Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’ and The God of Illusions

Introductory talk given at Shakespeare & Co. on April 13, 2020 to Donna Tartt’s brilliant novel The Secret History

***spoilers ahead!***

donna tartt the secret history

A good way of introducing Donna Tartt’s debut novel is the working title, which for most of the 8 to 9 years Tartt spent writing this, was The God of Illusions. That title I think is more encompassing of the novel’s central themes: democracy’s openness versus artistic dogmatism, the lethal danger of pure beauty, the necessity and cruelty of enchantments and dreams. The first review copies were sent to publishers and book buyers under The God of Illusions, and the allure of a 28-year-old wunderkind writing a top-notch literary thriller triggered a major bidding war.  Knopf eventually paid $450,000 (about $840,000 in 2020) to publish the novel as The Secret History on September 4th, 1992. 

Vanity Fair fanned the anticipatory fire by introducing Tartt with a sprawling profile that opened with “Donna Tartt, who is going to be very famous very soon—conceivably the moment you read this—also happens to be exceedingly small.” Overnight, Tartt landed on pretty much every major publication, radio, and broadcast out there. Fast-forward to 2013, and The Secret History has sold over 5 million copies.

Tartt was born December 23, 1963, in Greenwood, Mississippi, nicknamed the Cotton Capital of the world. She attended the University of Mississippi as a first-year student until a writing instructor suggested she apply to Bennington College in Southwest Vermont. She enrolled in 1982 as a Classics major and studied with Claude Fredericks, a staple of the faculty from 1961 to 1992 and an emblem of the sort of freewheeling creativity and constant intellectual curiosity the college aimed to inspire. 20 years after his retirement, Tartt dedicated The Goldfinch to Fredericks.

Fredericks had a peripatetic teaching style, and classes on Poetic Idioms and Virgil were less likely to be conducted in class than in living rooms or common areas. Fredericks only taught books he absolutely adored, and was known to only take 2-7 students for “tutorials” on special topics. These were essentially tutoring sessions where the student could ask anything on their mind.  

In interviews, Tartt explicitly says Bennington is not Hampden College. But the overlaps are rather obvious and commented on by her peers, who remember Tartt being part of the Classics clique, an eye-catching and insular group of students who typically wore a lot of black suits. Several recall Tartt ditching skits for trousers after associating with them. Another writer who attended Bennington from 1982 to 1986, Bret Easton Ellis, makes several comments in his second novel, The Rules of Attraction, about “that weird group of Classics majors [standing] by [at a party], looking like undertakers.” Ellis met Tartt their sophomore year, just as Tartt was starting to write what was then The God of Illusions. Ellis read and commented on the work in progress for seven years, eventually connecting Tartt with his agent.

I’m curious why the title changed The God of Illusions to The Secret History. The secret history might refer to whatever Henry whispered to Camilla before he shot himself. It could be the secret history encircling Richard that he says is now the only story he can tell: that of being complicit in the murders of a Vermont farmer and of his friend Edmund Corcoran (aka) Bunny. The secret history could be the indelible education one receives when young and likely at their most pretentious, morally vindictive, and intellectually vulnerable. Whatever the case, the refocusing of titles turns one’s attention from the themes to the plot. 

Richard Papen, and especially Henry Winter, have their heart broken when Julian Marrow, perhaps the god of illusions, abandons them. Only near the end do we gain the clear-sighted outsider perspective that the younger people, so enchanted by Julian, are blind to. Tartt even has George Orwell weigh in on a letter describing Julian as someone not to be trusted because, “the face one shows him he invariably reflects back at one, creating the illusion of warmth and depth when in fact he is brittle and shallow as a mirror….I think he not a man to be trusted (511).” That Julian can so cavalierly call Bunny a “simple soul” should perhaps disturb the reader (241). 

“There is nothing wrong with the love of Beauty,” the French professor Georges Laforgue says in the wake of Julian’s escape. “But Beauty — unless she is wed to something more meaningful — is always superficial. It is not that your Julian chooses solely to concentrate on certain, exalted things; it is that he chooses to ignore others equally as important” (pg 511). 

As Julian seems fated to obsess with a certain kind of aesthetic, Richard’s fatal flaw is “a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs” (pg 7). This search for beauty, when left untampered, welcomes violence. These inflexible standards of art when applied to politics leave no room for social mobility. It’s only by lying and creating illusions of a more scenic history in California that Richard is given permission to enter Julian’s Lyceum. Thinking that his room might be searched, Richard burns the one photograph of his mother rather than be outed as a scholarship kid (220). Once we see the ramifications of Julian’s teachings, his typical class greeting gains a frightful aura. As he says before and after both murders, “I hope we are ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime” (430). 

To what extent does Henry push his views on other? I laughed when he so confidently declares that Milton should have written in Latin because of the noun class. Henry is so wrapped up in his own world that he fails to know that people have walked on the moon. He places a negligible value on life, including his own, and he feels no guilt when the group kills a farmer during a bacchanal because “this man was not Voltaire we killed” (197). Later, Henry reframes murder as “redistribution of matter” (302). His experience at Hampden will haunt and define the rest of Richard’s life. He becomes a scholar of Jacobean literature, who as Richard explains in the epilogue “had a sure grasp of catastrophe. They understood not only evil, it seemed, but the extravagance of tricks with which evil presents itself as good. I felt they cut right to the heart of the matter, to the essential rottenness of the world.”

The Secret History looks at moments where young people must accept their actions, when transformations stop and what most call reality begins. To not acknowledge this reality requires a grand illusion that Julian chooses to maintain his entire life. In toasting his students several times, “live forever,” we see that at his core he is willing to abandon his principles and sacrifice anyone to reach an illusion of immortal life.

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