The Child Genius Poised to Become a Great Novelist—But Then She Disappeared
Barbara Newhall Follett published her first novel in 1927, at the age of 12. At 25, she went missing, never to be seen again.
Image courtesy of Stefan Cooke / farksolia.org
“A small back door opened into the lovely woods at the back of the house. Quickly Eepersip made her way out into the open; and everything looked twice as lovely as before. How light it was, with all the world a window, instead of those silly little peep-holes fringed about! How much more glowing everything was! Oh, nothing in a house could compare with the world of light that Eepersip lived in!”
At the age of four, Barbara Newhall Follett pestered her father Wilson to “tell her a story” about his typewriter. By five, Barbara was typing letters and poetry on the Corona without assistance. By six, she completed her first 4,500-word short story. By eight, she had started writing her first full-length novel. At 12, The House Without Windows, and Eepersip’s Life There, would be published to widespread critical acclaim.
At age 25, Follett—once famed as a child genius poised to become the next great American novelist—walked out of her apartment with a notebook in hand and $30 in her pocket. She was never heard from again.
Follett was born March 4, 1914 in Hanover, New Hampshire, to parents Helen—a writer—and father Wilson, a scholar who taught at Dartmouth College and Brown University before taking an editorial position with the Yale University Press.
In a household where typewriters took the place of crucifixes and books the place of formal curriculum, Follett thrived in being schooled at home and socialized amongst adults. Her literary talents blossomed bright and early—according to her mother’s written accounts, Follett’s “love for books” began when she was a year old and became a “passion” by three and a half. Typewritten correspondence became part of her curriculum by age five and, today, letters she wrote to friends and family—mostly adults many years her senior—offer insight into Follett’s deep love of the natural world, talent for diction, and disinterest in same-aged playmates. Follett’s letters and early poetry evolved to include long swarths of prose and, at just six years old, Follett completed the short story The Life of the Spinning-Wheel, the Rocking Horse, and the Rabbit.
Follett's main inspiration was the natural world around her. A turning point in her young career came with her first visit to Lake Sunapee when she was eight—the same year, Barbara began writing the story of Eepersip, a young girl who runs away from her family to live in the wild. She gave the manuscript to her mother as a gift on her ninth birthday. Later that year, Barbara’s completed manuscript—along with the rest of the family’s possessions—were lost in a house fire. Lucky to have survived the blaze and yet unable to shake Eepersip, Barbara returned to the story in 1924. The House Without Windows, and Eepersip’s Life There was published by Alfred A. Knopf—at that time, her father’s employer—as Follett’s debut novel on January 21, 1927. In her own 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.”
The book received widespread acclaim, with a critic in the The Saturday Review calling her writing “unbearably beautiful” and another in the New York Times calling it a “remarkable little book.” Barbara paid little attention to the praise, but did respond to a review in which a book reviewer pondered what price Barbara might pay later for her “big days” at the typewriter. Barbara’s written response read:
“You write positively as if all children were alike, as if all children desired the same surroundings, as if they all liked the same things. Children are as different from each other as grown-up people; they are even more insistent in their variety of tastes; and a great deal more hurt when things do not go as they like. [...] The book is an expression of joy—no more—and to a careful person it should be an expression of my home-life as well.”
Later that year, Barbara—supervised by a family friend named George Bryan—would embark on a 10-day excursion aboard the Frederick H. schooner to Nova Scotia; The Voyage of the Norman D., published upon her return in 1928, is a partial memoir inspired by the trip to sea. With two critical darlings under her belt by the age of 14, Barbara was considered a child prodigy and poised to be one of the next great American writers—but rough waters were ahead, as Barbara soon learned that her father was leaving the family for his employer’s young secretary, Margaret Whipple. Heartbroken, Barbara wrote to her her father:
“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?”
