3/30-4/5 Finding Mary Ruefle


A Hermit Thrush (image courtesy of Audubon.org)

“I don’t think I really have anything to say about poetry other than remarking that it is a wandering little drift of unidentified sound, and trying to say more reminds me of following the sound of a thrush into the woods on a summer’s eve – if you persist in following the thrush it will only recede deeper and deeper into the woods; you will never actually see the thrush (the hermit thrush is especially shy), but I suppose listening is a kind of knowledge, or as close as one can come.”
–Mary Ruefle, from the introduction to Madness, Rack, and Honey

It’s hard to believe that our little enterprise on this WordPress site is already coming to an end. I hope you’ve enjoyed the chance to do some purposeful reading in the Bennington canon–we have barely scratched the surface!–and that you’ve either re-discovered (this seems to be the case for many of you with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History) or discovered, for the first time, work by writers who have stalked the campus through the decades. It’s been an education for me to read your posts on the Forum and to get a glimpse into a few of the teeming minds that maintain an ongoing relationship with the College and this very special place.

I wanted to finish this very partial sampling of work by Bennington writers with a poet, essayist and teacher who is perhaps not so well known on a national scale: Mary Ruefle ’74. Ruefle has written a whole slew of slim volumes of poetry, a collection of experimental fiction, and a book of “lectures” (Madness, Rack, and Honey) that are really indefinable. She’s one of my favorite writers and I discovered her soon after I came to Bennington.

Last fall one of my students took on an assignment that should have been easier than it turned out to be: to “find” Mary Ruefle (she lives in Bennington) and interview her for the Literary Bennington blog. The result is fittingly discursive given the rigorous evasions of Mary Ruefle’s work, particularly the lectures.

Here is Part One of “Finding Mary Ruefle.”

Here is Part Two.

And for those who are interested in reading Ruefle’s work, here is her evanescent lecture “My Emily Dickinson

Assignment: For this week I’d like you to finish Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss. As you’ll see, despite Desai’s unsparing look at global inequality (and its consequences), there is something like a hopeful note that the novel strikes at the end.

We’re waiting for you on the Forum! And we sincerely hope that all of you who can make the journey to New York City next month will be able to join us for the special alumni reception with Kiran Desai on April 21st.

3/23-3/29 Death Keg or Monody? Ellis, Eisenstadt, Lethem



The original poster for Jill Eisenstadt’s student play Monody (1983). One of the actors in the cast was Jonathan Lethem, who would go on to become a MacArthur Genius Award winning author. Eisenstadt’s long-awaited third novel, Golden Venture, will be published next year.

I’ve already mentioned that, for my current undergraduates, Bennington in the 1980s has the same mythic quality as San Francisco in the 1960s, or Bloomsbury in the early 1900s. It was a time of clove cigarettes and synth bands with New Romantic hairstyles, sketchy drugs from the Lower East Side, workshops with Arturo Vivante and Homer tutorials with Claude Fredericks. Many of them have read Bret Easton Ellis’s 1987 novel The Rules of Attraction, which uses the fictional Camden College as a thinly veiled stand-in for Bennington; Jill Eisenstadt name-checks Camden in her first novel From Rockaway (also 1987), and we’ve already stalked the pathways of Hampden College in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (1992). There’s a neat parallel between the shared references in these novels born from Bennington in the 1980s and the ‘literary incest’ that critics noted in earlier work by Nicholas Delbanco and John Gardner.

One of the real highlights from the Literary Bennington blog last term was the rapid-fire, free-ranging dialogue that one of my students conducted with the novelists Jill Eisenstadt and Jonathan Lethem over Google Chat. We learned, in conversations with Eisenstadt, that she’d written a play as a sophomore called “Monody” (typically for Bennington, she’d worked on drafts in a tutorial) and that Lethem had been in the cast–so we knew we had to get them together somehow to dish some dirt on the production of the play, on being writers together at the school during such a fertile time, and on the projects they’re currently working on.

Here is Literary Bennington’s interview with Eisenstadt and Lethem.

