2/17-2/23 The Bennington Mystique

TARTT-1992

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.