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The Dante Club
Matthew Pearl
London: Vintage, 2004.
£6.99, 372 pages, ISBN 0-099-46598-1.

Alira Ashvo-Munoz
Temple University, Philadelphia

Exquisitely written, The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl’s first novel, perfectly combines in unison two genres; a historical novel and a detective story. The narrative, divided into three canticles, centers on the Dante Club, formed by a group of prominent men; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendel Holmes, James Russell Lowell; Harvard professors and poets with historian George Washington Greene and publisher J.T. Fields, gathering weekly to translate the first full length translation in the USA of Dante’s Divina Commedia.

A preface by Professor C. Lewis Watkins advises the reader to the intricacies that lie ahead, as the entomological clue to Cocliomyia hominivorax, will aid in the sphinx-like riddles, solving the puzzles of the various murders in the Boston area at the end of the nineteenth century. Coincidentally these same rare insects and their larvae reappeared in the area in 1989, discovered by a precocious ten-year-old science student who, boiling with enthusiasm, exclaimed: “My Science teacher thinks I’m great” [p. vii]. A continuation of this will underscore the importance of knowledge and of the often undervalued relationship between teacher and learner. In this giant riddle, every detail counts, every clue leads to another; nothing is ornamental, everything has intrinsic value. Even the slightest touch of humor matters, as the Dante Club gatherings of erudite men which always begin with Longfellow’s call: “Schooltime!” [p. 55].

Some of the humor in The Dante Club has to do with Harvard as prestigious academic institution and money-making corporation, preparing students for a life of money-making (a reasonably well-kept secret in academia). Many of the characters seem to be acutely aware of this and guard themselves against losses at all costs, as it were.

Allegorically the text stands as testimony to the value of pedagogy and the influence of words upon us. The language used in this novel, with its darkness and clarity and Dantean obscurities functions like an elaborate yet subdued painting. Referring to Dante’s writing, Lowell, one of the members of the Club says:

Dante writes like Rembrandt with a brush dipped in darkness and a gleam of hellfire as his light. [p. 56]

It is not surprising that the novel received the Dante prize from the Dante Society of America. Pearl’s style has similar qualities.

The labyrinthine narrative guides the reader through the characters’ attempts at solving the numerous mysterious murders and a suicide which resorted to the punishment inscribed in Dante’s Inferno:

No—something in the murder had been familiar, so familiar. [p. 84]
“Dai calcagni a le punte” Holmes whispered aloud: From their heels to their toes—that’s where the corrupt clerics, the Simoniacs, burn forever in their craggy ditches. His heart sank. “Dante! It’s Dante!” [p. 85]

The murderer continues using the literary text as a guide:

“Our Lucifer appreciates the exactness of Dante’s poetry.” [p. 212]

The novel clearly states what should be the ideal ambition of a real scholar; to be a man of action and to partake in building the nation:

Emerson straightened the papers he had brought to Fields in order to show that the purpose of his visit was completed. “Remember that only when genius is transmitted into a present power shall we meet the first truly American poet. And somewhere, born to the streets rather than the athenaeum, we will come upon the first true reader. The spirit of the American is suspected to be timid, imitative, tame—the scholar decent, indolent, complaisant. The mind of our country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself. Without action, the scholar is not yet man. Ideas must work through the bones and arms of good men or they are no better than dreams. When I read Longfellow, I feel utterly at ease—I am safe. This shall not yield us our future”
When Emerson left, Holmes felt he had been entrusted with a sphinx’s riddle to which only he could provide an answer. [p.170]

Literature is the tool; it teaches, it entertains, and it reflects life. Then as now, it shows the gruesome aptitudes of humanity, as well as the intricacies of “intellectualism” set to work to benefit humankind. The reader is caught up in a saga in which the fictional mingles with the historical in a quest for truth, in which the literary serves as a tool to understand reality. The novel touches upon other issues: the dysfunctionality of war veterans, the entrepreneurial aspect of publishing, racism, rivalries among colleagues, false judgments, cultural criticism, cultural arrogance, jealousy. It also evokes European versus American “intellectualism,” personal ambitions, and the way others perceive us:

It was not the lessons that tormented him so much as having to ask for fees. The americani of Boston had built themselves a Carthage, a land stuffed with money but void of culture, destined to vanish without a trace of its existence. What had Plato said of the citizens of Agrigentum? These people build as if they were immortal and eat as if they were to die instantly. [p. 156]

Here the word americani, refers to Americans as dogs (cani), an Italian subtlety, reminding the reader of cultural battles that existed then and still exist today. The novel is set exactly at the six hundredth anniversary of Dante’s Divine Comedy, 1265-1865:

Longfellow intended to keep his progress to have Inferno ready to send to the year’s final Dante Festival in Florence for the six-hundredth anniversary of the poet’s birth in 1265 [p.182].

Life has not changed much since then, really. In a world where many murders occur, where violence is valued in popular culture, television and films, it is not so far-fetched to imagine these fictional characters coming alive. Inferno is here and now, and we seem to punish one another with methods that go beyond the wildest imagination of any writer.

Greene’s half-moon eyes closed. “You gentlemen, Dr. Holmes, always thought Dante’s story the greatest fiction ever told. But I, I had always believed Dante made his journey. I had believed God had granted him that, and had granted poetry that.”
“And now,” Holmes said. “You still believe it was all true, don’t’ you?”
“Oh, more than ever, Dr. Holmes.” [p. 366]

Following varied multiple paths, these men of the Dante Club, with their logical and emotional methods, solve the mystery; the investigation is also a chronicle of their inner lives and their quest for knowledge:

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vitta. Midway through the journey of our live. From the very first line of Dante’s poem, we are involved in the journey, we are taking the pilgrimage as much as he is, and we must face our Hell as squarely as Dante faces his. You see that the poem’s great and lasting value is as the autobiography of a human soul. Yours and mine, it may be, just as much as Dante’s. [pp. 67-68]

These men in the middle of their lives as the story begins, embark on a new life’s journey by meddling with a police matter and ingeniously solving the crimes that affect their city. The reader is guided by them as well as by Dante through the paradise and inferno of Boston in 1865—and 1965.

Augustus Manning resigned from the Harvard Corporation and moved his family away from Boston […] An ensuing shake-up in the Harvard administration precipitated the unexpected election of the newer overseer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, an idea hatched by the philosopher’s publisher, J.T. Fields and endorsed by President Hill. Thus ended a twenty-year exile from Harvard for Mr. Emerson, and the poets of Cambridge and Boston were grateful to have one of their own inside the College boardroom. [p. 364]

Reading this novel is a very rewarding experience; while the narrative shifts focus, the reader is captivated by the two parallel stories, and the thrill is brilliantly maintained until the end.

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