Assignment. By now you’ve begun to immerse yourself in Kiran Desai’s 2006 novel The Inheritance of Loss, a multilayered, exquisitely choreographed, and keenly aware exploration of “the loftily covetous multitude” (Borges) from the Indian Subcontinent and its dislocations in England (the Judge) and the U.S. (Biju).

For this week, I’d like you to try and read through Chapter 31, that is, up to page 220 in the Grove paperback edition.

I’ve started a discussion thread about the novel in the Forum, so I hope you’ll stop in and share your thoughts!


3/16-3/22 Paglia v. Sontag


Susan Sontag in a portrait from 1974, the year after her visit to Bennington

On October 3, 1973, Susan Sontag, already famous for her groundbreaking essay collection Against Interpretation (1967), traveled to Bennington from New York City to deliver what the Literature and Languages faculty thought would be a lecture. Sontag had been invited by Camille Paglia, then a young faculty member, who had driven to Middlebury in a spring snowstorm to personally lobby Sontag to visit Bennington for half of her usual speaker’s fee. Her pitch worked, and Sontag came to campus to much fanfare that October–after the main event, Sontag was to be fêted by Bernard Malmud, Stephen Sandy, Nicholas Delbanco, Paglia, and other local luminaries.

The evening didn’t go as planned.

Camille Paglia later wrote about this famous misadventure in her essay “Sontag, Bloody Sontag,” collected in her book from 1994 Vamps & Tramps. The short version: Sontag arrived late; she insisted on reading one of her short stories instead of delivering the lecture Paglia and everyone else expected; her behavior was all-around imperious. Paglia, wishing to steal her intellectual mentor’s spotlight decades later, depicted this evening as the beginning of the ‘changing of the guard’–her own high-brow best-seller, Sexual Personae, had been published to rapturous attention in 1990, and Sontag had ignored it.

Last fall, Literary Bennington spoke with Sontag’s biographer, Benjamin Moser, to try and decode the mythology that’s built up around Sontag’s visit to campus in 1973 and get to the bottom of what ‘actually happened.’

Here is Literary Bennington’s interview with Benjamin Moser about the whole Paglia v. Sontag affair.

Maybe we should call this week’s class Literary Bennington: the TMZ Edition?

Assignment. We’re going to switch gears for the rest of this online course and spend our last three weeks reading Kiran Desai’s Man Booker Prize-winning second novel The Inheritance of Loss. I know the reading pace has been pretty demanding up to now–especially given what busy and full lives you all lead–and hopefully, by slowing down a bit, we’ll give everyone the chance to re-engage with the class and lose yourselves in Desai’s multilayered portrait of our globalized and radicalized planet earth.

If you don’t mind a few spoilers, the novelist Pankaj Mishra wrote this incredibly insightful review of the novel in The New York Times when it was first published in 2006.

If spoilers are not your thing, I’d watch this brief interview with Desai in which she talks about the autobiographical roots of the novel and how she broadened her initial focus to include history, the globalized economy, the radicalization of the economically disempowered, etc.

See you in the Forum!

3/9-3/15 Group Portrait: Malamud, Delbanco, Gardner


A candid snapshot of the literature faculty and visiting poets from 1983 (from L to R: Arturo Vivante, Stephen Sandy, Linda Pastan, Peter Pastan, Maxine Kumin, Nicholas Delbanco, Ben Belitt)

When Literary Bennington spoke with novelist Nicholas Delbanco this past fall about the years he spent on the faculty at Bennington (1966-1984), he used a phrase from the Latin to describe the place of creative ‘makers’ at the school: primus inter pares. Or, “first among equals.” By this he meant that working poets, dancers, visual artists, novelists and musicians etc. had always had an honored place at the school; it was understood, first, that actively making art constituted a unique qualification for being able to teach in the disciplines of the liberal arts, and second, that bringing together artists to teach on a faculty would inspire previously unheard of collaborations and new forms of creative expression among the students.

