With the title of The Virgin of Bennington and knowing Kathleen Norris as a contemplative Christian author, one might expect something of a coming of age memoir on the heathen campus of Bennington. After all, Norris has written The Cloister Walk. Some of that expectation is met as Norris describes how a not very worldly girl arrived at the very worldly New York City campus. But Norris also writes about how she was accepted at Bennington for who she was and her meeting other poets (Jim Carroll, Stanley Kunitz, etc) and how she wanted to be a poet as well. But, more specifically, The Virgin of Bennington is about poets and poetry and most of all about Betty Kray, Norris’s mentor and a guiding voice in American poetry.
I held off on reading this for years even after I was enthralled by Dakota, The Cloister Walk, and Amazing Grace; and so I was pleasantly surprised by my enjoyment of the book. In a sense, it is nothing like her other non-fiction because it does not focus on religion or spirituality, but rather on the other love of her life: poetry. There is a major treatment of her relationship with Betty Kray and how important Kray was to the shaping of American poetry even though Kray was so unassuming that if you didn’t know her you didn’t know of her.
Think of this book as a prequel, of sorts, to Dakota. It tells of how Norris went to Bennington, was immersed in the poetry scene, but finally ended up at her grandmother’s home in South Dakota and truly found her voice. I found it most interesting because I am already familiar with her other non-fiction, but this book lacks the impact of her other work. There is enough to interest those looking to read about poets and poetry, but not nearly as much for fans of Norris’s non-fiction. Fans of her poetry may very well find value here.