Notes from the Desk: A love note to the book that brought me to Middlebury
If you know me, you’ve heard this story. In middle school, I devoured Donna Tartt’s 1992 debut novel about a group of Classics majors at an elite private college in Vermont who conspire to kill one of their friends. Then I read it again in ninth grade — and again the next year.
During my junior year of high school, figuring out where I wanted to go to college happened to coincide with a re-re-re-reading of “The Secret History.” This time, when I experienced the book’s historic buildings, lavish weekend trips and cultish academic affairs, I finally had the sense to wonder if it was based on a real college. I turned to Google.
“Is Hampden College from ‘The Secret History’ based on a real school?” My search results informed me that it was indeed based upon a real school: Bennington College, which I had never heard of.
Then came the most pivotal Google search of my life. A dig into Bennington revealed that the school only enrolled 700 total students (way too small, I thought), but my eyes wandered instead to the ‘People Also Search For’ panel, where they landed, fatefully, on another name I’d never seen before: Middlebury College.
I clicked on it, did some light reading, and soon Middlebury was added haplessly to the rotation of colleges I was considering applying to. The in-between is history.
I’m not, by any stretch, the only person here to have read this book. Perhaps you have too. Last semester I saw someone reading it while standing in line in Ross. And I have, to no avail, suggested that we ask Midd students if they’ve read “The Secret History” on our annual Zeitgeist student survey. I delight in encountering other readers of the novel, whether it carried them here, as it did for me, or found them once they’d already arrived.
The thing is, no matter what, it is impossible not to draw parallels between the fictional and fantastical world in the book and the one here at Middlebury. The characters eat in familiar dining halls, go to familiar parties and take familiar (at least for some) trips off to the Vermont countryside for picturesque, lakeside weekends. The narrator, who is secretly just scraping by, comes face-to-face with the exorbitant wealth and private school backgrounds of his peers. Students form close (sometimes too close) relationships with their professors. Friend groups are challenged by romance and drama. Some characters spend their breaks in lavish hotels in Italy while others brave the Vermont winter for a measly work-study job. The elite college community comes into conflict with the local Vermonters and farmworkers.
It’s also very easy to apply the Secret History ensemble cast to people at Middlebury. My best friend Cooper is a Bunny (blonde, jovial and prone to premature dad jokes) — which isn’t too much of a compliment, if you’re familiar with the book, but which spurned a months-long running joke about me murdering him (I promise that’s not a spoiler). A friend once told me that he always thought of former Campus Editor in Chief Will DiGravio as a Henry, because he walked about campus with the noticeable seriousness, wisdom and style of the group’s wise-beyond-his-years leader. Many see themselves in Richard, the California transplant who hides his un-glamorous past and navigates an elite, unfamiliar world. Exclusive friend groups invite comparisons to the coterie from the book.
About two decades after its publication, “The Secret History” isn’t going anywhere. Charlie Keohane ’24 wrote about the timelessness of the novel in The Campus this January. It has a cult following to this day, and it has spawned many a novel tagged “Secret History-esque.”
I still re-read The Secret History on a yearly-ish basis. My mom buys me a copy every time she sees one at a thrift store so that I have extras to hand out to friends.
In the early days of the pandemic, I found myself sheltering in place with three friends in Southern Vermont. In that strange two-week Spring Break/quarantine hybrid, we avoided the grocery store, tracked Covid-19 rates voraciously and slept in until the afternoon. In a period of personal and global upheaval, my friends and I turned to the book that had seen me through transitions in my life. The rules of our new world still unknown to us, we did one thing that felt safe: hiking through the woods, where we knew we wouldn’t encounter anybody, while listening to the audiobook version of The Secret History.
As we hiked through the very scenery described in the novel, it felt in many ways as if we were living “The Secret History.” We cooked elaborate meals and read books by the fire. We saw ourselves in character traits. An unseasonably late snow started during one of our hikes, fulfilling a crucial plot point in the novel (I won’t spoil that one).
More recently, when I lived in a Vermont attic this January — albeit a lovely and warm one, a far cry from the freezing, weather-vulnerable, nearly fatal one that Richard endures — I felt another glimmer of the book in my own life.
Taken as a parable, a mirror or simply a story, “The Secret History” is worth the engrossing, sweeps-you-up, consumes-your-mind read. And, because it is my origin story, I can’t help but feel like it holds a little more magic than the average book. If you find the urge to read, I always have copies I’m happy to lend.
Riley Board ’22 is a Managing Editor of The Middlebury Campus.