Betrayed by the father she’d once idolized, Follett returned to the sea—this time, convincing her mother to sail with her to West Indies. The pair left in September 1928 and sailed for six months, but it would prove to be a trying time—both mother and daughter struggled to sell work and weren’t receiving money from Wilson, who was fired from his editing position after his affair came to light. Additionally, there was tension between mother and daughter; Helen wrote to friends that Barbara had become “difficult” and had “gone to some kind of pieces, emotional, and physical” in the wake of losing the father she “worshipped.” According to letters, the conflict came to a head in Tahiti, when Barbara had what Helen called a “moral break down” and “turned against” her mother; perhaps related to an unchaperoned trip taken with Captain Andrew Burt, during which Barbara wrote she “picked up a new and glorious acquaintance—the devil.”
In 1929, mother and daughter returned to the mainland; agreeing time apart was necessary. The younger Follett stayed with friends in Altadena, where she was placed in psychiatric care and enrolled in junior college. But she subsequently fled to San Francisco—eventually making news after she was captured by police and refused to return to a guardian. She was quoted in a newspaper:
“I came away because I felt I had to have my freedom. I felt utterly suppressed, almost frantic, under the plans that had been made for me. I did not want to enter college nor live the standardized existence. I have never been to school in my life. Perhaps I might like it—I do not know. But this I know: I do not want to like it.”
Barbara would return to the East Coast in 1930, taking work as a typist, penning book synopses for Fox, and beginning a third novel, Lost Island, while living in New York. But she would find her way back to the lush landscapes of the Northeast and, while in Vermont over the summer of 1931, met an outdoorsman named Nickerson Rogers, who she would eventually marry. In the following years, the couple sailed to Europe, married in Boston, and began taking interpretive dance classes.
But come 1939, things would take a turn for the worse—during a trip to the west coast, Follett received a letter from her husband in which he expressed unhappiness in the marriage and a desire to separate. In a letter from this time, Barbara noted that things were more dire than she had initially thought, as she’d discovered that there was another woman. As with all things Follett loved in her life, she was determined not to lose Rogers and committed herself to what she expected to be “long, patient process” of reconciliation. From her letters, it appears that the couple attempted to make it work—but soon, things would appear irreconcilable. According to the last surviving letter written by Barbara:
“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!”
Barbara left her apartment in Brookline, Massachusetts with $30 in her pocket and a notebook in hand on the evening of December 7, 1939.
She was never heard from again.
Suspicions surrounded her husband, who waited two weeks to report her disappearance to police and four months to request a missing persons bulletin, claiming he was waiting for her to return. When the bulletin was released, Follett was listed under her married name—thus, the connection to the former child prodigy was not made until many years later. In fact, Follett's own mother did not discover her daughter was missing until the mid-1940s; letters she subsequently sent to former acquaintances, including Captain Andrew Burt, yielded no leads. The case of the missing writer went cold—and with no evidence of foul play the mystery endures: was Barbara murdered? Did she escape to another location, reinvent herself, and live another life without ever telling her family or friends? Or, perhaps, was the draw of Eepersip’s House Without Windows—the natural world, free from cheating husbands and fathers—more than she could resist?
I spoke to Barbara Newhall Follett’s half-nephew Stefan Cooke via email. He revealed that his mother—Barbara’s half-sister Jane—thought she might have made her way from Brookline to the White Mountains, and frozen to death by choice. He has another theory: “I think Barbara chucked everything to start a new life under a new identity,” he wrote. “She'd run away before from untenable circumstances,” he continued, I just don't think Barbara could have been depressed enough at 25 to commit suicide.”
Barbara’s 104th birthday would have been (or maybe is) this week. Her physical letters and papers are archived in a collection at Columbia University, while Cooke—the closest family member to Barbara still alive—has made her work publicly available on Farksolia.org and in anthology published in 2015, Barbara Newhall Follett: A Life in Letters.
Though we may never know what became of her, through her work, Barbara Newhall Follett lives on.
Nile Cappello is the writer of The Prodigal Daughter, a screenplay based on the life and disappearance of Barbara Newhall Follett.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.