Letter to A.D.R., June 16, 1930

16 Young Avenue
Pelham, New York
June 16, 1930

Dear Shipmatey;

You know, I really am a wonderful person. Three different makes of typewriter in three days. This is Mr. Bryan’s Remington Portable–my own is in dry-dock at present, as one might say, if one were nautically inclined.

It is glorious, in more ways than one, to have this really private address. I wish Anderson were here–correspondence would be very enjoyable–no restrictions, as one might say. Well, we’ll make the most of this opportunity, won’t we.

There’s so much to say, my dear, that, to put it very tritely and very truly, “I don’t know where to begin.” About the Farents. I know nothing about them, and I really don’t care a damn now. I only care in so much as I sympathize deeply with the situation confronting you and E. when they came trooping up to the desert. It was—-well, it was one of those Grand Accidents that Occur Occasionally. I don’t particularly want to think about them. I tried sincerely to get myself to write, but failed of course. They don’t seem quite of my world at present. I am truly very happy now, and I want to keep to this particular circle, for the time being at least. You see what I mean? And don’t you think I’m right?

The only thing that makes me unhappy now is that my dreams are going through their death-flurries. I thought they were all safely buried, but sometimes they stir in their grave, making my heart-strings 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. I am happy the whole live-long day–happy as a bird–but when night comes and I settle down in bed for a night’s sleep, then my tortures begin. I don’t know when I’ve had a night’s sleep without a prelude consisting of an hour or so of writhing! By day I think it’s a grand old adventure; by night I think it’s Hell, and double Hell.

I am seeking a Yob. Yobs are (as the Naturalist said, speaking of the “big game” in the West Indies) few and far between. I have several lines out, and something may bite someday. It must. I can stay here as long as I like, and I have forty-five dollars, earned from Dr. Paul, and he owes me about ten dollars more–that will pay carfare to N. Y. for some time to come. (G.D! how I hate this machine)

The MS may sell. Harper has rejected it. Helen is in the hands of two female agents, who seem to be very influential people around here. They make lavish promises, and Helen believes; Barbara, the skeptic, says: “A bird in the hand, etc.” Anyway, Collier’s, American, the Companion, and Good Housekeeping, are all interested, and will all have a shot at it–and, as I said, these two ladies seem to be influential. Someone telephoned their office about it while I was there talking, and one of them said: “Oh, but you’ll have to stand in line, you know.”  Which delighted Helen beyond measure, naturally.

Oh, I wish, and WISH Mr. R. and Phoebe could go to Russia alone. I think it would be the best thing that could possibly happen, for both of ’em. Meanwhile, you and I will hold down the continent of North America until they come back, in the very distant future–or, perhaps, until you follow them over. In all events, they should go alone for a while, and you and I should be together somewhere, with our cocoa cups.

You and I could have the most excellent laugh about these people right here, for instance. I told you a little about them when I was out there. They have become even worse. They never go out of the house at all. If Mrs. Bryan has to go down to the village on some little errand, Mr. Bryan stands by the window and peers anxiously forth until she returns. At night every bolt and lock and key in the whole house is drawn or turned; the chain bolt on the front door, both locks, the knob on the screen-door, the key on the inner door, and all the windows fastidiously bolted. I never saw such terribly, appallingly fastidious people in all my days. They’re worse than Mrs. Hayball. There re two “objects” in the kitchen, and neither is ever used at all. The “swamp angels” are fastidiously removed and put outdoors at once.  The say that those two objects are merely for use in the winter, when it is too snowy or dripping to go outside. It seems strange, when one considers all this, that Mr. B. doesn’t keep the type of his Remington in better shape.

Mrs. B. never does any house-work at all, except for very superficial “picking-up” and dusting around. Every Saturday she has  man come to clean house. The Two themselves do nothing but sit, first in one chair and then in another. They don’t know what to do or think about–and the result is 0. They listen to the same things every night on the radio, and go to bed in the same way. But it amuses me infinitely. I enjoy it, I have to say. I am more private than I’ve had the privilege of being for a long time. I josh them good-naturedly, and they seem to like it–but they don’t know what to make of me. You can readily imagine what  vague, scandalous, unaccountable, phenomenal sort of Thing I am to them!