Delbanco is the author of nineteen novels, two collections of short fiction, nine book length works of non-fiction and nine other miscellaneous titles (and still counting!). The year he joined the faculty, in 1966, was the same year that his colleague Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer was published; the other acclaimed writers on the faculty included poet Ben Belitt, Claude Fredericks, and Stanley Edgar Hyman. There was, as Delbanco would later write about the remarkable group of writers who congregated near Kent and East Sussex in England at the end of the 19th Century (Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Ford Madox Ford, Henry James, H.G. Wells), a “sense of shared endeavor.”

Here is the the Literary Bennington Q&A with Nicholas Delbanco. 

 Assignment. For this next week, I’d like you to finish reading Malmud’s The Fixer to its bitter, hallucinatory end. The comments about the novel in the class Forum thus far have been particularly sharp (thank you!), and I’ll be eager to hear from more of you as the book sinks in …

For those of you interested in opening a time capsule to the literary world of the time, here is the original review of The Fixer in The New York Times on August 29, 1966. 

Back to our time: I wonder how you feel about the sentiment behind this passage from Jonathan Safran Foer’s introduction to the FSG paperback?

“When I finished reading this novel, I felt castigated and inspired. Grumbling about the state of the world suddenly wasn’t enough. And excusing myself from political activity felt wrong. In light of this book, my inaction felt immoral. While The Fixer isn’t a book about morality, it is a moral book. That is, rather than offering a flimsy directive, it presents the reader with a forceful question: Why aren’t you doing anything good?”

See you in the Forum!

3/2-3/8 Shirley Jackson, Faculty Wife


Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman from a joint book review in the Bennington Beacon in 1948

There are varying opinions on where to locate the Golden Age of literature at Bennington. For my students, the discussion always starts with the 1980s, a time when the College produced an impressive lineup of novelists and writers including Donna Tartt (’86), Bret Easton Ellis (’86), Jill Eisenstadt (’85), Jonathan Lethem (’86, though he didn’t graduate), and many others who haven’t necessarily been branded ‘Bennington Writers’ to the same extent. We’ll talk more about the makeup of the literature faculty during the 1980s next week, but I’m going to make the argument, in the hope that it might kick off a larger debate, that the Golden Age of the Bennington Writer actually took place between 1948 and 1965, and the key figure wasn’t a student or a member of the literature faculty at all–though she did deliver regular lectures–but a faculty wife named Shirley Jackson.

Pretty much everyone alive in North American has read Shirley Jackson’s famous short story from 1948 “The Lottery.” It’s a staple of high-school English classes, and its portrait of systematized savagery in small-town New England has become embedded in our critique of community life, a kind of short-hand for persistent Puritanical attitudes and the forms of violent retribution that come along with them. Jackson, though she has remained remarkably poplar with readers since her death in 1965, has never quite received the kind of literary respect that her work deserves–not until recently, anyway.

As part of my Literary Bennington class this past fall, we took another look at her short stories from the late 1940s and spoke with her son Laurence Jackson Hyman about her legacy, her marriage to the literary critic and longtime Bennington faculty member Stanley Edgar Hyman, and the her psychologically savage portrayals of provincial life in New England small towns that share a lot of qualities with North Bennington.

Here is the Literary Bennington Q&A with Laurence Jackson Hyman. 

Here is a link to Ruth Franklin’s forthcoming biography Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life (Sept. 2016).

For those readers interested in reading one of Jackson’s classic tales of psychic fracture and all-too-domestic horror, here is her 1949 short story “The Daemon Lover,” a retelling of a traditional Scottish Ballad.

Assignment: With our next book we’re going to read what is probably my favorite novel by Bernard Malamud, one of the giants of Jewish-American literature and a member of the faculty at Bennington from 1961-1985. The Fixer was first published in 1966 to immediate acclaim, winning both the National Book Award for Fiction and the Pulitzer Prize. It tells the story of Yakov Bok, a “fixer” (or handyman) from the Shtetl in Czarist Russia who loses his wife, moves to Kiev to try and change his luck, and gets blamed for the murder of a Christian boy–the inciting event for a wave of panic and anti-semitic hysteria. This week, I’d like you to read the first four chapters of the book, up to page 137 in the FSG edition.

