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7 September 2022

Donna Tartt’s The Secret History at 30

How a bestselling debut novel about a group of murderous students became a cult classic.

By Nick Burns

“Genuine beauty is always alarming”: such is the conviction of the Greek professor in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, which was published 30 years ago this month. Hardly alarming, though, was the arrival of Tartt’s debut. The book was subject to a bidding war in 1991 and much anticipated before its release. The qualms of a few reviewers (the characters were not “entirely plausible”, it was a novel “not really about the glamour of evil, but the glamour of glamour”) proved insufficient to prevent its immediate installation as a “modern classic”, as the latest edition’s back cover proclaims. Tartt was 29 when the novel was published (Alfred A Knopf bought the rights for $450,000). The Secret History has maintained a cult following ever since: one bar in Manhattan’s East Village has even wallpapered its bathroom with pages from the book.

Tartt’s fictional professor, Julian Morrow, teaches at a small college in Vermont that serves as a somewhat new-agey repository for wayward children of wealthy families – not unlike Bennington College, where Tartt was a student in the 1980s (she had transferred from the University of Mississippi, her home state). Morrow acquires a small, tight-knit clique of students whose aristocratic tastes set them apart from their peers.

Thinking they are enacting the vision Morrow has set out for them, the group pursues a different kind of Bacchic ritual from the more pedestrian drug- and sex-fuelled college parties of their classmates. Fasting for days and setting out to find Dionysus in the Vermont countryside, they come to their senses to realise they have murdered a local farmer. The rest of the novel proceeds from the cover-up, which draws in a recent admittee to the group: the narrator, Richard Papen.

[See also: Ian McEwan and the mess of living]

The Secret History is not a novel of ideas – its primary interest is not in how charismatic professors engage in the trafficking of ideas, dangerous or otherwise, and how they can be put to good or bad use. It is rather a novel about the wonders and dangers of friendship. Morrow himself takes up relatively little space in the novel – if he approves of his students’ Dionysian explorations, he does nothing to prompt them, nor does he involve himself in the horrors that follow.

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The focus is rather on the group itself, and at first on the charming, intellectual companionship it provides. Set off against a backdrop of more familiar Eighties and Nineties youth hedonism – which would supply Tartt’s Bennington classmate Bret Easton Ellis, to whom the novel is dedicated, with much of his material – the group appears as an anachronism, as if its members are role-playing as characters in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited long after the world depicted in that novel had passed into dust.

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Perhaps the theatrical discomfort the story’s characters display in regard to their own time has helped the novel itself endure. Follow-up books spaced a decade apart, The Little Friend (2002) and The Goldfinch (2013), reprised the formula of the first success (a crime foretold at the outset, then traced in circuitous, dogged fashion throughout) with diminishing effect, without seeming to lessen the appeal of Tartt’s debut. The Secret History feels far less dated today than The Goldfinch, which among various failings seems positively sticky with the cloying sentimentality of the early 2010s.

At first glance the prose style seems a stark contrast with that in vogue today. Where many contemporary novels are written in stripped-down, impersonal language, Tartt lavishes her story with descriptions of dress, expression and character in a manner almost Victorian. Detailed descriptions of Greek exercises seem self-indulgent. And the narration occasionally becomes discursive, especially at moments of dramatic climax (the narrator goes so far as to apologise for this when it is time to describe the book’s second murder). But a closer look reveals an austerity behind the appearance of plenty, like the cold winter that follows every lush Vermont summer. This was not lost on the early reviewers, who noted that no detail is incidental in Tartt’s novel – each observation is calibrated to move the plot a step closer to its conclusion.

Papen, the narrator of The Secret History, comes from a lower-middle-class background in California, something that distinguishes him from the others in the group. After his inhospitably suburban upbringing (described only vaguely), the Greek group is a godsend. The most genuinely felt portions of the novel are those that bear witness to the narrator’s deep gratitude to the group for including him in their circle, and the lasting traces that their influence leaves on him.

The novel was written at the apex of neoliberalism, an age preoccupied by a sense of disintegrating social ties. The essay that led to Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which surveyed the collapse of traditional social bonds in America, came out within a few years of The Secret History. The bonds between individuals that did emerge in such an atmosphere were often painted in darker shades: consider Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996), whose narrator can seem a lower-brow version of Tartt’s – plagued by insomnia, seeking consolation through a clandestine group bonded through violence.

Tartt’s trajectory to Bennington – by way of a public university in Mississippi and a petty-bourgeois Southern background – was as unlikely as her narrator’s. According to one investigation of the college’s 1980s dynamics, she, like her narrator, tried to enter a clique of students associated with a charismatic classics professor named Claude Fredericks.