What are you going to do about the pot-boiler? Take out the fox-meat? It’s somewhat ironical that the market you scorned should have dumped you, isn’t it? That’s what comes of being snotty, even if it’s only mental. Well, good luck to it (damn this ribbon!) I think, as always, that the whole great Thing we call Life is one huge practical joke, anyhow. If we take it as such, it is instantly powerless, and we may with impunity exult. THEN–the old Joke treats us Well for a change, and we begin to forget that it is a Joke–with the result that we are unprepared for the next battering. Then is heard the rumbling, ironical Laughter of the Gods. I think a good, sound, healthy pessimism is a Wise and Noble Thing.

Don’t be so humble and modest. You’re a wonderful safety-valve; and I damn well hate to think that you were nothing but that (Oh, the language which is going on inside me about this ribbon!)–a safety-valve? No, no–you’re about the best friend anyone ever had, or ever imagined. To be a safety-valve is just a small item which is an automatic and natural part of a Friend, don’t you think so? As for Anderson, he has served my needs a whole year now, and a rest will do both of us good, I suppose–though it is a little strange not to be able to anticipate those pencilled, air-mail envelopes! I shall hear from him–barring accidents–about the first week in October. I expect he will show up on this coast shortly afterwards. It would be like him to do so. Besides, I flatter myself a little that perhaps my friendship did something for him, too. I think we were mutually very good for each other–let the Farents say what they may!

Do you realize that a year ago yesterday I set sail from Honolulu harbor in my beloved Vigilant? I was rather glum all yesterday thinking of it. It hurt. I suppose it will be years before I go to sea again, and I may never even see that schooner. I suppose that I spent about the happiest month of my life during that sea-trip in her. and it lasted even during that week in port, when I took over the cabin-boy’s job, and when Helen, Anderson, and I had cherry- and ice-cream-parties in the cabin after everyone had gone ashore, and when we used to walk up into that virgin forest two miles up the road, and eat salmon-berries. Life was beautiful then. This doesn’t seem like the same era. Here the beauty consists of great stone towers against the sunset–sublime, symbolic, but away above the plane of us poor ants that hustle along the swarming streets at their feet, so engrossed in ourselves that we never even see a fellow-mortal, but bump into him with a bang, and then hurray and hurry on.

Oh, my God, my God!

It makes one’s heart and soul suffer–it stabs them to the quick. Oh, for wings, for wings!

Wings!

That is, in general, the theme not only of my own heart, but of the book I’m going to write. I ought to be able to write it–I live it constantly. My heart is the field of a thousand battles every day.

But I’m happy, really–you understand that, don’t you? And I’m coming up, and up. Not a day passes but that I myself climb a little–somewhere. I am getting gradually to a point where I can trust myself, put faith in myself. Gradually, and cautiously. Once I tried it before I was ready, and the cargo spilled. But I’m Building, always. If I can put unbounded faith in myself, I don’t care what happens. And I can, as time goes on.

Your shore-bound mate,
Barbara.

P. S. Dr. Paul spends time and postage writing me love-letters! He also sends me now and then a batch of stuff to edit and typewrite. This is Well–it means Cheques!

B.

June, 1927 – Barbara Follett Writes a Book, in The American Girl

In: The American Girl, June, 1927
Barbara Follett Writes a Book
by May Lamberton Becker

I have just been reading a book by a girl: it is called The House Without Windows (Knopf) and is by Barbara Newhall Follett, who is twelve years old now, but was nine when first she put this story upon paper. It was scarcely completed when it was destroyed in a fire from which her family had to run for their lives. One would have thought the story was quite gone, for the hardest thing to do with the memory is to bring back something that you have once written down and lost. But Barbara worked at it for three years; by that time it had grown into a longer and even more lovely story, and the author had come to the edge of her ‘teens.

It is the tale of a little girl named Eepersip, who lived with her parents in a house with a garden, pretty enough but set in a countryside far more interesting. So one day Eepersip packed a little lunch basket and started out.

“… She went east from her home on a shady path through beautiful woodlands, with her and there a grove of great massive pines. And as she walked she sang merrily.

“After quite a while she stepped out of the woodlands onto a large lawn. Close to the path there was a pool, with some tiny gold-fishes swimming about it in. Then she knew that she was nearing a house, and instead of pacing slowly along the path she began to run; for she was afraid that someone would see her and send her back home. But after a few minutes she grew tired and settled down to a reasonable pace. And as she slowed down she came into an enormous field of rhododendrons, lavender, white and brilliant red. Oh, what a gorgeous place that was! As Eepersip walked along, an oriole sang from a bush; she peeped into a hummingbird’s nest with two tiny white eggs in it; she startled a vireo from its nest in a low clump of grass, and, peeping into it, found three baby birds. The farther she went the more her heart began to leap within her for joy of the life she was finding for herself. Her loneliness decreased and she was free and happy as the birds or butterflies.’

