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The Virgin of Bennington Paperback – April 2, 2002

3.4 out of 5 stars 27 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this absorbing coming-of-age memoir by the author of Dakota: A Spiritual Geography and Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, Norris appeals to every reader's struggle to achieve adulthood, both personally and professionally. She tells of her own transformation via the New York art world of the 1960s and 1970s from a homesick first-year college student to a well-known poet and writer living in South Dakota with a strong sense of literary mission. Like many of her Bennington classmates, Norris moved after college to New York City, where she felt much like "Nick Carraway [adapting]... to the dazzling but dangerous world of the East Coast." Norris landed a job as an assistant to Elizabeth Kray at the Academy of American Poets the center of the poetry world which provided her "an opportunity to attend poetry readings, night after night, for close to five years." While in New York, Norris came into contact with an entire host of famous figures, from the decadent folks at Warhol's Factory to some of the most highly respected poets of the day, like Denise Levertov, Stanley Kunitz and James Wright. While gaining an education in urbanity and sophistication that might have made another soul more cynical and self-destructive, Norris managed to maintain a certain appealing innocence and optimism, evident in her receptivity to new experiences and new people, and her hesitancy to judge others. This inner strength leads her eventually to sever her dependency on Manhattan. Norris writes with warmth, frankness and amazing vividness about formative moments and events in her life, many of which readers especially those with artistic aspirations will be able to identify with and to learn from. (Apr.) Forecast: The strong sales of Norris's earlier books pave the way for this memoir, which should sell handsomely.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Fans of Norris will undoubtedly be attracted to this coming-of-age memoir that charts her personal and professional life from the tumultuous 1960s into the more staid 1970s. As a transplanted Midwesterner from the plains of South Dakota, Norris spends her academic years at Vermont's Bennington College, out of sync with her classmates. She samples drugs (mostly speed, with disastrous results) and enters into an affair with a married professor. These were typical activities for the time of which she writes, still the author herself maintains an innocence and vulnerability that follow her to New York, where she moves after graduation. She happens into a job at the Academy of American Poets (AAP), a new organization under the direction of Elizabeth Kray, whose tireless efforts brought new poets to prominence and made poetry accessible to the general public. Kray also served as a mentor and motivator for Norris's own efforts as a poet, which resulted in winning recognition and publication for her first book. Exposed to encounters with some of the most notable poets of that time Denise Levertov, Erica Jong, James Merrill, James Wright, Gerard Malanga Norris ultimately decides to return to her roots, forsaking the East Coast for the plains of the Midwest. Unlike her previous works, which are either more personal or spiritual, the greatest portion of this story deals with the work of Kray as director of the AAP. For those who hope for something revelatory concerning the author of The Cloister Walk, this book, read by Sandra Burr, will not provide much in the way of enlightenment. Recommended for larger public libraries. Gloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll., Kansas City, MO
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (April 2, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 157322913X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1573229135
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,311,059 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Sheryl L. Katz VINE VOICE on September 8, 2002
Format: Paperback
I picked up this book at the airport bookstore coming home from a vacation in the Bahamas. I was starved for something reasonably meaty to read having failed to bring enough books with me and having forgotten that they don't have Borders in Freeport. I hadn't read anything by Kathleen Norris but this book looked like an interesting, thoughtful coming of age story from the era during which I went to college.
It seemed to start out that way. The first few chapters were an enjoyable retelling of the author's experience at Bennington where she was the proverbial "fish out of water". Those chapters were well written and fun to read.
Then she went on to tell of her time as a young woman in New York City. Here the book derailed into more of a biography (hagiography might be a better description) of her mentor. If I were into the politics of the small world of modern poets, this might have been interesting. Instead, I found it laborious and not very interesting reading. Since I work in the publishing industry (although not in New York) and have occassionally been involved in business with some of the bigger publishing companies, it might have been fun to read about the politics of the publishing world. But this book was too narrow for that.
The were parts though from time to time that were interesting, and I did enjoy the first chapter. I think this book sets the reader up for disappointed by its title and what it seems to promise on the cover. But I think if the book were more appropriately described its audience would be very small.
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Format: Paperback
The Virgin of Bennington by Kathleen Norris is misnamed, mismarketed and misleading to potential readers. Described as a memoir beginning at Bennington college and moving on to her first years in New York, the book focuses much less on Norris's coming of age than it does on the events before, during and after her friendship with Betty Kray, the executive director of the Academy of American Poets.
The primary fault with the book does not lie with the author, who admits at the end of the first chapter that the story begins with "an untidy but cheerful job interview" at the end of her college years. It lies instead with whoever decided to sensationalize what could be described as a quiet but interesting book of tribute to a woman who devoted herself to poets and poetry. Norris's prose is clear and easy to read. But her description of her brushes with famous and not-so-famous poets in New York in the 1970's are not that interesting, as the encounters themselves tend to be of the mundane variety. The true kernel of this book is Norris's love and admiration for Elizabeth Kray, which is only briefly alluded to on the book's cover. In sum, a bit of a disappointment.
For a true coming-of-age memoir, check out Susanna Kaysen's Girl Interrupted or the more recent humorously written Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl.
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By A Customer on September 27, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Some fans of Kathleen Norris will no doubt be disappointed in this book. It is not brimming with one spiritual insight after another, unlike her previous nonfiction work. But those would be her greedier readers who, whether for good or ill, seek spoon-fed wisdom.
This book is, instead, a fascinating illustration of the emotional, psychological, sexual, and spiritual development of a young woman who had the courage to accept the mentorship of an older woman, Betty Kray.
Those who read this book on the surface will find a fascinating portrait of Betty Kray who, according to the documentation in this book, was the prime mover and shaker of the Academy of American Poets in its earliest years. The Academy was largely responsible for the discovery and promotion of many of our best-known contemporary American poets (Denise Levertov, James Merrill, Stanley Kunitz, and many others).
Students of literary history, as well as those who enjoy reading memoirs, will respond well to this engaging, previously undocumented account of the rise of contermporary American poetry.
However, more discerning spiritually-minded readers will go one step further in their understanding of this book, for Norris has written a beautiful, deep illustration of moral development and mentorship. Dare I call it spiritual direction? If one knows what to look for, one can see everywhere in the pages of this book the spirit of God--through the unexpected figure of Betty Kray--shaping the life of a young poet.
I'm grateful that Norris did not overtly spiritualize this mentorship, for to do so might not be an honest depiction of Betty Kray. Rather, for those who read carefully, Norris shows us that God's hand is everywhere in our lives, and providence abounds---if we only look for it.
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Format: Hardcover
I purchased this book the day it came out and returned to my favorite bookstore a few days later to find a large display of "The Virgin of Bennington" with the description "Sex, Drugs and Poetry". If you are looking for the first two, you would find more in a few minutes of a sitcom. Poetry, however, is the main context in which Norris tells the story of ten years of her life, from entering college to moving to her mother's childhood home in South Dakota. While the world of late sixties-early seventies poetry may not seem the most interesting of subjects, Norris mananges to hold the reader's interest until we encounter the real subject, Elizabeth Kray, the arts administrator who headed the Academy of American Poets.
Norris' abilities as a storyteller were evident in her earlier works, especially "Dakota: A Spiritual Geography", and again she takes what might be for some an uninteresting subject and grabs our attention. Readers who are looking for a spiritual read similar to Norris' earlier prose may be disappointed, but I feel that Norris probably sees God's hand in her experiences with Kray.
Highly recommended, well-written and, more importantly, well thought out.
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