Thanksgiving at Hampden College

Thanksgiving at Hampden College

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The Bennington Campus in the fall. Photo from the Admissions Pinterest page. 

As Thanksgiving preparations ramp up for Bennington students and faculty--the frantic search for spots in Albany-bound cars is well underway--fans of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History may recall a Thanksgiving that resulted not in a departure from the college, but in an arrival. Richard Papen, the protagonist of The Secret History, describes the fateful moment he was first drawn to the thinly-veiled Bennington analogue, Hampden College, one dreary Thanksgiving while at home in Plano, California:

I lit on Hampden by a trick of fate. One night, during a long Thanksgiving holiday of rainy weather, canned cranberries, ball games droning from the television, I went to my room after a fight with my parents (I cannot remember this particular fight, only that we always fought, about money and school) and was tearing through my closet trying to find my coat when out it flew: a brochure from Hampden College, Hampden, Vermont.

The brochure transfixes Richard for purely aesthetic reasons. He is enthralled by images of “Radiant meadows, mountains vaporous in the trembling distance; leaves ankle-deep on a gusty autumn road; bonfires and fog in the valleys; cellos, dark windowpanes, snow.” He notes that “[e]ven the name had an austere Anglican cadence, to my ear at least, which yearned hopelessly for England.” He fills out his application immediately and is accepted.

Bennington College remains a place of wildly austere physical beauty, and its mythologization in The Secret History has done little to undermine these retina-pleasing qualities. But to all those prospective college students studying brochures this Thanksgiving, I would point to Richard’s opening lines in The Secret History’s first chapter:

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.
 

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