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Vanishing Act
December 21, 2010 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Vanishing Act. Paul Collins tells the story of Barbara Newhall Follett. The daughter of authors Wilson Follett and Helen Follett, Barbara began writing at the age of 4. As she grew older, she developed a private language of her own, evolved from her view of the world of nature. Her first book, The House Without Windows, was published when she was twelve. In December 1939 Barbara walked out of her apartment and was never seen again. "Some prodigies flourish, some disappear. But Barbara did leave one last comment to the world about writing—a brief piece in a 1933 issue of Horn Book that earnestly recommends that parents give their own children typewriters. 'Perhaps there would simply be a terrific wholesale destruction of typewriters,' she admits. 'An effort would have to be made to impress upon children that a typewriter is magic.'" The entirety of her known writings now resides in six boxes at the Columbia University Rare Book & Manuscript Library. (via longreads)
posted by ocherdraco (33 comments total) 89 users marked this as a favorite

 
Lapham's Quaterly is great.
posted by stbalbach at 8:17 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


This story will haunt me forever...
.
posted by quazichimp at 8:21 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


She moved to Quebec, met a Acadian dairy farmer and had 3 kids, never spoke about her earlier life or American family. Her children discovered the truth in a box of old letters and mementos while cleaning out the house upon her death in 1998. Well it probably didn't happen that way, but what's one more lie in the tableaux of history. My ENTJ personality likes stories to wrap things up neatly, now I can go to sleep instead of trying to figure out of Knopf has a last a dress after her disappearance.
posted by humanfont at 8:31 PM on December 21, 2010


If you want to read her work, it's far from cheap. You might want to try some archives in Providence, RI.
posted by shii at 8:49 PM on December 21, 2010


Great story that I've never heard anything about. Reminds me, vaguely, of Opal Whiteley.
posted by iamck at 8:57 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


WHOA. She was living in my hometown, Brookline MA, when she disappeared, and I have never, ever heard of this. Totally fascinating.
posted by tristeza at 9:09 PM on December 21, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you want to read her work, it's far from cheap

There's no record of a U.S. copyright renewal (at least since 1978); it's likely in the public domain but nobody has scanned it in yet.

Project anyone?
posted by twoleftfeet at 9:10 PM on December 21, 2010 [2 favorites]


In a better world, a film about this girl would be opening this week, instead of "Little Fockers."
posted by davebush at 9:26 PM on December 21, 2010 [26 favorites]


When I go to orchestra rehearsals,

      there are often several passages for the

      Triangle and Tambourine

            together.

When they are together,

      they sound like a big piece of metal

      that has broken in thousandths

            and is falling to the ground.

At 7, she was writing better than cummings.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:32 PM on December 21, 2010 [6 favorites]


Also

twoleftfeet: "There's no record of a U.S. copyright renewal (at least since 1978); it's likely in the public domain but nobody has scanned it in yet.

Project anyone?
"

Colombia's restrictions on the book suggest the possibility is there.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 9:58 PM on December 21, 2010


Typewriters are magic. Looking back, I can see that learning to type was the turning point of my life. All flowed from that.
posted by Faze at 3:23 AM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


That was unbearably sad.
posted by Diablevert at 4:04 AM on December 22, 2010 [2 favorites]


I definitely agree about the typewriters. My mother gave me one, and it changed my world.

Whether everyone in the world is destined to be a Writer, with a capital W and a big fancy career path of frustrating rejection, uncertainty, and self-doubt, is a good question, but to be a microscopic journalist, documenting one's own life so there's a path to follow when it's time to step back, is a truly magical thing. Just writing it all down, whether by hand or machine, has a clarifying effect on the soul.

It's probably a good thing that my literary ventures as a twelve year-old were obliterated by humidity in a storm drain, and I don't regret the wasted years I spent taking the long way 'round, because my reach almost always exceeded my facility back then. I don't envy anyone who's been stuck with the mantle of "child genius," because it was hard enough being told, over and over, that I was not living up to my potential, or applying myself well enough, and I was nowhere near as smart as I fancied myself.

That's not true. I do envy it, at least a little, and wonder.

