Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” as Revenge Fantasy

December 7, 2021

Is Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, actually an incredibly elaborate and sophisticated burn book — an act of literary revenge against those she felt disrespected her in college?

That’s the impression created by Lili Anolik’s podcast, Once Upon a Time … at Bennington College, which exposes the dense, elusive matrix at the root of art, the place where real life and fiction intermingle. (Anolik also wrote the 2019 Esquire article “The Secret Oral History of Bennington.”) Through interviews with people who attended Bennington in the early 1980s, she paints a portrait of Tartt as an insecure transfer student from Ole Miss who quickly became fascinated by classics professor Claude Fredericks and the three senior Greek students surrounding him: Todd O’Neal, Matt Jacobsen, and Paul McGloin.

Tartt wasn’t a part of their Greek class, but she remedies this in the novel by having her narrator, Richard Papen, help the classics students out with a tricky Greek homework assignment. With a quickness that somewhat strains believability, Richard is invited into the class and their inner circle. But there’s a faint aura of wish fulfilment about this. According to Anolik’s interviews, Tartt worked her way into the Bennington classics group by another route: becoming Paul McGloin’s girlfriend. This clearly caused some awkwardness. Talking about Tartt, O’Neal sounds more puzzled than anything else, describing her as “evasive” and “impenetrable.” But Jacobsen seems to have genuinely disliked her. He calls Tartt “a Miss Buttinsky” and compares her, melodramatically, to Yoko Ono, saying she’d decided “if she couldn’t be a part of our tight group, she would destroy it.”

This hostility accounts for the element of revenge in Tartt’s transformation of the members of the Greek class into their fictional alter egos. Todd O’Neal, with whom she seems to have had a strained though not outright antagonistic relationship, becomes Henry Winter, the cold (notice his symbolic surname), emotionally stunted linguistic genius who is the star of the Greek class. Matt Jacobsen, the most openly hostile to her, becomes Bunny Corcoran, the cruel, messy, unintelligent student who will be murdered by his own supposed closest friends at the end of the novel’s first half. And Claude Fredericks, the professor whose class she couldn’t join, becomes Julian Morrow, a hollow poseur who, when the crimes of his students are revealed, simply flees from the consequences of his own teachings — the ultimate moral coward.

The information in Anolik’s podcast reveals the straightforward literary payback at the heart of The Secret History. And in particular, knowing about the tension between Tartt and Jacobsen illuminates one of the novel’s most brilliant aspects: its treatment of the murder victim. The novel’s opening paragraphs reveal that Bunny will be killed, and so we are primed to have some sympathy for him. But Tartt goes against the grain of our expectations, making Bunny the most unlikeable character in the book. He constantly makes cruel, class-based jokes at Richard’s expense, which perhaps mirror Jacobsen’s treatment of Tartt. He also displays a narcissism so all-consuming that he is incapable of even imagining the feelings of others. At one point he steals a cheesecake marked “Please do not steal. I am on financial aid” from a dorm refrigerator and devours it, all the while complaining that it is “too lemony” — a remarkably powerful scene that renders Bunny utterly repellent to the reader. It’s as if one of the book’s chief artistic purposes is to make us cheer on the murder of a character based on a person Tartt herself couldn’t stand.

This could seem like a reductive way to read The Secret History — but is the novel lessened by the fact that it is a burn book?

Burn books have their own long, august, not entirely secret literary history. The ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote a series of burn poems against Lycambes, who had supposedly agreed to let his daughter Neoboule marry Archilochus, then changed his mind. The fragmentary state of the poems makes their effectiveness difficult to judge, but ancient scholars claimed that Archilochus’s invective was so harsh that Lycambes and his daughters all hanged themselves. A handful of Catullus’s poems could be read as a miniature burn book of Clodia, or whoever the model for Lesbia actually was; presumably she would have been recognizable in her time. Most significantly, perhaps, Procopius’s The Secret History, from which Tartt took her title, is basically a burn book aimed at the emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora.

English literature too is rich in burn poems, like Dryden’s Mac Flecknoe (attacking rival dramatist Thomas Shadwell), Byron’s The Vision of Judgment (attacking poet laureate Robert Southey) and Shelley’s Peter Bell the Third(attacking Wordsworth). And Pope’s Dunciad is probably the greatest literary burn book in English: an epic that mocks every poet and critic Pope despised one by one, until finally crowning poet laureate Colley Cibber as the king of the dunces. (Poet laureates are frequent victims, presumably because poets are a poisonously envious crew who naturally reserve their severest burns for colleagues whom they consider undeservedly successful.) Ironically, time has made The Dunciad an encyclopedia of the otherwise forgotten — Pope’s condemnation has conferred immortality on his targets.

Saying that Tartt’s novel belongs in this tradition doesn’t undermine it. Obviously, artists transform the raw material that inspires their work, but they are often hesitant to speak honestly about the extent to which negative emotions can serve as inspiration for art. Tartt herself has denied links between her characters and real people, a claim severely undercut by Anolik’s podcast, and one that does a disservice to her own achievement. Most people have felt the way Tartt felt at Bennington as some point in their lives — the recognition of ourselves in Richard is part of what makes the book work. But hardly anyone could turn that feeling into The Secret History. In fact, anger, hatred, and envy are excellent spurs to creation, and always have been. Saying Tartt’s anger at being excluded partly inspired her novel does nothing to diminish her work, but simply places it in its true light.

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Brooke Clark is the author of the poetry collection Urbanities, book reviews editor at Able Muse, and the editor of the online epigrams journal The Asses of Parnassus. Twitter: @thatbrookeclark