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