The novel is loosely based on the case of Mendel Beilis, a Jewish laborer who was accused of ritual murder of a 13-year-old boy in Kiev in 1913.

For anyone interested in learning more about life in the Shtetl, there is an excellent documentary from PBS available online here.

I’ll post a new discussion thread on the forum in the next few days and am eager to know what you think about The Fixer!

2/24-3/1 Bold Beginnings: the 1930s


The Zora Neale Hurston Stamp

I have a hunch (and it’s probably impossible to confirm in a definitive way) that the haunted quality to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History takes its original inspiration from the Bennington campus. There are the persistent stories of strange happenings after dark at the old Jennings mansion, the rumblings about a Bennington Triangle, the feeling you always have on any college campus–where freshmen make the gradual transformation into seniors and then graduate into the unknown, just to be replaced by another class–that you are somehow walking in hallowed footsteps.

In the interview with the Bennington Voice that I posted last week, Donna Tartt alludes to this haunted quality when she mentions a return visit she had made a few months before:

“I was there over the summer with one of my classmates, and we were walking down by the End of the World, and the lights were coming on, and my friend said to me, if we walked upstairs at the moment, it would have been ten years ago, and our friends would be waiting for us.”

One of the most invaluable sources for the Literary Bennington course I taught the undergraduates this past fall was a history called Bennington College: In the Beginning by Thomas P. Brockway, who was a member of the faculty at Bennington for 30 years, a former Dean, and served three terms as acting President. Aside from filling in the gaps in my knowledge about the founding of the school, it showed, time and time again, how little the mission of the College has changed. When it comes to teaching literature, this has meant, historically, that working poets and novelists have led the kinds of canonical classes that would ordinarily be taught by scholars with Ph.Ds. (Not always, but often.) And not only that: the contemporary and the “modern” were considered co-equals with the Great Books of earlier periods. At the Wellesley College of 1932, for example, “a course in English poetry since 1900 could not be counted toward a literature major.” Not so at the Bennington College of 1932, and we continue to animate the literary life on campus with an attention to the New.

One of the first literature faculty members hired to teach at Bennington was a civil-engineer turned novelist from New York City named Irving Fineman. Fineman was well-known at the time for his novels This Pure Young Man and Lovers Must Learn (which was eventually adapted into the 1962 film Rome Adventure, co-starring Angie Dickinson). As it happened, Fineman was also an admirer of the novelist, folklorist and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston, one of the most important early figures in the Harlem Renaissance. I didn’t need to write that last part, because Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is read pretty universally these days.

In 1935, two years before Their Eyes Were Watching God was published, Fineman invited Hurston to Bennington to deliver a lecture–and she came. By train, which delivered Hurston directly into North Bennington (if only we still had passenger rail service!), and she gave her talk on “the Negro in American life.”

One of the real treasures in Bennington’s archive is a letter from Hurston to Catherine Jones, who was the secretary to the College president. It’s full of the same uniquely intelligent life that animates Hurston’s fiction.

Here is the letter. 

One of the students in my class last term, freshman Bennie Ritsch, wrote this lively and insightful post about the letter and its response:

Here is the post. 

And now, back to Hampden College …

Assignment. For this second week of the class I’d like you to read Book II of The Secret History and finish with the Epilogue–the haunted coda that ties up the loose ends of the narrative. I’ll be curious to hear what you all have to say about “the unwinding” of the novel; I feel that there are more slow and unwieldy parts in the second half than there are in the first. It’s partly a function of structuring a murder mystery “in reverse”–that is, identifying the killers at the outset and making the mystery more about the “why”–and partly a loss of economy. But there may well be some of you who prefer the second half to the first.

Hinc illae lacrimae.



2/17-2/23 The Bennington Mystique


Donna Tartt in 1992

Welcome to the first class session of Literary Bennington! For the next seven weeks we’ll be reading three remarkable–and very different–novels from the Bennington canon together, exploring the College’s literary legacy by viewing recently re-discovered documents from the College archive, and engaging in discussions on the online forum that I hope will recreate the lively interplay of ideas that makes being on the faculty at Bennington such an adventure.

