Barbara Newhall Follett, Disappearing Child Genius In 1927, at the age of 13, Barbara Newhall Follett published her first novel to great critical acclaim. She was a famous child genius and destined to become the next great American writer -- until, one day, she just disappeared. Literary detective Paul Collins tells her heartbreaking story.

Barbara Newhall Follett, Disappearing Child Genius

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There was once a little girl who wrote acclaimed novels in the 1920s. But just a few years later she walked away from her life and all those she knew. This story, both sad and mysterious, is brought to us by our own literary detective, Paul Collins, who joins us from Portland, Oregon.

Paul, thanks so much for being back with us.

Professor PAUL COLLINS (Portland State University): Oh, it's good to be here.

SIMON: And please tell us the story of Barbara Newhall Follett.

Prof. COLLINS: Well, Barbara was the daughter of Wilson Follett and Helen Follett. Wilson Follett is probably best known for "Follett's Modern American Usage," which came out much later in his life.

But back in the 1920s, what he was probably the most famous for was for being the father of Barbara, who is this literary prodigy. She started learning how to use the typewriter when she was four or five, and by eight she was working on her first book.

SIMON: A novel, no less, which got wonderful reviews.

Prof. COLLINS: Yeah, it's called "The House Without Windows," and it was put out by Knopf in 1927 and reviewed in The Times, reviewed in Scribner's magazine. I mean it was very highly regarded when it came out. And I think a lot of reviewers, when they first looked at it, kind of expected to be maybe charmed - oh, isn't it nice...

SIMON: How cute. Yeah.

Mr. COLLINS: Exactly. Actually, it turned out to be a very haunting kind of story. It's a story of a girl who runs away from home and lives out in the woods. And there's a really haunting, almost fairytale quality to the work.

SIMON: Read us a section from "The House Without Windows," if you could, please, Paul.

Mr. COLLINS: This is a section from after the main character, Eepersip, has run away from her parent's home and has gone to live in the woods, and she's basically trying to lure her little sister now to join her in the woods.

Mother wouldn't care. She would love to see how happy you were. Please come. And Eepersip's hands when out in supplication, scattering over flurries, wreaths of flowers, sprays of berries, crimson, gold, frosty white. Oh, how beautiful, exclaimed the little girl. But when she looked up, Eepersip had vanished.

SIMON: Something overturned her life even more powerfully than the success of early attention.

Mr. COLLINS: Yeah. And ironically, it came really just as she was coming into her own as a writer. "The House Without Windows" came out in 1927, and in that summer she actually went, she basically joined a crew on a cargo ship. Within a matter of months she turned that experience around into a book called "The Voyage of the Normandy."

SIMON: Astonishingly quickly, right? I mean she was cruising during the summer and the book was done by November.

Mr. COLLINS: Yeah. I mean it gives you a sense not only of how much ferment there was with her, but also of, I think, how excited the publisher was to get this material out.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. COLLINS: What happened was the week - really the week before this came out, her father told her and her mother that he was leaving. He was he had just turned 40 and he was leaving for a younger woman.

SIMON: How old was Barbara at this point?

Mr. COLLINS: She was just about to turn 14. It really turned things upside down for her. Her father had been her great advocate, had been her editor, really. And also, not a small consideration was, he was the breadwinner.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. COLLINS: And they were in very dire straits after he left.

SIMON: She got married briefly.

Mr. COLLINS: Yeah. She fell in love. She met a fellow named Nick, who was sort of an outdoorsman, much like herself. And for a period of about five years, she's married, living in Brookline, in Massachusetts and working secretarial jobs. And it seems from her letters that there was an affair going on. And her letters turned very dark. And apparently on December 7, 1939, she and her husband had an argument and she walked out of the apartment and was never seen again. She didn't take anything with her. She didn't take her purse, nothing. And no one has ever seen her since. And...

SIMON: Excuse me, Paul, if this were "Law and Order," that would make him the prime suspect in her disappearance, wouldn't it?

Mr. COLLINS: You know, the curious thing about, about Barbara Follett's work is that it is all about escape. It's all about running away. And it's impossible not to read her work without thinking of how she disappeared, because it really seems to be almost like all of her books are leading up to this.

SIMON: Our literary detective, Paul Collins.

Paul, thanks so much.

Mr. COLLINS: Thank you.

SIMON: And you can find a link to Paul's article about Barbara Newhall Follett on our website,

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