Poet, Pilgrim and Memoirist, She Navigates Through Gotham

The Virgin of Bennington , by Kathleen Norris. Riverhead Books, 256 pages, $24.95.

Plenty of bizarre conversations took place in the back room of Max’s Kansas City, but probably few more unlikely–or more touching–than the scene Kathleen Norris describes in her new memoir, The Virgin of Bennington . A hundred or so pages into this understated, admirably restrained account of its author’s coming of age in Vermont and New York City, Ms. Norris describes the night in the early 1970′s when she met her friend Gerard Malanga–the poet and Andy Warhol familiar–in the nether recesses of the legendary bar and, surrounded by its eccentric patrons (artists, musicians, writers, celebrity glam transvestites), seized the perfect opportunity to read aloud from John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress . “I loved the names: Great-Heart, Madame Bubble. And my favorite, Feeble-Mind, who never thinks he has the fortitude to complete his pilgrimage, but keeps going nonetheless. Finally, on the shores of the River Jordan, having willed his mind to a dunghill, he calls out to his friends, ‘Hold out, Faith and Patience!’ as he crosses over.”

Have you ever heard anything more adorable in your life? No wonder the scene ends with a “beautiful young man” named Eric Emerson approaching Ms. Norris and asking her to bear his child! But what Eric Emerson clearly failed to guess–and what the reader of Ms. Norris’ book will by this point have intuited–is that Ms. Norris might as well have been reading from her dear diary. In fact, The Virgin of Bennington is an updated Pilgrim’s Progress , with Ms. Norris herself as the modern-day Pilgrim, navigating the perilous landscape of Gotham (The Doubting Castle! The Slough of Despond!) on her way to her own version of the River Jordan.

But I’m jumping ahead of our story–that is, Kathleen Norris’ story–which begins with its shy, insecure but good-hearted heroine leaving Hawaii (where her father was a cellist in the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra) to enroll in Bennington College, about which she seems to have been seriously misinformed. What she apparently had in mind (a school with neither a math requirement nor the distraction of male students) was something more like … Smith. The harsh realities of college life (classmates taking tons of speed and having sex with strangers) threw Ms. Norris into culture shock, which she weathered long enough to graduate and to land a job in Manhattan as a secretary, gofer and general amanuensis at the Academy of American Poets.

Her work at the Academy–and her encounters with the distinguished writers who gave readings under its auspices–provide the book with its most engaging moments. Her very first week on the job, she managed to accidentally hang up on W.H. Auden. During a long car ride with James Merrill, she listened to the poet muse on the notion that cats watch people closely because “they were intent on learning how to behave should they ever reincarnate as human beings. How to use a can opener, hang a painting, or bone a chicken.” On the subway en route to Queens, she watched James Wright startle fellow passengers by loudly declaiming the verses of Walt Whitman.

Even as she was learning about the poetry world, Ms. Norris was receiving a parallel education about the worldlier world. After the appearance of her first book of poems, she discovered that the toxic envy of one’s peers and a crushing writer’s block can be among the unexpected perks of publication. When her affair with a married Bennington professor tanked, she learned about the drawbacks of teacher-student romance. And in the aftermath of a disastrous mescaline trip, she resolved to follow Mr. Malanga’s advice about psychedelics: “If you can’t handle drugs, you have no business taking them.”

Indeed, Ms. Norris portrays her younger self as something of an advice sponge; luckily for her (and her readers), much of it came from her beloved friend and mentor, Betty Kray, her boss at the Academy. Kray’s wise counsel included fashion tips, reading suggestions, observations on matters of the heart, ruminations on poetry in general and Ms. Norris’ work in particular: “I think of Betty as my first reader, of both my life and my art. She knew what to make of the poems I was writing in my twenties, poems so inward, so masked, that thirty years after having written them, I no longer know what I was trying to say.” Most importantly, Kray was teaching Ms. Norris how to be an adult, a moral human being–in short, how to live.

In her efforts to make something out of her pliable, unformed assistant, Kray, it should be said, had solid material to work with. What consistently comes through all this is Ms. Norris’ essential decency, her humility, her refusal to pass facile judgments or to indulge in the acidic, score-settling gossip that poisons so many memoirs. Thus she tactfully conceals the identity of the married academic lover and of the ambitious young female poet who briefly courted Ms. Norris’ friendship and then abruptly dropped her when it turned out that she had no power to confer favors or influence the Academy’s prize competitions. Ms. Norris’ openness allowed her to maintain a–to put it mildly–wide acquaintance; her close friends included Jim Carroll, author of The Basketball Diaries , and radical feminist Andrea Dworkin.

Indeed, Kathleen Norris is so modest that she readily moves to the wings of her own book and lets Betty Kray occupy center stage for so much of the time that The Virgin of Bennington often seems less like a memoir than a mini-biography of a dear friend. And her moving account of Kray’s death suggests that one of the things Ms. Norris learned from her mentor was the ability to step out of the spotlight, to redirect attention away from the subject of her own fascinating self.

Eventually, Ms. Norris met the man she would marry, and after she inherited a family farm, they moved to South Dakota, where she wrote her immensely popular spiritual autobiographies, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and The Cloister Walk . Fans of these volumes will doubtless admire the pious note on which this new work concludes: “I know now that God works with us as we are, and through other people becomes incarnate to us.” Some of us may find ourselves wishing we were still overdoing it with all the junkies and trannies in the back of Max’s. In any case, it’s clear, even to us sinners, that South Dakota is the River Jordan to which Kathleen Norris was heading–and taking us with her–all along. Hold out, Faith and Patience!

Francine Prose’s latest novel, Blue Angel , is out in paperback from HarperPerennial.