The Snail and "The Secret History"
The author reenacts the snail scene from Donna Tartt’s The Secret History
Reading Donna Tartt’s The Secret History often feels like getting a turned-up-to-eleven account of Tartt’s days as a Bennington College student. It’s easy to see how a first-rate literary imagination transformed Claude Fredericks’ entourage of chain-smoking Classics scholars into the Bacchic murder cult immortalized on the page (Fredericks, a giant of the literature faculty, who was Tartt’s teacher, is the obvious inspiration for the character Julian Morrow, the Classicist who casts a dangerous spell over his pupils). So much of Bennington, college and town, shines through in Tartt’s “Hampden,” despite the well-applied gloss of intrigue, incest, and homicide.
Bennington students writing for this publication have described the unique feeling of reading The Secret History on campus: we know exactly what narrator Richard sees when he looks to the ivied clockface on the outside of Commons, or what Judy Poovey means she says it’s a “long walk to Jennings.” Everything is there, down to the most miniscule of details. Even Redeemed Repair, the auto shop Dr. Roland recommends to Richard, is open for business. And yet, arriving at Bennington already a Secret History fan, I was surprised to hear that what I’d always considered to be one of the novel’s more random, idiosyncratic elements is very real: the snail.
The most striking object in the playground was without question the giant snail. Some art students had built it, modeling it after the giant snail in the movie of Doctor Dolittle. It was pink, made of fiberglass, nearly eight feet tall, with a hollow shell so kids could play inside. Silent in the moonlight, it was like some patient prehistoric creature that had crawled down from the mountains: dumb lonely, biding its time, untroubled by the articles of playground equipment which surrounded it.
Access to the snail’s interior was gained by a child-sized tunnel, maybe two feet high, at the base of the tail. From this tunnel, I was extremely startled to see protruding a pair of adult male feet, shod in some oddly familiar brown-and-white spectator shoes.
On hands and knees, I leaned forward and stuck my head in the tunnel and was overwhelmed by the raw, powerful stink of whiskey. Light snores echoed in the close, boozy darkness. The shell, apparently, had acted as a brandy snifter, gathering and concentrating the vapors until they were so pungent I felt nauseated just to breathe them.
I caught and shook a bony kneecap. “Charles.” My voice boomed and reverberated in the dark interior. “Charles.” ”
Tartt describes the snail as sitting in the playground of the Early Childhood Center. But the Early Childhood Center no longer exists on campus, and the gastropod rumored to be Tartt’s inspiration was spotted in town. I went to investigate, going on the advice that what I was looking for could be found on a playground somewhere in North Bennington. It was harder to track down than I’d anticipated. The Secret History lead me to expect a monstrous eight-foot fiberglass art piece. My snail is anything but.
It sits on a small playground attached to the Bennington skate park and is no more striking than the objects around it. It’s made of iron rungs, not fiberglass. It’s not especially tall. It certainly doesn’t have the feel of a prehistoric creature. It could not act as a fumigator. It is, however, unmistakably snail-shaped.
Having gotten over my initial confusion, here is my take: this snail in this playground was the basis for the snail in The Secret History. Not only is there a distinctly 80s vibe to the real-world snail, but it all makes a lot of sense when you consider how The Secret History was constructed.
Tartt took her experience as an outsider studying the classics with a charismatic, once-in-a-lifetime professor at a small, highly experimental, aesthetically beautiful liberal arts college in rural Vermont, and dialed it all the way up. What she ended up with was a friend’s body at the bottom of a ravine, Dionysian rituals in the dead of night, and an eight-foot fiberglass snail.