A Trip to the Archives: Revisiting Sontag
In the Bennington archives…
Oceana Wilson, Dean of Crossett Library, and Laura Payne, the library’s Public Service Coordinator, have recently taken on the grand endeavor of sorting through Bennington College’s vast photo archives in order to categorize, digitalize and thus preserve the school’s storehouse of photographic memory since its founding in 1932.
Upon entering the archives one can see how much work there really is to do. Worn and well-traveled boxes line the tiny back room in VAPA’s cool depths. Labels read, “Students on the lawn 1970’s,” or “First Graduating Class,” or “Student Housing.” The photos are mostly black-and-white and show differing perspectives over the years from the various eye of hundreds of student photographers. Beautiful skirts whirl on the lawn, smiling students sit by the fireplace in Commons or peek through the mail-box slots in the mail room. I am taken by the familiarity in the faces and mannerisms and styles. I sigh in relief: it seems Bennington has always drawn the same funky, eclectic, defiant student that I have come to know and love so well.
I finally find the box I am looking for: “Guest Speakers.” Sub-labels impressively share: “Kurt Vonnegut, and Jackson Pollack.” It is Susan Sontag’s 1973 visit to Bennington that I am interested in today.
On October 3, 1973, faculty member Camille Paglia hosted Sontag as a guest speaker. Sontag was meant to deliver a lecture to a packed Deane Carriage Barn. What really occurred at the event has been debated over the years, but all can agree that it was not a lecture that was delivered that day. Sontag read from her short fiction instead. To read more about the debacle and the disappointing encounter, check out Paglia’s essay “Sontag, Bloody Sontag” which was published in her 1994 collection Vamps and Tramps. Or read Literary Bennington’s Q & A with Benjamin Moser who is currently writing the authorized biography of Sontag.
The Sontag and Paglia rivalry aside, I am drawn to the idea that historical events are marked and categorized by myriad perspectives and viewpoints. Bennington College offers its own set of eyes that changes with style, societal norms, politics, and of course, the current school photographer.
Stay tuned as the Bennington College archives get unpacked and digitized! Check out the college’s digital archives here.