Donna Tartt — The Secret History — Videos

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The Secret History by Donna Tartt

‘The Secret History’ prologue

Donna Tartt (born December 23, 1963) is an American writer and author of the novels The Secret History (1992), The Little Friend (2002), and The Goldfinch (2013).[1] She won the WH Smith Literary Award for The Little Friend in 2003.

Early life

The daughter of Don and Taylor Tartt, she was born in Greenwood, Mississippi and raised in the nearby town of Grenada. At age five, she wrote her first poem, and she was first published in a Mississippi literary review when she was 13.

Enrolling in the University of Mississippi in 1981, she pledged to the sorority Kappa Kappa Gamma. Her writing caught the attention of Willie Morris while she was a freshman. Following a recommendation from Morris, Barry Hannah, then an Ole Miss Writer-in-Residence, admitted Tartt into his graduate short story course. Following the suggestion of Morris and others, she transferred to Bennington College in 1982, meeting then-students Bret Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt and studying classics with Claude Fredericks.

The Secret History

Tartt began writing her first novel, originally titled “The God of Illusions”[2] and later published as The Secret History, during her second year at Bennington. She graduated from Bennington in 1986. After Ellis recommended her work to literary agent Amanda Urban, The Secret History was published in 1992, and sold out its original print-run of 75,000 copies, becoming a bestseller. It has been translated into 24 languages.

The Secret History is set at a fictional college and concerns a close-knit group of six students and their professor of classics. The students embark upon a secretive plan to stage a bacchanal. The narrator reflects on a variety of circumstances that lead ultimately to murder within the group.

The murder, the location and the perpetrators are revealed in the opening pages, upending the familiar framework and accepted conventions of the murder mystery genre. Critic A.O. Scott labelled it “a murder mystery in reverse.”[3]

The book was wrapped in a transparent acetate book jacket, a retro design by Barbara De Wilde and Chip Kidd. According to Kidd, “The following season acetate jackets sprang up in bookstores like mushrooms on a murdered tree.”[4]

The Little Friend

The Little Friend, Tartt’s second novel, was published in October 2002. It is a mystery centered on a young girl living in the American South in the late 20th century. Her implicit anxieties about the long-unexplained death of her brother and the dynamics of her extended family are a strong focus, as are the contrasting lifestyles and customs of small-town Southerners.

The Goldfinch

In February 2013, the New York Observer announced that Tartt’s long-awaited third novel, titled The Goldfinch, was set for publication on October 22, 2013 after originally being slated for publication in September 2008.[5] The plot is described thus: ““A young boy in New York City, Theo Decker, miraculously survives an accident that takes the life of his mother. Alone and determined to avoid being taken in by the city as an orphan, Theo scrambles between nights in friends’ apartments and on the city streets,” Amazon’s description reads. “He becomes entranced by the one thing that reminds him of his mother: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that soon draws Theo into the art underworld. Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present-day America. It is a story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the enormous power of art”[6]

Other writing

In 2002, it was reported that Tartt was working on a retelling of the myth of Daedalus and Icarus for the Canongate Myth Series, a series of novellas in which ancient myths are reimagined and rewritten by contemporary authors.[7]


Tartt has recorded several audiobooks:

  • The Secret History
  • The Little Friend (abridgment)
  • True Grit (with afterword expressing her love of the novel)
  • Winesburg, Ohio (selection)



Short stories

  • “Tam-O’-Shanter”. The New Yorker April 19, 1993, p. 90.[8]
  • “A Christmas Pageant”. Harper’s 287.1723. December 1993, p. 45+.
  • “A Garter Snake”. GQ 65.5, May 1995, p. 89+.
  • “The Ambush”. The Guardian, June 25, 2005.


  • “Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine.” Harper’s 286, July 1992, p. 60-66.
  • “Basketball Season.” The Best American Sports Writing, edited and with an introduction by Frank Deford. Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
  • “Team Spirit: Memories of Being a Freshman Cheerleader for the Basketball Team.” Harper’s 288, April 1994, p. 37-40.