A little further on she crosses a brook.

“She paused on the path suddenly, then drew back, for a doe and her daisied fawn were grazing close by. Eepersip took from her basket a lump of sugar, and held it out to the beautiful creatures. Very hesitatingly the doe moved forward, followed by her fawn, and at last took the lump of sugar from Eepersip’s fingers.

“… Could it be a dream, she thought? Eepersip had experienced the delightful sensation of the doe’s slightly rough tongue around her fingers, and suddenly she felt as if she could never leave them–as if she must stay  always and play in the woods. Already she had become acquainted with a doe and a fawn, and they were not afraid of her!”

And this, to put the story in a nutshell, is just what she does do. She never comes back, though the family tries continually to entrap her, and once does manage to keep her within doors for a little while. But she escapes, and this time they realize that they can never keep her. She lives first in the meadows, then beside the sea, then upon a mountain: her companions are a squirrel and a white kitten that never grows to be a cat, just as Eepersip stays the same age though three years pass. There is one little boy who comes out to play with her, and then her own sister whom she induces to stay for awhile, but who grows to homesick to remain. But Eepersip is never homesick, for she is really more a fairy than a child; she is the fairy that lives in a little girl’s mind in those years when anything that grows out-of-doors is worth more to her than anything that can be found within walls, even of a palace. With most of us the fairy goes away before we are ten, and goes so completely that it is hard for us to remember it was ever there. But Eepersip becomes more and more a fairy, until at length, one day when she is leaping high in the air, happy and free, a gold and black butterfly alights on either wrist, and as they wave their wings Eepersip rises, rises, until she is at last lost to sight. She is a wood-nymph now, a spirit of nature.

As I read Barbara’s book, I thought about you, and I realized that some of Barbara’s experiences will be very interesting whether you intend to write or not. The first special thing is the means by which this book was written: I mean the mechanical means. Barbara has “used a typewriter as a plaything from a time that she can’t remember.” As a result, she wrote this book directly on the keys, scarcely aware of the process of writing. So her thought could flow freely, unhampered by the strain of cramped pencil or pen. Most of us tried to write a book when we were little and gave up because our hands gave out. Of course the typewriter did not provide Barbara with the story, but it made it easier for her to give the story to us.

In the second place, read over the little bit of the story that I have quoted, and see how the words, even in these few sentences, impress you as appropriate, and arranged with simplicity and grace. Now words do not come into our heads by themselves: we have to get them from somewhere. Barbara’s father says that when she was nine her vocabulary was made up of “deposits from the works of Walter de la Mare, George MacDonald, W. H. Hudson, Mark Twain, Shelly and Scott. No books meant more to her, between the ages of six and ten, than The Three Mulla-Muggars, A Little Boy Lost, and The Princess and the Goblin.

I know these books well; I know with what felicity the words in them are chosen and used. When you are gathering the words for your vocabulary, those words that you will use all through life–for most of us lay in our stock of words while we are young–it is important that you should become accustomed to beautiful English. Lord Dunsany, when he was a little boy, read Shakespeare, the Bible and old ballads: he did not know there was anything else to read. His English was formed by these influences: he writes like no one but himself, but his words are dignified and expressive, his sentences move like music, and he speaks sincerely, not in phrases that mean nothing. Suppose he had been brought up on comic strips that say “wanna” and “gotcha,” and on stories for boys whose style is without form or comeliness? Perhaps you have no idea of writing. But why be content with even talking like the Rover Boys, when your language may be like that of the girl in the fairy story who dropped pearls every time she spoke?

The third point is, not to be afraid to use beautiful or new words, once you have made their acquaintance. Try them on the family, if you are afraid  the girls at school may think you are “stuck-up,” but try them on someone. Use them in sentences, not only in your exercises in English class, but in your everyday conversation. Every new word that you can really use is a new idea, no matter how near it may come to another word. When you come upon one that looks attractive, don’t let it stop upon the page: take it out for exercise. And be sure that the books you read most often are those whose sentences are like music, or whose words arouse your imagination and make you wish to make them part of your vocabulary–which means part of your life.

