s infinitely better than anything you’ve seen of hers. I had no idea she could pull off anything of the kind. It’s full of light-hearted, humorous conversation, beautiful little patches of description, not too much; and–oh, well, there’s just no use talking about it, that’s all! It makes my own stuff sound dull, and heavy, and think, and formidable, and sluggish, and thoroughly awkward and ridiculous.

Speaking of writing: I hope the pot-boiler and the whole-hearted young man (God! how I yearn to spit at these whole-hearted young men!) sells with a bang; and I don’t doubt it will–that sort always does. But I always think of your writing as being the other kind–the soul-mauling kind.

Well, I can see that I shall have to stop. This won’t go into an ordinary envelope, if I don’t stop soon–I can see that. Anderson wrote me a ten-page letter once, quite a long time ago, and wound up with: “If I write any more, I’ll have to send it by parcel post!”

Your shipmate eternally,


  1. Bonnie Towles says:

    Thank you for this important work ….

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