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Home:  >Browse Listings   >Authors   >Tartt, Donna
Donna Tartt
Caitlin McCaffrey/Alred A. Knopf
Donna Tartt

Donna Tartt

In the decade since her first book, she has published exactly two novels, but Donna Tartt took the literary world by storm in 1992 when the publicity surrounding the release of The Secret History came close to overshadowing the novel itself, which depicts the murder of a student at a small college in Vermont by his fellow Greek classics classmates.

The title of Tartt’s first novel also is a fair description of her own attitude toward press interviews. She was born in 1963 in Greenwood, Mississippi, the elder of two daughters born to Don and Taylor Tartt, but she grew up in Grenada, Mississippi, on the eastern edge of the Delta. Details from her formative years are scant, but she appears to have been a precocious child with an early love for literature—she wrote her first poem at age five, published her first sonnet in a Mississippi literary review at thirteen.

In the fall of 1981, she entered the University of Mississippi in Oxford as a freshman, where one of her stories caught the attention of Willie Morris, then a writer-in-resident at the university. Finding her in the Holiday Inn bar one evening, Morris said to her, “My name is Willie Morris, and I think you’re a genius.”

Upon Morris’ recommendation, Barry Hannah (also a writer-in-resident at the university) admitted Tartt as a freshman into his graduate short story course where, Hannah says, she outperformed the graduate students. At the urging of Morris and others, Tartt transferred after her freshman year from Ole Miss to Bennington College, a small liberal arts college in Vermont, where she made friends with novelists Bret Easton Ellis and Jill Eisenstadt. During her second year at Bennington, she began writing The Secret History.

Tartt began showing her novel soon after she began writing it to Ellis, one of the two people to whom the novel is dedicated. It was through Ellis that Tartt and her as-yet-unfinished novel were introduced to literary agent Amanda Urban, who accepted Tartt as an unsigned client. Two years later, Urban was able to stir up a bidding war among publishers for the 866-page manuscript; the winner was Knopf, who paid a massive $450,000 for the book and ordered a 75,000-copy first-printing (compared to about 10,000 copies that most first novels get). Even so, demand for the book was so tremendous that Knopf had to order unprecedented additional printings. The novel remained on the Publishers Weekly bestseller list for thirteen weeks, reaching as high as number two.

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Go to Bennington College's web site
Bennington College in Vermont was the model for the fictional college in Donna Tartt's debut novel, The Secret History

    The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation. He'd been dead for ten days before they found him, you know. It was one of the biggest manhunts in Vermont history—state troopers, the FBI, even an army helicopter; the college closed, the dye factory in Hampden shut down, people coming from New Hampshire, upstate New York, as far away as Boston.
—from The Secret History

The Secret History takes place at the fictional Hampden College, which like Bennington is a small liberal arts college in Vermont. Its story centers on a small group of overly refined and elite students of ancient Greek taught by an eccentric professor who accepts few students. When the narrator, Richard Papen, a penniless transfer student from suburban California, successfully hatches a scheme to join the group, he gradually becomes privy to the group's secret history: they had accidentally murdered a farmer in their successful attempt to recreate an ancient Greek bacchanal. However, Bunny Corcorran, the one member of the group who had not participated in the bacchanal, learns of the murder and begins to blackmail the others. As Bunny's sanity becomes questionable and he threatens to reveal their secret, Richard must choose whether to side with the group in their decision to murder Bunny in order to silence him.

Critical opinion of the novel has been mostly favorable. Some critics have faulted The Secret History for vapid characterization and artificial stylization, but most have praised the work as an outstanding achievement for a first novel. Variously interpreted as suspenseful mystery, an exploration of the nature of evil, and a comparison of classical and modern values and philosophy, The Secret History is a noteworthy debut from a talented contemporary author.

With the publication of The Little Friend in 2002, Tartt proves she is no one-hit wonder. Already critics have praised the novel for its prose style, sharp characterizations, and tense narrative.

(Article updated November 2002)

Donna Tartt
Photo by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing
Donna Tartt was interviewed by Robert Birnbaum in Identity Theory - The Narrative Thread (www.identitytheory.com)



  • The Secret History. New York: Knopf, 1992.
  • The Little Friend. New York: Knopf, 2002.

Short Stories:

  • “A Christmas Pageant.” Harper’s 287.1723 (December 1993): 45+.
  • “A Garter Snake.” GQ 65.5 (May 1995): 89+.


  • “Sleepytown: A Southern Gothic Childhood, with Codeine.” Harper’s 286 (July 1992): 60-66.
  • “Basketball Season.” In The Best American sports writing, 1993, 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): 37-40.

Media Adaptations

Audio Books:

  • The Secret History. Random House AudioBooks, 1992. Two sound cassettes (3 hours). Abridged version read by Robert Sean Leonard.
  • “True Crime” (Short Story). Included in Murder for Love, Murder for Women. Dove Audio, 1996. Four sound cassettes (about 6 hours).


Biographical Sources:

  • Kaplan, James. “Smart Tartt.” Vanity Fair 55.9 (September 1992): 248-51, 276-78.
  • Elle (September 1992): 172-76.

Book Reviews and Criticism

  • Allen, Brooke. “Panpipes and Preppies.” The New Criterion 11.2 (October 1992): 65-68.
  • Bell, P. K. Review of The Secret History. Partisan Review 60.1 (Winter 1993): 63-65.
  • Duffy, Martha. “Murder Midst the Ferns.”Time 140.9 (31 August 1992): 69.
  • Fosburgh, Lacey. “Forbidden and Gothic.”Vogue 182 (September 1992): 380.
  • Hajari, Nisid. Review of The Secret History. VLS 108 (September 1992): 7.
  • Krist, G. Review of The Secret History. Hudson Review 46.1 (Spring 1993): 239-46.
  • Lescaze, Lee. “Groves of Academe Shed Gold and Yawns.” Wall Street Journal (9 September 1992): A12.
  • Rosenheim, Andrew. “Dead guy on Campus.” Review of The Secret History. New York Times Book Review (13 September 1992): 3.
  • Saynor, James. “The Wrong Stuff.” The Observer (25 October 1992): 65.
  • Scott, A. O. “‘The Little Friend’: Harriet the Spy.” Review of The Little Friend. New York Times Book Review (3 November 2002).
  • Shapiro, Laura, and Ray Sawhill. “Anatomy of a Hype.” Newsweek 120.10 (7 September 1992): 54-55.
  • Star, Alexander. “Less Than Hero.”The New Republic 207.17 (19 October 1992): 47-49.
  • Vail, Amanda. “Beyond Good and Evil.”Book World—The Washington Post (13 September 1992): 3, 9.
  • Wood, James. “The Glamour of Glamour.” London Review of Books 14.22 (19 December 1992): 17-18.
  • Wood, Nancy. Review of The Secret History. Maclean's (12 October 1992): 85.

Internet Resources

Online Reviews and Articles:

Book and Author Information:


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