In Defense of Butterflies

Published in the February, 1933, issue of The Horn Book Magazine

In Defense of Butterflies
by Barbara Newhall Follett

A flash of black and orange outside the upstairs window; I sprang up, leaving arithmetic problems to solve themselves. “Butterfly!” I yelled, for the information of anyone who wanted to know. I grabbed my net and raced outdoors. A butterfly as lustrous as the one that had just sailed by was a tremendous adventure. Ever so much more exciting than arithmetic! what did anyone care about stodgy old numbers when the sun was shining and there were butterflies about?

I chased the shining wings over to a big red rhododendron bush. He hovered at the top of it, sampling flowers ruminatively, then swooped off toward the wide green field, I after him, net in hand, with all the energy of any healthy nine-year-old who wants very badly to capture a large black and orange butterfly.

My collection! Sheets and sheets of paper, a good-sized manuscript. But where were the butterflies? They were all safe and free, playing out in the field in the sunlight, communing subtly with buttercups. This butterfly collection did not consist of dry, faded wings. I had typewritten long, detailed descriptions of these iridescent friends, not couched in entomological terms, because I knew none, but in the prettiest words I could conjure up. While I was writing one of these portraits, the butterfly itself would flutter under a sieve placed beside my typewriter. When the last shining spot or stripe had been carefully recorded I would set him free once more.

By this time I was able to typewrite fast and accurately enough so that I enjoyed it immensely. It seemed to me a very efficient, logical, and delightful way of getting things said. Furthermore, at that time I was beginning to find a good deal that I wanted to talk about. When I discovered beauty in bird-songs, apple-blossoms, music, sunsets (but chiefly butterflies), I yearned to put it into tangible form so that I could keep it, hold it, understand it. I wrote masses of stuff, about everything under the sun, just for the pleasure and relief it gave me. This relief I could not have had in any other way. Handwriting would have been out of the question at that time, except for an occasional painfully scrawled line or two.

My little battered “portable” grew to be my best friend–with the possible exception of the butterflies. It was a constant companion, and the most important thing in my life. When I was happy or sad, ecstatic or anxious, I flew to the typewriter and poured my heart to it. It produced thousands of letters for me. It ticked off small stories and snatches of verse. A good many yards of its black ribbon went for purely fanciful purposes–a prodigious waste of time, if one believes that time spent happily is ever wasted.

It gave me hours of good practice in descriptive writing. Beside the butterflies, I kept a collection of sunsets. I would sit ensconced at a west window with the typewriter, feeling very much in touch with cosmic affairs, and write about the changes in color and cloud shapes as they took place. New Hampshire woods in the summer were full of things to be described. No sooner did I see light breaking silver on wet leaves, a smooth little red lizard in green moss, or some of Mr. de la Mare’s fairies ducketing among wild flowers, than I could write–write joyously about it all. And I was very happy.

Eventually daydreams took the form of a story, which grew into a small book, “The House without Windows.” This was the first more or less permanent result of the thousands of words I had typed since I was four years old. I don’t know anything about the importance of this story, in a literary sense; but it was important to me in that I had a great deal of fun writing it, editing, reading it in actual, honest-to-goodness galley proof, and eventually seeing it bound and sent out mysteriously into the world. (All this was in the happy, happy days before I awoke to learn that good writing does not flow like a singing brook, but must be hammered and beaten drop by drop from the heart’s blood!)

But beside daydreams and butterflies, the typewriter recorded faithfully actual events, such as mountain trips, canoe trips–thus taking the place of drawing or photography. From a ten-day voyage in a three-masted schooner, another small book was created, “The Voyage of the Norman D.” And of course, when my mother and I sailed on our very romantic roamings about the West Indies and the South Seas, our typewriters were our most important articles of baggage. As a matter of fact, they took the place of pocket-books!

I do not mean to imply that these two books were the most important result of my having learned to typewrite, or of my desire to write intensely about whatever entered my head. I should feel the same about the importance of the typewriter even if I had never written as much as a single word that would be permanent.

Too many people have for too long thought of the typewriter as an instrument or purely commercial value. I want to stress the point that for me that was the least of its values. It was not until after twelve years of intimate association with it that i made any use of its commercial value in an office. And this seemed decidedly a more tawdry use of its magic. Its beauty for me lay in the fact that it gave me a way to talk, to describe butterflies fluently and neatly–a way to keep my butterflies without putting pins through their shimmering wings.

