The cult of Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt's third novel, The Goldfinch, is already being greeted with awe. Why does her work inspire such devotion?

February 12, 2013
Why does Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" inspire such devotion?
Why does Donna Tartt's "The Secret History" inspire such devotion?

When The Secret History was published in September 1992, hype had been building for months. The author, Donna Tartt, was 28. She had received a $450,000 advance. She was elegant and miniature (“I’m the exact same size as Lolita,” she told an interviewer) and enigmatic. She could recite poetry, even entire short stories, by heart. As an undergraduate, legendary writer and editor Willie Morris had read her work and approached her with the words, “My name’s Willie Morris, and I think you’re a genius.”

Tartt’s vogueish glamour was boosted by her connections to the “literary brat pack,” a young, East Coast group of writers whose tales of drug use and disaffection were, in the late 80s and early 90s, a by-word for literary cool. Bret Easton Ellis, one of the leaders of the pack, had been Tartt’s close friend and classmate at Bennington College in Vermont. Tartt had started The Secret History at Bennington, and it was whispered that her friends there had been the models for the novel’s characters.

James Kaplan, interviewing the Mississippi-born Tartt for Vanity Fair, noted her ability to self-mythologise, but was happy to further the mystique. He labeled her “a precocious sprite… A Wise Child out of Salinger,” and announced that her talent was so great that, “all by herself” she constituted a new wave in Southern writing.

Twenty years later The Secret History is both an international bestseller and cult classic. But despite the novel’s huge success, Kaplan’s predictions for Donna Tartt have not come true. Since The Secret History, she has written only one novel: The Little Friend, published in 2002. It’s hard to embody a new wave of any kind of writing at a rate of slightly less than one book a decade.

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I first read The Secret History the autumn before I turned 15. Even then, I understood that this was the perfect age for it. Everyone I knew was reading it—first my friends, then other girls in my year, then what felt like the entire school. At one point, you could barely walk down the corridor or enter a classroom without catching sight of the familiar jacket, stark and black and unmistakeable. My friends and I talked about our favourite characters as much as we talked about the members of our favourite bands.

Doubtless we enjoyed The Secret History more because reading it was a communal activity. But this logic is circular: we all loved The Secret History because we all loved The Secret History. The question remains: of all books, why was this the one that inspired our collective devotion?

The novel’s narrator is Richard Papen: 19, gawky, insecure and anxious to fit in. He’s an Everyman, or at least an Everyteenager. Like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited or Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, both obvious models, Richard is a vessel for the reader.

Arriving at Hampden, a small liberal arts college in Vermont, from his hometown in California, Richard is overwhelmed by his new surroundings. On his first night there, he “can’t remember… ever feeling farther away from the low-slung lines of dusty Plano.” This is a fantasy of escape with which any reader, teenage or otherwise, can identify: the escape from boredom and familiarity into beauty and the enchantment of the unknown.

It’s a theme that returns throughout The Secret History. “I hope we’re all ready to leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime?” says Julian Morrow, professor of ancient Greek, at the beginning of Richard’s first lesson with him.

Richard’s fellow Greek students hold themselves apart from the rest of Hampden, openly disdaining its partying, chattering hordes. Theirs is the kind of glamour that works best on teenagers. As an adult, it’s hard to be impressed by a bunch of students who insist on writing with nib-pens and bottles of ink, and scatter their conversation with phrases in Latin and Greek. But to me, aged 14, as to Richard, these were the characters I had been waiting my whole life to meet.

The Secret History inspires cultish devotion because it depicts a cult the reader herself can join. The Greek students—Henry, Francis, Bunny and twins Charles and Camilla—have their own ideals and routines that cut them off from the rest of the world. Their parents are dead or distant; their teacher Julian is the only father figure they have. “So many things remain with me from that time, even now,” says Richard, “those preferences in clothes and books and even food – acquired […] largely, I must admit, in adolescent emulation of the rest of the Greek class.” These preferences are catalogued in The Secret History, so that the adolescent reader can emulate Richard’s adolescent emulation, from Paradise Lost to The Great Gatsby, from Francis’s silk neckties to the cream cheese and marmalade sandwiches favoured by the twins.

