The Potency of Place: Donna Tartt’s Graduation Speech

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1986 Commencement Program

On June 14, 1986, Donna Tartt graduated from Bennington College. It was a fabled time for writers at the school; the graduating class of 106 that year included not only Tartt but also Bret Easton Ellis, and they would have been joined by Jonathan Lethem if he hadn’t withdrawn as a sophomore. The novelist Jill Eisenstadt had graduated the year before and was already working on her first novel From Rockaway, and poet Reginald Shepherd would graduate in 1988. And it wasn’t just the writers who would go on to leave their mark: the avant-garde composer Jonathan Bepler was among the six music students who graduated with Tartt and Ellis in ‘86, and gallerist Matthew Marks had walked with Eisenstadt in ’85.

Donna Tartt was chosen as the student speaker for her class by a committee of fellow students. This was six years before the publication of Donna Tartt’s debut novel, The Secret History, and twenty-eight years before her best-selling third novel, The Goldfinch, won the Pulitzer Prize. This was Donna Tartt before her books were stacked at the front of independent bookstores, before a printer was named after her in Crossett Library, the same building in which she undoubtedly passed many of her hours as a student. In June of 1986, Donna Tartt was just another graduating senior on the brink of the broader world.

Her speech was delivered at Commencement Dinner on the night before graduation, just as the ritual is followed now. It begins with a retelling of one of her class’s first nights on campus: the Dean of Students had given a rousing speech, warning the students, as Tartt recalls, that “some of us would make it, others would not.” Although intimidating from the start, these words, echoed back to the students on stage on the eve of their graduation, must have instilled in them a sense of heightened importance, of belonging to an exclusive club. Tartt ruminates on Bennington’s small size, the high attrition rate, and the overall decline of the liberal arts, coming to the conclusion that “we are a rare commodity in the world.”

In the most stirring passage of the speech, Tartt returns to her initial interview when she was applying to Bennington, and an interviewer who was still, years after stepping on the campus for the last time, enchanted. Tartt was struck by the interviewer’s account of still returning to campus in dreams, “as if she were eighteen years old again and the other years had never happened.” Tartt recalls being charmed—mystified, even—by the idea of a place that held such power, and she was eager to walk on that same hallowed ground herself.

At the time of her commencement speech, Tartt had already begun what would become The Secret History, a story that would strongly cement her identity with Bennington for years to come. Eerily enough, at the Commencement Dinner, she told her peers:

We have claimed this place as our own for a while; what we perhaps do not realize is that this place has claimed us, too, and claimed us very hard.

Standing before what was probably her first rapt audience in June of 1986, Donna Tartt had no idea how right she was.

By Katie Yee ’17

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Zora Neale Hurston Comes to Bennington (1935)

Creepy Bennington