On my Bedside Table

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Virgin of Bennington

by Kathleen Norris

I picked this one up on the strength of The Cloister Walk, which I read a few years back, and I guess I was expecting it to be more of the same. It took me a while to get into it because the early chapters talk about the type of person she was when she first went away to college at Bennington in the late 60’s – she was a very sheltered Midwestern girl, very unprepared for the scene she was immersed in. In fact, she seemed to be quite unprepared for any sort of experience at all – everything seemed to be somehow much more difficult and stressful for her than it needed to be. All this was rather exasperating to read, but it was saved by the fact that she didn’t seem to have any self-pity in reflecting on that time in her life. It seemed that she was giving an honest appraisal of herself.

I enjoyed the book much more once she got to describing her experiences at work at the Academy of American Poets. The book stops being about her and becomes a memoriam to her mentor and employer, Betty Kray. Betty Kray is like NYC’s version of Sylvia Beach, but the champion of poets rather than ex-pat authors; the midwife of 20th century American poetry. I love books that make me realize how little I know – I’d never heard of Betty Kray, but after reading this I’m so glad to have learned something about her.

The other thing I enjoyed about the book was its portrayal of the NYC literary scene, and what a small world it seemed – the irony of a huge city is that it supports microcosms – as Norris puts it: a “small town” of people with shared interests, with a small-town atmosphere of connections and support as well as small-town politics and power issues.

There was a lot of name dropping going on in the NYC section of the book and it impressed me how the literary world intersected with other groups and things going on in the city. There was a nice mix of high culture and pop culture going on in Norris’ life –poets and their work for her day job and nights partying in the realm of Bob Dylan, Warhol, and the Velvet Underground.

Overall rating – not a waste of time, learned something worthwhile.


Post a Comment

<< Home