She seems to have beaten the ugliest demon though, in bypassing the pat ending.

We have to write that part ourselves, or do the work to find out what really happened.

What a gift.
posted by sonascope at 4:05 AM on December 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've just spent 10 minutes failing to track down what this reminds me of. It was another female writer who walked out of her apartment and disappeared, but more recently than 1939. For some reason I associate her with the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis, but it isn't Elaine Morgan, nor has Elaine Morgan written a book about this person. WhoTF am I thinking of?
posted by DU at 4:19 AM on December 22, 2010


She moved to Quebec, met a Acadian dairy farmer and had 3 kids, never spoke about her earlier life or American family. Her children discovered the truth in a box of old letters and mementos while cleaning out the house upon her death in 1998.

This is Barbara Follett, not Patti Smith.
posted by OmieWise at 5:06 AM on December 22, 2010


Fascinating! Thanks for making this post. I'm looking forward to listening to the NPR story. I have to admit, stories where people simply disappear fascinate me. My family has such a story. My great-grandmother's youngest sister went to work in British Columbia during the Depression and according to family lore, got pregnant. Her older brother told her never to come home again. I have a picture of her and she looks like an old fashioned movie star.
posted by Calzephyr at 6:44 AM on December 22, 2010


At 7, she was writing better than cummings.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing


Oh, she was very good, but she wasn't cummings, by any possible stretch.

She might have become that good, though, given time and support.
posted by Windigo at 6:59 AM on December 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


I read the book that's been written about Barbara, and found her pretty fascinating. For anyone who wants to read her writings and can't find them (me, for one) I seem to recall that there were lots of excerpts included in the book. I fear that she may have been murdered, but I love the idea of her just walking out, climbing onto a boat and sailing off to sea...

Thanks for the post and for reminding me of her. Loved the article... it's inspiring.
posted by OolooKitty at 8:19 AM on December 22, 2010


My dreams are going through their death flurries. I thought they were all safely buried, but sometimes they stir in their grave, making my heartstrings twinge. I mean no particular dream, you understand, but the whole radiant flock of them together — with their rainbow wings, iridescent, bright, soaring, glorious, sublime. They are dying before the steel javelins and arrows of a world of Time and Money

This is heartbreaking. And an amazing description of how it feels to be lost, or sinking.
posted by fyrebelley at 8:26 AM on December 22, 2010 [3 favorites]


An amazing and desperately sad story. (Man, fuck Wilson Follett.) Thanks for posting it.
posted by languagehat at 9:43 AM on December 22, 2010


Fascinating story. I never would have seen this on my own. I love MetaFilter. :)
posted by cereselle at 10:07 AM on December 22, 2010


Very interesting! I am surprised the writer of the piece didn't mention William Sidis, a child prodigy who got much of the same media treatment as Follett (especially since Sidis was so much closer a contemporary than Colbourne).
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:39 AM on December 22, 2010 [1 favorite]


That's so sad. It's really suspicious her husband made barely an effort to look for her; it makes the mother's suspicion of foul play quite believable. I wonder if he abused her...
posted by suburbanbeatnik at 11:18 AM on December 22, 2010


Sidhedevil, I thought of Sidis as well; it could be that Collins didn't mention him simply because Amy Wallace wrote an entire book (The Prodigy) about him and he was going for a lesser-known example. Sidis is kind of a messy example, anyway, as there has been a lot of debate over whether his problems with socialization and underachieving in later life were the result of overcontrolling parents earlier, or a popular press that promoted him as a child and just as gleefully chronicled his mediocre adult years. (He won a settlement from the New Yorker after they published an unflattering portrait of him.)

I suspect that he'd be categorized as being somewhere on the autism spectrum today, with parents that may have meant well but didn't really understand the problems that he'd have once he was out from underneath their care.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:30 PM on December 22, 2010


The thing is, though, that I think the Follett hype was probably shaped by the Sidis hype (and not by the Colbourne hype). So it seems an odd omission to me.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:58 PM on December 22, 2010


Colombia's restrictions on the book suggest the possibility is there.

Many libraries with rare material restrict access to that material even if its old enough to be out of copyright.