  1. ^
  2. ^ Fein, Esther B. (1992-11-16). “”The Marketing of a Cause Celebre” – The New York Times”. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
  3. ^ Scott, A.O. “Harriet the Spy,” New York Times, November 3, 2002.
  4. ^ “Jacobs, Alexandra. “Kidd Keeps Knopf Cool, Wrapping Books Gorgeously” New York Observer, Nov. 6, 2005″. 2005-11-06. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^ “”Independent”: “Whatever happened to Donna Tartt?””. Retrieved 2010-05-22.
  8. ^ Tartt, Donna (1993-04-19). “Fiction: Tam-O’-Shanter” (abstract). The New Yorker. Retrieved 2008-01-14.
  9. ^ The Little Friend (Reference for both awards)


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The Secret History

The Secret History, the first novel by Mississippi-born writer Donna Tartt, was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1992. A 75,000 print order was made for the first edition (as opposed to the usual 10,000 order for a debut novel), and the book became a bestseller.

Set in New England, The Secret History tells the story of a closely knit group of six classics students at a small, elite Vermont college, Hampden College, similar in many respects to Bennington College (in Bennington, Vermont) where Tartt was a student from 1982 to 1986.

The story is an inverted detective story, not a Whodunit but a Whydunit.

One of the six students is the story’s narrator, Richard Papen, who reflects, years later, on the situation that led to a murder within the group, the murder being confessed at the outset of the novel but the events otherwise revealed sequentially. In the opening chapter, as the reader is introduced to Papen, we are told of the death of student Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, although few details are given initially. The novel explores the circumstances and lasting effects of Bunny’s death on the academically and socially isolated group of Classics students of which he was a part.

The impact on the students is ultimately destructive, and the potential promise of many young lives is lost to circumstance. The story parallels, in many ways, a Greek tragedy with fate dictating the very circumstances that lead to an escalation of already fermenting issues.


As the story opens, Richard leaves Plano, California, where he is generally unhappy, for Hampden College in Vermont. His approach to his background is in keeping with the contrast of aestheticism and literary beauty, as opposed to harsh reality, that continues throughout the novel. He misleads others about his background as necessary, replacing his mediocre working-class childhood with a fabricated and more glamorous one of boarding schools and wealth.

After moving to Vermont, Richard attempts to continue his study of Ancient Greek, only to be denied admittance to the Greek class, as Classics professor Julian Morrow limits his enrollment to a tiny hand-picked coterie of students. Richard becomes obsessed with the small group, after observing them around campus, and eventually manages to ingratiate himself with the group by helping them solve a Greek grammar problem as they study in the college library. Soon after, armed with advice from the students on how to impress Julian, he meets with him once more and is finally admitted to the select Classics tutorial.

The group includes fraternal twins Charles and Camilla Macaulay, who are charming but secretive, as well as Francis Abernathy, whose secluded country home becomes a sanctuary for the group. Two students become the central focus of the story: the linguistic genius Henry Winter, an intellectual with a passion for the Pali canon and Plato, and the back-slapping Bunny Corcoran, a slightly bigoted jokester more comfortable reading Sax Rohmer‘s Fu Manchu, particularly if someone else has bought him a copy.

Their relationship, already considered odd by Richard, becomes even more mystifying when Bunny announces that he and Henry will be spending the winter break together in Italy. This, despite the fact that Henry appears barely tolerant of Bunny and that Bunny is unable to afford such a lavish holiday himself. In fact, it is Henry who is footing the bill for the trip. To avoid unraveling his fabricated past, Richard takes a low-paying job on the college campus and spends the winter break in an unheated warehouse. He nearly dies from exposure and pneumonia but is rescued and taken to the hospital by Henry, who has returned early from the trip to Italy.

When the rest of the group returns from winter break, Richard notes that the relationships between them and Bunny have become even more strained. Ultimately, Richard learns the truth from Henry and Francis: during a Bacchanal that both Richard and Bunny were excluded from, Henry had inadvertently killed a local farmer. Bunny, having been suspicious for some time, uncovers the truth during the trip to Italy after reading some of Henry’s private notes, and has blackmailed the group ever since. The group, led by Henry, begin to view Bunny as the weak link who threatens to reveal their secret, and Bunny’s penchant for playing on his friends’ fears and insecurities does little to assuage their concern.