Every week I will be posting a reading assignment in one of your texts, any background or supplementary material that I feel will be helpful to your understanding of the book, and links to the historical material that will help us examine the literary legacy of the College through the decades. Of course, with a history as rich as Bennington’s, we will only have time to scratch the surface–but my hope is that you will emerge from this seven-week class with (1) an appreciation for the innovative qualities of the literature that we’ll be reading, and (2) more insight into some of the major figures and progressive educational traditions that set Bennington apart.

As you already know, Bennington’s entire educational model is based on individual practice–that is, “learning by doing”–so my hope is that we can inspire you to engage in some serious “doing” of your own over the next seven weeks.

The Bennington Mystique. This phrase will mean something different to everyone depending on your relationship the school and, if you are one of the many graduates taking the course, what you came to Bennington to study. It might be rooted in Martha Hill and the Bennington Dance School of the 30s and 40s, the Abstract Expressionists and their historical ties to visual arts at Bennington, the drama program and its many professional theater artists, the poets who have stalked the campus–from T.S. Eliot to Mary Oliver–or the prominent social scientists with ties to Bennington, like the psychologist/philosopher Erich Fromm.

One surprise when I taught a version of this class to the undergraduates this past fall was just how influential Donna Tartt’s 1992 novel The Secret History is in attracting students to the College (!) and forming the current iteration of the Bennington Mystique. More than one student in the class told me that they applied to Bennington because of the novel. Whether it’s the Puritan gloom/glory of Tartt’s Vermont landscape, the exclusivity of the group of students studying Classics with Julian Morrow, the novel’s keen eye for drawing its willfully eccentric characters and its interest in arcane Greek philosophical concepts like euphemia and Telestic madness–or yet another quality that you’ll recognize–The Secret History has come to represent an idealized version of the school and life on campus. That it is also a murder mystery “in reverse” (and often a wickedly fun read) is a factor in the novel’s enduring influence as well.

So I thought we would kick our class off by re-visiting The Secret History (or reading it for the first time, if you’ve never read it) and dissecting it for its attractions as a narrative, its depiction of the fictional Hampden College, and the philosophical tensions that inform its plot. If Richard Papen’s fatal flaw, as he tells us in the opening chapter, is “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs,” what does it mean if we, as readers, are similarly intoxicated by Hampden and its cultish ways?

Assignment: For this first week of class, I’d like you to read the first half of The Secret History, that is: the Prologue and Book I (up the the Bunny’s murder). This is the novel’s winding up; the rest is all unwinding. I’ll be posting discussion points in the forum section first thing tomorrow, and as you read during the week, please check in and add your thoughts!

Resources/further reading: For those of you who aren’t Classicists, it might be helpful to keep a working glossary of the Greek terms/ideas that Tartt highlights and strings through the narrative to help further the plot and account for the unaccountable. These include miasma, augury, Bakcheia, euphemia, Telestic madness, omophagia, and pur. Definitions of the terms are widely available online, though I would be wary of some online sources.

One fun document my students uncovered this term was an interview that Tartt conducted with The Bennington Voice (one of the many short-lived student newspapers over the years) in October of 1992, when the novel was first published. Tartt rarely gives interviews now, and when she does, she is almost never as open as she is here. Aside from giving us insight into her understanding of ancient Greek language and culture, the interview is also a time-capsule from a tumultuous time on campus–look out for her comments on the firings of longtime faculty members Maura Spiegel and Claude Fredericks:

Here is the interview.

You’ll notice, especially in the opening pages of the novel, that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a presiding influence–particularly in the way that Richard views the campus and Julian Morrow’s clique with the romance of an outsider and new initiate. (And also a certain amount of recoil and judgment.) The novel is even mentioned by Richard as one of his favorites at one point. Authors generally show their hand this way.

My student Jesse Osborne, a current freshman, wrote this terrific post for the Literary Bennington blog on Richard’s narration in the novel and its connection to Lost Generation literature:

Here is the post.

Enjoy this first reading assignment, and you can always reach me with questions and/or thoughts at banastas@bennington.edu.