[See also: From spy to journalist to celebrated poet: the curious life of Basil Bunting]

“I suppose there is a certain crucial interval in everyone’s life when character is fixed forever,” Richard Papen tells us: the line is pulled nearly verbatim from Tartt’s 1986 Bennington commencement address. For both author and narrator, this interval was the period spent in a strange society, half a dozen strong, a little island within the island of a tiny college of rich Ivy League rejects in the Vermont countryside. In the novel, it turns out the group’s most important rituals are not Bacchic but quotidian, and that unlike most students they live a surprisingly regimented life – full of trips to country houses, and Sunday-night dinners.

“I was surprised by how easily they managed to incorporate me into their cyclical, Byzantine existence,” Papen says. He is shy yet formidable – realising belatedly how what he took to be awkwardness or taciturnity appeared to others as hostility or scorn – a type of person who often finds true inclusion in a group of friends especially gratifying. But such small and tight-knit groups that derive their habits from their own inclinations and studies, rather than from broader social customs, are often especially hostile to dissent within their own ranks.

Such is the case with Bunny Corcoran, the most straightforwardly prep-handbook character of the group and the one whom the rest conspire to murder after he threatens to reveal the secret of the first killing. (The first sentence of the novel is: “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.”) Bunny is cruel: a terrible student in Greek who can hardly spell, his chief talent is in finding each group member’s sore spots and prodding them.

He taunts the narrator by asking him in public if his ties are designer-made, then, after the narrator avows that they are, grabbing them and turning them over to reveal their “humble origin”. He makes dark jokes about the relationship between the two twins in the group, a boy and a girl, and these taunts are also eventually shown to have truth behind them. And more than anything else, he is tormented by the evil deed the others have done in killing the farmer in their Bacchic ritual and trying to get away with it. This baffles the rest of the characters: he had never shown any trace of a strongly entrenched sense of morality up to that point.

The group murders Bunny ostensibly to keep him quiet. But the narrator reveals an additional motive for his part in the killing: the thousand humiliations Bunny dealt him; the others seem to have felt much the same. In the end the first murder, of the farmer, hardly matters in motivating the second – in fact, since we are only ever told of the first murder indirectly, we are even entitled to believe that it never actually happened.

[See also: Why Gone with the Wind is American culture’s original sin]

What matters is that Bunny, unpleasant and wretched as he is, finds that his loyalty to his friends cannot trump the moral instinct that he has been lent by society. As individuals and as a group, he judges his friends by rules other than their own. For that, they murder him.

It would be easy to think of The Secret History as a novel in the fashion of The Great Gatsby, which Tartt’s narrator tells us is his favourite book. Tartt’s novel, like Fitzgerald’s, seems to feature a naive young man from the American west whose optimism comes to grief amid the ruthless, cynical corruption of the east. But on closer inspection it is Bunny, the consummate easterner, who appears as the sole moral force in Tartt’s book, however ignorant, prejudiced and doomed.

At least a part of the novel’s continuing readership is drawn by a middlebrow appreciation for the trappings, rather than the substance, of intellectual life. This aspect of the book has proven susceptible to transformation into an “aesthetic” with mass cultural appeal – the New York Times commented in 2020 on a trend on TikTok, “dark academia”, that touted styles and poses derived from a reading of Tartt’s book.

But a fair portion of its readership may come too from the desire to experience, vicariously, the same feeling of inclusion in such a circle as it depicts. Tartt’s characters take the world of Waugh’s Brideshead as a model for their tastes, attire, manner of speaking, and The Secret History offers an invitation into a select society devoted to this kind of re-enactment. In this way the reader becomes a Richard Papen, too – the outsider, tempted by the group.

With a recent tendency towards hedonism and the defence of aristocracy in certain cultural precincts of New York City, not to mention a faddish penchant for Catholicism, one might expect that Tartt – a practising Roman Catholic – would be poised for a revival. But so far the ringleaders of the Manhattan scene have been more drawn to her former classmate, Bret Easton Ellis, whose characters tend to have simpler desires. This is likely in part because Tartt’s effete characters offer little to a clique intent on rehabilitating a traditional, dominant masculinity against its “woke” critics.

But perhaps at bottom it is because Bunny emerges in spite of himself as the novel’s tragic hero – the individual who betrays the group on behalf of society, the Brutus who puts the republic before his sons. Today’s Manhattan crowd, in contrast, at times seems convinced that their outsider status ought to make them off-limits for criticism. Both the New York avant-garde and the members of the cult of The Secret History who idolise its characters might consider the novel’s suggestion that groups of outsiders, too, are subject to the laws of nature and of society. Every classics student knows that for Aristotle, the man outside the city is no man at all. He is either a god or an animal.

[See also: A life without peace]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained