It comes as no surprise that Kathleen Norris's newest book contains many of the elements -- the terra firma of geographical place, the broad blue sweep of spiritual belief, the shadowed mysteries of religious community -- that made her earlier books so successful. After all, her nonfiction debut, Dakota, was one of the sleeper publishing hits of 1993, its evocation of the Great Plains garnering the book a mention as a New York Times Book Review Notable Book of the Year. The Cloister Walk and Amazing Grace followed in quick succession, and Norris, who has been compared to Terry Tempest Williams and Thomas Merton, seemed to have found her niche.
But Kathleen Norris's newest book, The Virgin of Bennington, is something of a departure. While her trademark wit, subtlety and intelligence are as present here as in her earlier books, the cardboard display unit header for the hardcover said it best: "Sex, Drugs and Poetry." Norris, who reads from the book next Thursday at Auntie's, starts out with a memoir of her young, naive pre-Dakota days, but the story quickly becomes something else entirely. In addition to recollecting her experiences at Bennington College in Vermont, Norris also limns the vivid and chaotic world of New York during the late 1960s and early 1970s and pays homage to her mentor, the late poetry advocate Elizabeth (Betty) Kray.
"I didn't want to write a memoir of my growing up so much as I wanted to write a memoir of Betty Kray," says Norris, speaking from her winter home in Honolulu. "It finally dawned on me that I needed to write about that whole period of time, my coming to know Betty and my own growing up in this crazy Bennington/New York world. That was really the big challenge, to get all of that in one book."
Bennington had, by the 1960s, not only established a reputation as a fine women's college but also as a haven for sexually liberated bohemians, artists, philosophers and poets. Reserved and shy, Norris quickly earned -- and held onto -- the nickname given her by her peers, "the virgin of Bennington." Her eventual dalliance with an older married professor led her to her first job in the big city, as an assistant at the Academy of American Poets, where she met Kray, the Academy's executive director. Preferring to work behind the scenes, Kray was the kind of practical, formidable woman who gets things done. She helped further the careers of numerous 20th-century poets, including Galway Kinnell, Denise Levertov and Richard Wilbur, and she was instrumental in starting what came to be known as the poetry circuit.
Although Kray emerges as an intriguing figure whose legacy continues to be felt in the poetry world today, some of the most fascinating chunks of The Virgin of Bennington have to do with Norris's social life in New York. Landing a prestigious award and publication of her first book in the same year, she was suddenly considered a rising new talent in the Manhattan poetry scene. She spent her evenings in the orbit of Andy Warhol's crowd, drinking with writer Erica Jong, befriending Velvet Underground collaborator Gerard Malanga (whose photo of Norris graces the paperback) and even, in one hilarious interaction, meeting Ultra Violet about the possibility of sharing an apartment.
"New York was a wonderful sort of hothouse for me as a young writer. I think a lot of young writers benefit from spending a few years there, and it doesn't necessarily have to be New York -- it can be San Francisco or Minneapolis," she says. "There's something about being in a big city with all these other people who are in there doing the same thing you're doing that can be tremendously exciting."
But where another writer might drop the names of famous poets and the Andy Warhol crowd to impress, Norris uses them in her book to illustrate how enormously out of her depth she was. While it would seem to be the time of her life, Norris remembers it as also being intensely lonely and frightening. Unprepared for such early success and still figuring out her own limits, she struggled with writer's block, isolation and the pressures of running with the young and hip. A bad mescaline trip scared her enough that she began to reconsider her life and make the initial connections that would eventually lead her to the quiet wilds of South Dakota.
"In a lot of ways, I just wasn't cut out for the '60s and '70s," she admits. "And my experiences were actually mild compared to a lot of my friends, who would drop LSD in Manhattan and run around in taxi cabs. That would have killed me, I think."
That Norris interweaves her own story, the story of her mentor and the story of Manhattan during this wild time into one cohesive whole is a testament to her skills as an essayist. Although the book seems quite different from her previous volumes, to Norris they all share one crucial similarity.
"At a certain point in writing this book, I realized that I was really writing about where faith comes from," she says. "That it doesn't come neatly in its package, but that it's something you have to get to. That's what's so appealing about the metaphor of the exile and the journey and getting to that place."