No longer able to meet Bunny’s demands and fearing that Bunny will report the matter to the police, the group resolves to kill Bunny. Henry forms several plots to accomplish such, and one of the plans is finally put into motion after Bunny tells Richard of the killing of the farmer in a drunken rant. The group confronts Bunny while he is hiking, with Henry pushing him into a ravine to his death.

The remainder of the novel focuses on the aftermath of Bunny’s death, especially the collapse of the group, the psychological strains of remorse borne by the individual members and their efforts to maintain secrecy as investigators and other students develop theories about Bunny’s disappearance. The supporting cast of other students includes loquacious drug user Judy Poovey, a reader of “those paranoia books by Philip K. Dick.”

Charles develops a drinking problem and becomes increasingly abusive towards his sister. Francis begins to suffer panic attacks. Julian discovers the evidence in the form of a pleading letter sent to him by Bunny, imploring him to help: “You’re the only one who can.” Julian never reports the crime but instead leaves the college.

With the group splintered, the members deal with their crime, to a large extent, in isolation. Henry begins living and sleeping with Camilla, which drives Charles further into the grip of his barely controlled alcoholism. Henry is deeply upset by Julian’s departure, seeing it as an act of cowardice and hypocrisy. The plot reaches a climax when Charles, jealous of Henry and now a full-blown alcoholic, barges into Camilla and Henry’s hotel room and tries to kill Henry with Francis’ Beretta. In the struggle that follows, Henry gets hold of the gun as the inn-keeper pounds on the door. Aghast, the others are not sure whom he intends to kill. Instead, Henry kisses Camilla for a final time, and shoots himself. It seems that Henry wants to uphold the principles that he feels Julian has betrayed. With Henry’s suicide, the group disintegrates: Francis, a homosexual, is forced by his rich grandfather to marry a woman; Camilla takes care of her grandmother and ends up isolated; Charles runs from rehab with a married woman; Richard, the narrator, becomes a lonely academic whose love for Camilla is unrequited. Henry’s death is described as having cut the cord between them and set them all adrift. The book ends with Richard recounting a strange dream where he meets Henry in a tall atrium, and doesn’t know how to voice everything he feels about what has happened. Finally, he settles on asking him “Are you happy here?”; Henry replies, “Not particularly. But you’re not very happy where you are, either”, and walks away, leaving Richard as aimless as ever.


Michiko Kakutani (New York Times) commented, “In The Secret History, Ms. Tartt managed to make… melodramatic and bizarre events (involving Dionysian rites and intimations of satanic power) seem entirely plausible.” Because the author introduces the murder and those responsible at the outset, critic A.O. Scott labeled it “a murder mystery in reverse.” [2]

On a deeper level, highlighted by many literary references and allusions, the novel undertakes a complex analysis of truth versus beauty, aesthetics versus justice, social constraints compared to the desire for liberation, and an examination of the relationships that exist behind social structure, particularly relationships of power and control. Early on, the question arises: “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.” This theme continues throughout the novel as Richard is repeatedly confronted with the separation of literary and artistic beauty as he would capture and report it, compared to reality as it unfolds.


Bret Easton Ellis‘s novel The Rules of Attraction is set at Camden College, a fictional liberal arts college in northeastern New Hampshire. In many ways, Camden mirrors Ellis’ alma mater, Bennington College, and Hampden College, the setting of Tartt’s The Secret History. Both books contain cross-references to each other’s storylines and characters. Tartt mentions the suicide of a freshman girl in passing, while Ellis repeatedly mentions a group of classics majors who “dress like undertakers” and are suspected of staging pagan rituals and slaying farmers in the countryside.


  1. ^ “The Marketing of a Cause Celebre” – The New York Times
  2. ^ Scott, A.O. “Harriet the Spy,” New York Times, November 3, 2002.

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