My dad does most of his research on writers from the 1920's & 30's & reads unpublished letters etc. (created before the Berne convention) and he's frequently not allowed to photocopy or bring a laptop in to the room with the material. He's actually copied a book of poetry longhand so he wouldn't have to return to the library every time he wanted to reference it and he brought his typewriter to one library (20 years ago) that didn't allow photocopies, but even though it was ridiculous, allowed him to retype an entire book.

Some of the libraries want to keep their rare material rare. It has nothing to do with copyright. If he could only smuggle out that cache of turn-of-the-last-century gay porno he found in a most unexpected authors' papers.
posted by morganw at 5:08 PM on December 24, 2010 [1 favorite]


Amazing story. Astonishing and utterly haunting. I'm thinking about a road trip to Columbia...
posted by arnicae at 6:42 PM on December 24, 2010


morganw: "If he could only smuggle out that cache of turn-of-the-last-century gay porno he found in a most unexpected authors' papers"

Oh come on. You can't just end the story there.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 2:55 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


morganw: "one library (20 years ago) that didn't allow photocopies, but even though it was ridiculous, allowed him to retype an entire book."

I am no expert in protecting archival materials, but I have visited archives that did not allow photocopying but DID allow, for example, non-flash photography. At least in that case, it was a matter of protecting the material - photocopying could be detrimental to the originals. (At least some of the originals were books, and photocopying could harm the binding.)

I think archives have a variety of reasons for their restrictions, and I've found its always a good idea to ask what's permitted and what isn't. I've been allowed to scan, sometimes; I've been allowed to photograph (again, no flash) sometimes; but if I hadn't asked specifically "Can I use my scanner? Can I use my camera?" I might never have known about these permitted uses.
posted by kristi at 5:08 PM on December 26, 2010


Windigo: Oh, she was very good, but she wasn't cummings, by any possible stretch.

She might have become that good, though, given time and support.


Yeah, Cummings got incredible levels of support from his friends and family, he managed to devote himself almost completely to his poetry and painting even though he didn't make much money from it until late in age. Barbara Follett almost certainly would've become a quite different writer from Cummings, as there were no American writers like Cummings in style,* but she could well have become a great prose writer. It's a shame that her later works, Lost Island and Travels Without a Donkey have never been published. I'd think there would be a ready market for the latter at least.


* Nor in quality, in my opinion. I feel he's the greatest American poet of the 20th Century, with none his equal (except perhaps Eliot and Ginsberg). In terms of English poetry he is unique with little in the way of ancestral lineage (except for Emily Dickinson) and few if any descendants, akin in his otherness, if you permit me a science fiction simile, to The Mule in the Foundation series. Yeah, at his worst he was oversentimental but his best poetry is mindblowing (e.g. the poems "what a proud dreamhorse," "r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r," "l(a" and many other who either don't exist on the internet (e.g. "n w") or do so only in bastardized versions (e.g. "n(o)w").
posted by Kattullus at 8:18 PM on December 26, 2010


As I discovered in answering this AskMeFi, the copyright office records say Mrs. Nickerson Rogers (Barbara Newhall Follett), Author, renewed the copyright on The House Without Windows in 1954 (Google scan of renewal page), and another work in 1955, which seems to imply she was alive until at least 1955. Anyone know if the copyright office holds on to renewer's address information?
posted by fings at 9:43 PM on December 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


Another point on the 1954 copyright renewal by the author:

In 1968, Avon Books, a division of the Hearst Corporation, published a paperback of
The House Without Windows, "by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Inc."
Knopf claimed the copyright, with a date of 1927.

The author, who held the copyright, would have been about 54.
Did she know that Knopf was claiming the copyright?
Did Knopf know that they didn't hold the copyright?
Was she already dead?
posted by the Real Dan at 12:12 PM on December 31, 2010


Oh wow. I had this book as a child. Now to see if its still somewhere - probably is, as I loved it, both for the story, and the idea that a kid wrote it. Had no idea about the life and disappearance of the author. Thanks, ocherdraco.
posted by korej at 12:35 PM on January 1, 2011


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