I was gloriously free to talk about whatever I wished, whatever I considered important or beautiful. So I began to explore fare and wide in search of still more beauty which I could set down and make my own. I thought about flowers, and learned their names. I watched leaves and light, water and clouds more carefully. I listened for familiar bird-songs. I became acquainted with ferns and mosses, small flickering fishes in the lake, squirrels and chipmunks rustling the leaves. My typewriter was the efficient medium through which I poured out a young adoration of nature.

And then, somehow, the whole thing broke. I no longer could rattle off pages about anything that interested me. Writing began to involve an anguish of concentration, word by word production, revision, much rewriting and rearranging. The spontaneity and fluency were lost for me on the day I longed for sentences to be more perfect, words better chosen, paragraphs more artistically put together. I set for myself a standard which I was never able to reach. I should never again be able to sit down casually and innocently beside a sieve to describe a butterfly. I was gradually growing up, and it wasn’t much fun. It made the writing problem all of a sudden strangely complex and difficult.

But even now the typewriter did not fail me. It patiently limped back and forth across the pages with me. It was made to retrace its steps, to cross out words it had labored over, two write between the lines. Often an unfinished page would be torn from it impatiently, and we would have to start all over. And it very seldom lost its temper!

Sometimes, when I am in the throes of wrestling some beastly paragraph, I stop and sigh for the days when I could put words together as fast as my fingers could tap the keys. And I’m ore and more positive that having a typewriter during all that time was the best thing that could have happened to me. I have often wondered what would happen if every child of four were given a typewriter to work and play with. Knowing nothing about education or psychology or children of four, I couldn’t even venture a guess. Perhaps there would simply be a terrific wholesale destruction of typewriters. An effort would have to be made to impress upon children that a typewriter is magic, and a thing to be handled with gentle reverence. But seriously, I wonder if any child in the world would  not find his life more full of meaning and of beauty, if he could have at his command a means of setting down the things he feels and enjoys.

Once I attended for a short time an up-to-date business school. I was rather dismayed when I saw how typewriting was being taught. It was terrifying to look at rows and rows of big belligerent business typewriters, without a single letter on a single key–blank, mute, expressionless. You knew, theoretically, where the letters were. You didn’t look at the keyboard anyhow. This, along with many charts on the wall, dreary exercise books, etc., constituted the modern “touch” system. Learning to typewrite was a matter of hard work and deadly earnest.

I smiled as I remembered how I had learned to typewrite. I hadn’t even known the letters of the alphabet for very long at that time. I could spell only a few simple words. Hands were so very insignificant that only the forefingers were strong enough to stand the strain of tapping typewriter keys. I began by writing my favorite words, notable “butterfly” and “clock.” Gradually, of course, I learned the proper fingering, and developed familiarity with the keyboard. But at no time was the typewriter a matter of dull, deadly drudgery and practice; it was never less than sheer delightful magic.

I should think, then, that the earlier a child can learn to handle a typewriter, the better. At seven or eight years old, the enchantment of butterflies (using the word now as a symbol of anything and everything) begins to come with a wild rush. With a typewriter, something can be done about it. Those first young appreciations of beauty can be cared for and made to grow, instead of being forced to fend for themselves in silence and perhaps to grow dim or fade out altogether.

Just what use now are all those pages of nature-worship I wrote long ago? I cannot answer that for sure, but I venture the suspicion that such things as leaves and flowers, mountains and rivers, and especially butterflies, mean very much more to me know that they would have meant if I had been forced, through lack of a proper tool, into mere passive acceptance. I should not, perhaps, been lured out over the fields in pursuit of brighter and rarer butterflies, had I not known that it was in my power to make them forever my own–immortal, as it were. And I imagine that the same holds true for many other things. This seems to hint at the rather momentous conclusion that perhaps all of life has for me been subtly affected, brightened, because it was never dammed up and forgotten, but given a constant outlet and stimulation through that little old “portable” or mine. Life was a running brook, instead of a tranquil pool. And if this is true of me, why not of others?

Perhaps this is a mere fanciful theory, which any educational expert would at once disprove. Anyway, I still like butterflies. And–but don’t tell anyone–I still don’t know their Latin names. I doubt very much if they need Latin names.