The Secret History: A Ghost Walk


A 1937 photo montage by Ernestine Cohen ‘37 and Carolyn 

Crossett Rowland ‘37 for their senior project in photography

Even before picking up a copy of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History to read for the first time, I knew two things to be true:

1.     The novel is centered around a murder on a college campus. (This major plot point is revealed to us on the very first page, in the very first sentence: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”)

2.     That college campus is Bennington. (It is no secret that the fictional Hampden College, located in idyllic Hampden, Vermont, is a thinly veiled version of Donna Tartt’s alma mater, Bennington College.)

The Secret History had been on my To Read list ever since I first arrived at Bennington as a freshman in 2013. How could it not be? Over Thanksgiving break, well-read relatives would ask me to recount any striking resemblances between the world Tartt created and the one I was starting to know. Every time I used the printer in Crossett Library on campus, named after Tartt (there is another one named Lethem), I was reminded of what a bad Bennington student I was for not reading The Secret History myself.  

Why did I wait so long to read The Secret History? Honestly: I was afraid. As someone who hides from horror movie commercials and who already checks behind the shower curtain in my dorm for serial killers, I fixated on the idea that this story would be too frightening—purely because of the murders that set the novel’s plot in motion.

I read The Secret History for the first time this summer, at home in New York City, roughly 183 purposeful miles from Bennington. Knowing what I did about the novel, I wanted to be as far away from campus as possible when delving into a story about murder that was set at my second home.

Reading this story from such a distance, in an environment that is essentially the polar opposite of that green patch in Vermont, I found myself not newly fearful of that landscape, but protective of it. Territorial, almost. Violated, maybe? To read about a place I know so intimately being described so publicly was an uncanny thing. When the novel’s narrator, Richard Papen, describes the ivy-covered clock on the face of Commons or the slope of his ceiling in one of the colonial student houses, I swear I’ve been there before. There, at that very spot. When Richard’s housemate, the flirtatious gossip Judy Poovey, says something about finding a ride up the hill because it’s a “long walk to Jennings,” I feel like I’ve been found out. (Bennington students always claim the Jennings music building is far from the main campus, but far is a relative term. It’s really only a ten-minute walk.) I’m also guilty of sayings things like it’s a “long walk to Jennings.” Guilty of sounding like Judy Poovey, who in many ways is the closest character in the novel to your stereotypical college girl. To feel guilty about sounding like someone my age is to reveal my unrealized hope to be something like the rest of the characters in the novel: elusive, exclusive, and intimidatingly brilliant.

I read The Secret History for the second time this fall, when I came back to Bennington for my junior year. Perched at the foot of my bed in one of the new houses, sprawled out on Commons Lawn before The End of the World, sitting at a bar stool at the cramped and cozy Blue Benn diner in town. The whole time I was re-reading the novel, I thought of the Ghost Walk, a pivotal part of freshman orientation. When new students arrive each fall, tradition dictates that they take a walk around campus with a group of returning students after dark. They are told site-specific horror stories about students getting lost in the woods and freezing to death, about joggers who go out for a quick run and disappear into the stretch of wilderness colloquially known as the Bennington Triangle, about a grizzly suicide up in the Jennings mansion and the ghost that still haunts the place.

Donna Tartt’s characters haunt the place too. And no, I’m not just talking about Bunny or the farmer who inadvertently became a homicide victim. Yes, The Secret History is a novel about murder and lying and the possibility that you can’t trust anyone around you, but it’s also about friendship and fitting in. It’s about throwing yourself into something new and unfamiliar, wholly, and being in awe of what you find there, and the friends you find yourself there with. It’s about reinventing yourself on a college campus just as much as it is about discovering yourself. It’s about needing escape from the real world, and being disillusioned—realizing the people you herald as your gods aren’t invincible after all, just human—and letting your life spiral out of control and whatever comes after that.

That’s why the ghosts of more than just Bunny follow me around campus in the aftermath of reading The Secret History. Aren’t we most excited and horrified and confused when the characters in the stories remind us of ourselves? When it’s two o’clock in the morning and we reach for our well-worn copy of The Great Gatsby because we can’t sleep? Is Richard not right there with us, just trying to get through the night? When living underneath this small-student-body microscope feels too suffocating, don’t we look for sanctuaries that resemble the house off-campus that Richard, Henry, Charles, Camilla, Francis, and Bunny so regularly escape to? When we learn about bad Field Work Term experiences, don’t we think of Richard in an unheated room in the dead of winter, getting yelled at by some crazy man who thought he could build musical instruments? And when we find ourselves at the edge of our seats, fully enveloped in a professor’s lecturing about a time or place we’ll never experience, don’t we think of Julian Morrow and his invitation to his students: “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?”  

Living life on campus with Donna Tartt’s cast of characters in mind is like living in a strange realm between the phenomenal and the sublime. Knowing the story isn’t real doesn’t make it any less true. To me, the protagonists of The Secret History are timeless and true in the same way that the characters in the classics were relevant to their lives at Hampden College. It’s all an echo.

By Katie Yee ‘17

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