Caitlin McCaffrey/Alred A. Knopf
- In the decade since her first book, she has
published exactly two novels, but Donna Tartt took the literary
world by storm in 1992 when the publicity surrounding the release
of The Secret History came close to overshadowing the novel
itself, which depicts the murder of a student at a small college
in Vermont by his fellow Greek classics classmates.
The title of Tartts first
novel also is a fair description of her own attitude toward press
interviews. She was born in 1963 in Greenwood, Mississippi, the
elder of two daughters born to Don and Taylor Tartt, but she grew
up in Grenada, Mississippi, on the eastern edge of the Delta. Details
from her formative years are scant, but she appears to have been
a precocious child with an early love for literatureshe wrote
her first poem at age five, published her first sonnet in a Mississippi
literary review at thirteen.
In the fall of 1981, she entered
the University of Mississippi in Oxford as a freshman, where one
of her stories caught the attention of Willie
Morris, then a writer-in-resident at the university. Finding
her in the Holiday Inn bar one evening, Morris said to her, “My
name is Willie Morris, and I think youre a genius.”
Upon Morris recommendation, Barry
Hannah (also a writer-in-resident at the university) admitted
Tartt as a freshman into his graduate short story course where,
Hannah says, she outperformed the graduate students. At the urging
of Morris and others, Tartt transferred after her freshman year
from Ole Miss to Bennington
College, a small liberal arts college in Vermont, where she
made friends with novelists Bret
Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt. During her second year at
Bennington, she began writing The Secret History.
Tartt began showing her novel soon
after she began writing it to Ellis, one of the two people to whom
the novel is dedicated. It was through Ellis that Tartt and her
as-yet-unfinished novel were introduced to literary agent Amanda
Urban, who accepted Tartt as an unsigned client. Two years later,
Urban was able to stir up a bidding war among publishers for the
866-page manuscript; the winner was Knopf, who paid a massive $450,000
for the book and ordered a 75,000-copy first-printing (compared
to about 10,000 copies that most first novels get). Even so, demand
for the book was so tremendous that Knopf had to order unprecedented
additional printings. The novel remained on the Publishers Weekly
bestseller list for thirteen weeks, reaching as high as number two.
Greenwood, MS (from
Grenada, MS (from
Bennington College in Vermont was the model for the fictional college
in Donna Tartt's debut novel, The Secret History
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.
He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was
one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont historystate troopers,
the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory
in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New
York, as far away as Boston.
The Secret History
History takes place at the fictional Hampden College, which
like Bennington is a small liberal arts college in Vermont. Its
story centers on a small group of overly refined and elite students
of ancient Greek taught by an eccentric professor who accepts few
students. When the narrator, Richard Papen, a penniless transfer
student from suburban California, successfully hatches a scheme
to join the group, he gradually becomes privy to the group's secret
history: they had accidentally murdered a farmer in their successful
attempt to recreate an ancient Greek bacchanal. However,
Bunny Corcorran, the one member of the group who had not participated
in the bacchanal, learns of the murder and begins to blackmail the
others. As Bunny's sanity becomes questionable and he threatens
to reveal their secret, Richard must choose whether to side with
the group in their decision to murder Bunny in order to silence
Critical opinion of the novel has
been mostly favorable. Some critics have faulted The Secret History
for vapid characterization and artificial stylization, but most
have praised the work as an outstanding achievement for a first
novel. Variously interpreted as suspenseful mystery, an exploration
of the nature of evil, and a comparison of classical and modern
values and philosophy, The Secret History is a noteworthy
debut from a talented contemporary author.
With the publication of The Little
Friend in 2002, Tartt proves she is no one-hit wonder. Already
critics have praised the novel for its prose style, sharp characterizations,
and tense narrative.
(Article updated November
Photo by Red Diaz
/ Duende Publishing
by Robert Birnbaum in Identity Theory - The Narrative Thread (www.identitytheory.com)
- The Secret History. New York: Knopf, 1992.
- The Little Friend. New York: Knopf, 2002.
- “A Christmas Pageant.” Harpers 287.1723 (December
- “A Garter Snake.” GQ 65.5 (May 1995): 89+.
- “Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine.”
Harpers 286 (July 1992): 60-66.
- “Basketball Season.” In The Best American sports writing,
1993, edited and with an introduction by Frank Deford. Houghton
- “Team spirit: Memories of Being a Freshman Cheerleader for the
Basketball Team.” Harpers 288 (April 1994): 37-40.
- The Secret History. Random House AudioBooks, 1992. Two sound
cassettes (3 hours). Abridged version read by Robert Sean Leonard.
- “True Crime” (Short Story). Included in Murder for
Love, Murder for Women. Dove Audio, 1996. Four sound cassettes (about
- Kaplan, James. “Smart Tartt.” Vanity Fair 55.9
(September 1992): 248-51, 276-78.
- Elle (September 1992): 172-76.
Book Reviews and Criticism
- Allen, Brooke. “Panpipes and Preppies.” The New Criterion
11.2 (October 1992): 65-68.
- Bell, P. K. Review of The Secret History. Partisan Review
60.1 (Winter 1993): 63-65.
- Duffy, Martha. “Murder Midst the Ferns.”Time 140.9
(31 August 1992): 69.
- Fosburgh, Lacey. “Forbidden and Gothic.”Vogue 182
(September 1992): 380.
- Hajari, Nisid. Review of The Secret History. VLS 108
(September 1992): 7.
- Krist, G. Review of The Secret History. Hudson Review
46.1 (Spring 1993): 239-46.
- Lescaze, Lee. “Groves of Academe Shed Gold and Yawns.”
Wall Street Journal (9 September 1992): A12.
- Rosenheim, Andrew. “Dead
guy on Campus.” Review of The Secret History. New
York Times Book Review (13 September 1992): 3.
- Saynor, James. “The Wrong Stuff.” The Observer
(25 October 1992): 65.
- Scott, A. O. “The
Little Friend: Harriet the Spy.” Review of The Little
Friend. New York Times Book Review (3 November 2002).
- Shapiro, Laura, and Ray Sawhill. “Anatomy of a Hype.”
Newsweek 120.10 (7 September 1992): 54-55.
- Star, Alexander. “Less Than Hero.”The New Republic
207.17 (19 October 1992): 47-49.
- Vail, Amanda. “Beyond Good and Evil.”Book WorldThe
Washington Post (13 September 1992): 3, 9.
- Wood, James. “The Glamour of Glamour.” London Review
of Books 14.22 (19 December 1992): 17-18.
- Wood, Nancy. Review of The Secret History. Maclean's
(12 October 1992): 85.
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