As impressed as I was by the Greek students in The Secret History, I would have lost interest had it not been clear from the first page that they were doomed. The novel’s prologue opens with a dead body at the bottom of a ravine and the narrator’s confession of murder. It moves back in time to Richard’s hopeful, excited arrival in Hampden, but we know all along that his involvement with the Greek class will lead him to the ravine, complicit in the murder of one of his friends.

Tartt herself has described The Secret History as “not a whodunit [but a] whydunit.” But both murder and motives are explained before the novel is halfway through, and the greater part of The Secret History concerns the slow slide into regret and recrimination of a group of twenty-somethings who previously thought themselves invincible. Of course, regret and recrimination need not preclude glamour, and despite everything, Henry, Francis and the twins retain an allure, although of a seedy, troubling variety.

Less enduring, however, are the qualities that lay behind the Greek students’ apparent sophistication: their sweetness and vulnerability, the optimism that led them to believe that they could fashion for themselves a new and different existence. Reading The Secret History is like watching children grow up at quadruple-speed, passing within a few months from idealism and innocence—even the questionable innocence that idealises glamour—to something between resignation and despair.

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The eight years it took Donna Tartt to write The Secret History prepared fans for a lengthy wait for its follow-up. For the most part, they were patient, content to read and reread The Secret History and share their obsession on the Tartt fansites and ‘shrines’ that sprang up in the late-1990s. There they alerted one another when a new short story or essay by Tartt appeared. Most of these essays were memoiristic, and fans used them to piece together Tartt’s early life: the two years of her childhood she spent dosed up on codeine-based medicine administered by her doting, over-anxious great-grandfather; her spell as a cheerleader in high school; the even more surprising revelation that Tartt had been a sorority girl in her first year at university, albeit one who read Ezra Pound alone in the rain.

As the years passed and no second novel appeared, rumours began to spread: Tartt had writer’s block, Tartt had had a nervous breakdown, Tartt had bought an island and lived there as a recluse. But in 2001, she announced in a radio interview that her second novel, with the working title “Tribulation,” was almost complete. “Tribulation” turned out to be The Little Friend, a sprawling adventure story set in 1970s Mississippi, about a 12-year-old girl determined to avenge the murder of her brother. Its heroine, Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, is an answer to those who criticised The Secret History’s characters as one-dimensional. Smart and stubborn, scornful of the trappings of adolescence and entirely without a sense of humour, Harriet is among fiction’s most memorable children.

But though it garnered huge publicity and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize, Tartt’s second novel failed to inspire the same excitement as her first. Baggier and more uneven than The Secret History, it requires more concentration. The Secret History makes its readers, through Richard, participants in the story. In The Little Friend, you remain an observer.

Since the publication of The Little Friend, Tartt has disappeared from the public eye. She has not given an interview about herself or her writing since 2003, though she occasionally comes forward to speak on other subjects. Her voice is now most often heard on the audiobooks she has recorded: her own two novels, as well as Charles Portis’s True Grit and the Sherwood Anderson short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio. In the past decade Tartt has published even less than in the decade between The Secret History and The Little Friend. When pressed as to the reason for her slow rate of production, Tartt is unapologetic. She is a perfectionist, she says. Writing takes time.

In 2008, Little, Brown announced that they had acquired the rights to Tartt’s third novel, “a story of loss and obsession about a young man, guilt-stricken and damaged after the death of his mother.” In the original press release, the scheduled date for publication was 2012, an almost-unheard-of four years away. At the end of August, Little, Brown confirmed that Tartt’s third novel will not be published this year, and no future date has been set. Still, Tartt-watchers can take comfort: a third novel is out there somewhere.

Back in 1992, interviewers noted Tartt’s desire for privacy, her unwillingness to talk about various aspects of her work and personal life. They wondered how long she would be able to preserve such secrecy. “You can’t be Salinger and be represented by ICM,” said Bret Easton Ellis when questioned on the subject, referring to the talent agency that had signed both him and Tartt. Several journalists repeated this statement, presenting it as wisdom from one who knows. But Ellis was wrong. Twenty years later, The Secret History is one of the best-loved and best-known books of the past two decades—but its author remains as mysterious as ever.