Fat Books & Thin Women

#Longreads: Paul Collins’s “Vanishing Act”

Check back every on occasional Wednesdays for a link to a new longread. Your thoughts on this week’s read, and suggestions for future articles and essays, are always welcome!

Paul Collins’s “Vanishing Act” looks at “the saddest reading in all of American literature” and at the author of those out-of-print writings. At the age of twelve, Barbara Newhall Follett sold her first novel, The House Without Windows, to Knopf. She published her second book at fourteen. Both received critical praise, but after these publications Barbara largely fell off the radar. Her father left her and her mother to marry a younger woman, and while Barbara kept up her writing for some years, she married while still in her teens, and sought secretarial work. As Collins writes, “America’s next great novelist was now without a high-school degree, without work, and a teen bride.”

At twenty-six, Follett vanished entirely. Her husband didn’t immediately report her missing, and it was years before the general public realized that the author of two praised books had disappeared – not just from the news, but entirely.

Collins’s concern in this essay is mostly with the nature of child prodigies, and with those who succeed – Mozart – and the many more who disappear (albeit not so completely as Follett) by the time they reach adulthood. It’s fascinating reading; it’s also difficult to read excerpts from Follett’s now out-of-print work, to get even a brief glimpse of the talent she had as a child.

Read Paul Collins’s “Vanishing Act”


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