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Who Writes and Who Is Written?: Barbara Newhall Follett and Typing the Natural Child

From: Children's Literature
Volume 23, 1995
pp. 45-65 | 10.1353/chl.0.0184

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

When children become authors, they cease to be children in our thought.

Anne Carroll Moore

She is normal childhood.

Wilson Follett

In 1923, eight-year-old Barbara Newhall Follett began writing The House Without Windows as a birthday present for her mother on the small portable typewriter she had been using since she was four years old. Though later that year her manuscript burned in a house fire, she rewrote the entire story and her father, Wilson Follett, an editor at Knopf, supervised its publication in 1927. In this extended fantasy, a young girl, Eepersip, runs away from home to live in idyllic Nature (successively, a meadow, the sea, and, finally, the mountains). She eats only berries and roots and wears dresses woven of ferns and crowns of flowers; her playmates are butterflies and deer. When her parents try to capture her and bring her back home, she evades them. Eventually, Eepersip's body transforms into something more elemental than human, and she disappears: "She would be invisible for ever to all mortals, save those few who have minds to believe, eyes to see. To these she is ever present, the spirit of Nature—a sprite of the meadow, a naiad of lakes, a nymph of the woods."1

The book was greeted rapturously by reviewers all along the Atlantic seaboard. Here was evidence of a natural child's imagination, authentic, rich, and accessible to any reader. Critics seized upon this accessibility as the book's chief value; it seemed to provide a conduit to the natural child's mind—the archetypal Child, removed from the materialistic concerns of humankind. Paradoxically, however, Follett's House Without Windows was made possible by a machine; this natural child's reliance on technology bemused her reviewers. Indeed, Barbara's reviewers show themselves to be as fascinated with the way in which the text was produced as they were with the product.2 Following the lead of Barbara's father, they agreed that the typewriter was crucial in generating the phenomenon of Barbara Newhall Follett. However, they interpreted the significance of Barbara, her machine, and her book differently in ways that reveal, tellingly, the era's ideological matrices of language, technology, and gender. In their reactions, most adults made use of the established ideal of the child as fundamentally separate from the adult, as representing a kind of metaphysical presence, or plenitude, associated with innocence before the Fall. Made to represent this prelapsarian presence, the child became paradoxically absent from the day-to-day concerns of civilization. A return to this childhood state, even a fictional return, was desired by the adults who felt this loss of innocence all the more strongly because they were reminded of it—even promised its possibility—by the phenomenon of Barbara and her book. Barbara's text reassured those who feared the increasing mechanization of the world that escape from capitalism and the marketplace was possible, if only for a little while. Barbara's text, and by implication her language, seemed to close the anxiety-producing gap between word and thing, between ideal and reality. In short, Barbara's text delivered what adults desired: an opportunity to fantasize that there was no contradiction between writing and being.

In the "Historical Note" appended to The House Without Windows (at her request), Barbara's father insisted upon the ordinariness of his exceptional child. Denying the precociousness of his daughter's work, he described it as "the full expression . . . of what is in a normal, healthy child's mind and heart during that mysterious phase when butterflies, flowers, winging swallows, and white-capped waves are twice as real as even a quite bearable parent, and incomparably more important—the phase before there is any unshakable Tyranny of Things" (164). Positing a mythology of "normal, healthy" childhood development, before the inevitable fall into the "Tyranny of Things" to which all adults must succumb, Wilson anticipated the critical accolades the book received, and laid the foundation for the discussion which ensued. Barbara's book offered marketable innocence, which appeared to belie the power of the marketplace and promised, by its purported authenticity, satisfaction that eluded purchasers elsewhere.

Reviewers of Barbara's book sought...