Majoring in classics, minoring in murder? A handful of college students are united by dark secrets in Donna Tartt’s spell-binding 1992 debut, ‘The Secret History’

December 16, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 16, 2016

I first read The Secret History in the mid-1990s, a few years after its publication, and not long after I’d graduated from college. That makes it awfully tempting for me to compare and contrast myself with the narrator of Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel.

Richard Papen is a classics scholar — literally a student of the language and literature of ancient Greece; I barely have any proficiency in any language other than English, but I’ve always been a bookish sort. The only child of a miserly gas station proprietor and a receptionist, Papen was raised in a fictitious small Silicon Valley community called Plano, which he dismisses as having “little of interest, less of beauty”; I grew up outside New York City, and while I too (perhaps unfairly) dismissed my suburban community as being bland and uninteresting, I was a frequent visitor to Manhattan’s diverse, lively and culture-filled precincts. He readily, if sometimes clumsily, lies about his background in order to keep himself on par with his glamorous college acquaintances; I never had the nerve to attempt such deception.

It’s worth noting that Papen’s schooling at fictitious Hampden College was completely different from my own education at Stanford. Papen, a community college graduate, travels cross-country to a small Vermont college town by overnight bus, fiercely applies himself to his studies; takes courses exclusively with one professor, the charismatic Julian Morrow; becomes deeply involved with all five of Morrow’s other pupils, uses no gadget more sophisticated than a typewriter, and gets along more or less amiably with all the various segments of Hampden’s small population of liberal-arts students. I, a high-school graduate, flew cross-country to a major metropolitan area, timorously grappled with my schoolwork, sampled a variety of academic subjects with a variety of professors, minimally engaged with my fellow students, whether we crossed paths in a hundred-seat lecture hall or around a 12-seat table; eagerly made use of the computer labs at Stanford, where one generation of students had given birth to Hewlett-Packard and another would spawn Google, the king of web search and eventually the proprietor of the most popular smartphone operating system; and barely got along with anyone in Stanford’s vast universe of world-class future athletes, technologists, doctors and scholars. Moreover, I believe that the novel takes place about 10 years before I went to college.

So nostalgia isn’t exactly why I find The Secret History so entrancing. Still, in reading it, there’s something that immediately feels familiar. The book is set in a time when phones were affixed to walls, not palms. Then, the vast majority of human knowledge was available only on paper and accessible mainly through libraries. At that time, it was much easier to invent one’s own background. Twenty years ago, the world was very different.

Why have I been drawn to The Secret History practically since the moment I first began reading it, lo those many years ago? In part, it’s because Papen is just close enough to me for me to imagine being him and just different enough from me for that prospect to be interesting. In part, it’s because it reminds me of a time when I was younger and when the world seemed full of possibility.

Tartt sets the stage masterfully with a two-page prologue, the first sentence of which reveals that Papen and his friends have been involved in a death — whether accidental or deliberate does not become clear for quite a while. The narrator stumbles across a brochure for Hampden College on page 11; one page later, he arrives on campus; on page 13, he meets with his academic advisor, Laforgue, a French teacher who seeks to dissuade Papen from enrolling in Morrow’s classes; short after that, Morrow brushes off the narrator’s awkward attempt to join his department.

A long passage in which Papen enviously observes Morrow’s students from afar begins on page 17, part of which reads:

All of them, to me, seemed highly unapproachable. But I watched them with interest whenever I happened to see them: Francis, stooping to talk to a cat on a doorstep; Henry dashing past at the wheel of a little white car, with Julian in the passenger’s seat; Bunny leaning out of an upstairs window to yell something at the twins on the lawn below. Slowly, more information came my way. Francis Abernathy was from Boston and, from most accounts, quite wealthy. Henry, too, was said to be wealthy; what’s more, he was a linguistic genius. He spoke a number of language, ancient and modern, and had published a translation of Anacreon, with commentary, when he was only eighteen. (I found this out from Georges Laforgue, who was otherwise sour and reticent on the topic; later I discovered that Henry, during his freshman year, had embarrassed Laforgue badly in front of the entire literature faculty during the question-and-answer period of his annual lecture on Racine.) The twins had an apartment off campus, and were from somewhere down south. And Bunny Corcoran had a habit of playing John Philip Sousa march tunes in his room, at full volume, late at night.

Not to imply that I was overly preoccupied with any of this. I was settling in at school by this time; classes had begun and I was busy with my work. My interest in Julian Morrow and his Greek pupils, though still keen, was starting to wane when a curious coincidence happened.

It happened the Wednesday morning of my second week, when I was in the library making some Xeroxes for Dr. Roland before my eleven o’clock class. After about thirty minutes, spots of light swimming in front of my eyes, I went back to the front desk to give the Xerox key to the librarian and as I turned to leave I saw them, Bunny and the twins, sitting at a table that was spread with papers and pens and bottles of ink. The bottles of ink I remember particularly, because I was very charmed by them, and by the long black straight pens, which looked incredibly archaic and troublesome. Charles was wearing a white tennis sweater, and Camilla a sun dress with a sailor collar, and a straw hat. Bunny’s tweed jacket was slung across the back of his chair, exposing several large rips and stains in the lining. He was leaning his elbows on the table, hair in eyes, his rumpled shirtsleeves held up with striped garters. Their heads were close together and they were talking quietly.

The narrative pace slows somewhat around this point; the bulk of the 524-page volume is concerned with a single academic year at Hampden College.

Papen comes to be a member of this exclusive clique. But as small as it is, Papen doesn’t enter its inner circle until he learns just what went wrong for them on the wild spring night they attempted to replicate a bacchanal in its original form, as a rite of worship to the Greek god of wine. And his membership isn’t permanently sealed until the group’s fatal act — intentional or otherwise — against Corcoran forever alters a number of lives.

A lot of the pleasure in The Secret History is in observing the gradual development of the plot, and the permanent transformations and violent transgressions that stem from it. How will the rather banal Papen join forces with Morrow’s five pupils, who seem ever so refined and sophisticated? How is it that Corcoran will incur the wrath of these colorful but law-abiding college students? How will they, the closest associates of the vanished Corcoran, escape the authorities’ suspicion — if indeed they do? One of the mysteries of the book is whether 29-year-old Papen is narrating his story as a prisoner or as a free member of society.

The Secret History turns out so well because of Tartt’s great skill in drawing believable characters and engaging us in their lives. That said, I’ve been reluctant to read Tartt’s second and third novels — 2002’s The Little Friend and 2013’s The Goldfinch, respectively. That’s partly because each follow-up is even longer than its predecessor and partly because I fear that they won’t conjure for me the same delicate magic as Tartt’s initial work.

I think The Secret History will always have a special place in my heart. It’s a stirring character study that shows how even children of privilege, raised with the best of intentions and the finest resources, can find their lives going badly off track.

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