Books: Tragedy in a Hothouse

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BARBARA by Harold Grier McCurdy. 146 pages. Chapel Hill. $4.75.

Everybody said what a delightful little girl Barbara Follett was. She had big dark eyes and long dark curls and a mind full of charming childish surprises. Her parents were teachers (her father later became moderately well known as Critic Wilson Follett) who, at the time of Barbara's birth (1914), decided that their little girl was much too sensitive and gifted to run with the herd of ordinary children that attended public school. So they kept her at home, where they could be sure she received only the finest instruction: their own.

These hothouse procedures produced prodigious fruits. At four, the child was writing poetry. At five, she turned out an impressive 25-page nursery tale. And at 13 she published a novel (The House Without Windows) written with a lyric ecstasy that ravished the critics and made her one of the better-known moppets of the '20s. And then?

And then, as Psychologist Harold Grier McCurdy relates in this fragmentary but fascinating case history of an infant prodigy, this quick bright thing came to confusion in a spiritual tragedy that culminated in one of the grimmer mysteries of modern letters.

Barbara's tragedy, McCurdy suggests, had been unwittingly prepared by her parents, who were apparently unaware that precocity is almost always bought at a fearful price. Shut up with doting adults, Barbara developed hardly any friendships with people her own age, hardly any ability to deal with the world as an independent individual. She lived almost entirely in fantasies of evasion, and these fantasies were the sole subject of her stories. The House Without Windows, for example, describes a child who "ran away from loneliness and lived wild in the great meadow." While she was working on the book, Barbara wrote to a friend: "I want that green, fairylike, woodsy, animal-filled, watery, luxuriant, butterfly-painted, moth-dotted, dragonfly-blotched, bird-filled, salamandrous, mossy, ferny, sunshiny, moonshiny, long-dayful, short-nightful land, on that fishy, froggy, tad-poley, shelly, lizard-filled lake—oh, no end of lovely things to say about that place, and I am mad to get there."

She became even madder to get there when, shortly before she turned 14, the father she adored (and relied upon for literary inspiration) left home. From that day forward, Barbara wrote less and less, became more and more bewildered about herself as a writer and a person. She took a job as a secretary and hated it. She made a marriage but could not make it work. And then one evening in 1939, when she was 25, she walked out of her Boston apartment with thirty dollars in her pocket and was never seen again. Is she dead? Is she living somewhere under a false identity? Or was she, like the heroine of The House Without Windows, lifted up by a great flock of green and gold and purple butterflies and borne into oblivion?