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The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
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Combining a host of literary figures with a well known literary work such as Dante’s Comedy, and a murder mystery, seems like a sure shot way to entertain, educate and enlighten via the novel. Also a guarantee of best-seller status.

Matthew Pearl has hit on this formula and his first three books cover Dante, Poe and Dickens mixed in with the dark shadows of a whodunit in each. In The Dante Club, his debut, we are introduced to literary luminaries such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell, along with publisher J.T. Fields, all stalwart members of the Dante Club, a loose association of intellectuals connected with Harvard University. Led by Longfellow, the club is intent on translating the works of Dante into English for publication in America, much against the desires of the Harvard Corporation and other Boston Brahmins (local aristocracy) who want to maintain their Unitarian and Presbyterian beliefs and do not wish to be polluted by Catholic and sinful Italian literature.

The earlier part of the book dwells on the political and literary challenges facing the translation and gives us a glimpse into the lives of the principle characters, mainly into the life of Dante, a man exiled from his beloved Florence, who wrote his masterpiece while under banishment, and who was never allowed to reunite with his lover Beatrice. “Dante writes like Rembrandt, with a brush dipped in darkness and a gleam of hellfire as his light.” We also get a good depiction of post-civil war Boston, with its demobilized and discarded union soldiers struggling to survive, it’s intelligencia, it’s academic hegemony, its divided police force, and its rivalry with New York for supremacy in publishing. We learn that black police officers were not allowed to wear uniforms or arrest a white person without another officer being present! We even get some choice period words like “lushington” and “delirious tremendous,” uttered by the inebriated lower classes. Pearl, being a Dante scholar, spares no pains in painting this period thickly in a clunky vintage narrative style. A bit too thickly I thought, if the other side of this book—the murder mystery—was going to quickly engage into gear and take us at a faster clip.

And when we do finally engage, people start dying, in ways that resemble Dante’s journey through Hell. The deadly contrapasso falls upon each of the victims based on some bad deed they had committed during their lives. Whether being eaten by maggots while alive, or being buried headfirst with feet afire, or being sliced up and left to die, or being buried alive in ice, the killings are brutal and is the work of a maniac. The victims are all opponents of the Dante Club’s project, and its core members who are men of letters and not of action are soon bumbling along head over heels in search of this elusive killer who is able to pre-empt the next chapter of their translation and kill according to its narrative.

That’s when the plot deteriorates into contrivance. The killer’s ability to listen in on key conversations of the Dante Club and the Harvard Corporation, and his ability to be everywhere at once is a bit of a stretch. So is the sudden attack of hoof and mouth disease that conveniently (or inconveniently) lands all the city’s horses in quarantine. I also wondered how Dr. Holmes, an asthmatic, was able to outrun his attacker and crawl into narrow underground spaces with little or no air. The author also has some difficulty with stagecraft when it comes to actions scenes, especially when many players are on stage and many voices are talking in the same scene. I am hoping that his later books tackle this element better, for it is not an easy skill to master.

Of course, all is revealed at the end, and the literary luminaries of the Dante Club go on to greatness as the history books will attest, and this little episode will be conveniently excised so that it remains only in the annals of fiction. I found this novel an engaging spotlight on the lives of Longfellow and Co., a good primer on the interesting bits of Dante, and a revelation on the conditions of the American North at the conclusion of the civil war. It appears that America had its own Inferno during that disastrous war, and that the poets of the Dante Club, with access to the survivors still proudly wearing their uniforms if nothing else, could have written a “Made in America” version of the Divine Comedy to rival the original.

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April 24, 2019 – Shelved
April 24, 2019 – Finished Reading

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