Barbara Newhall Follett was a successful author by the age of twelve. Her 1927 debut novel, The House Without Windows, received glowing reviews from The New York Times. By the age of 16 she had published two books and written countless poems. She was destined to become the next great American writer. And then, one autumn evening in 1939, she disappeared.
In a New Hampshire apartment during the winter of 1923, this typewritten notice was fastened squarely against a closed door:
by Paul Collins
by Paul Collins
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,
there are often several passages for the
Triangle and Tambourine
When they are together,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.
they sound like a big piece of metal
that has broken in thousandths
and is falling to the ground.
“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.”
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