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Spending the afterlife at Harvard

The Dante Club: A Novel, Matthew Pearl, Random House: 372 pp., $24.95

March 23, 2003|Joseph Luzzi | Joseph Luzzi is assistant professor of Italian at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.

In the Yale community a few years ago, rumors swirled of a young writer, his large book on Dante and his even larger publisher's advance. The author in question was a Yale law student, Matthew Pearl, whose knowledge of "The Divine Comedy" reputedly matched that of a tenured scholar's. His book, one heard, situated Dante's poem in a literary murder mystery at rival Harvard, Pearl's undergraduate alma mater. Those of us in the humanities wondered, with some jealousy, if so ambitious a creative and scholarly project would succeed outside of the ivory tower and in the Dantesque "dark wood" of the literary marketplace.

Succeed it would. Pearl, while still in his 20s, has written an erudite and entertaining account of Dante's violent entrance into the American canon. His novel describes how the distinguished founders of a Dante Club at Cambridge in 1865 become embroiled in a gruesome set of murders inspired by the punishments of "The Inferno." Pearl's heroes are charmingly eccentric. James Russell Lowell smokes cigars while bathing and reaches for his rifle at slight provocation. The compulsive but kindhearted narcissist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. writes as much for profit as for inspiration. The club leader, stoic Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, does not sleep at night. In addition to the Pickwick-like central cast, cultural celebrities Louis Agassiz, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. figure in the highbrow misadventures.

Beneath the surface of lively suspense lurk great historical issues, embodied especially in the book's most compelling figure, the fictitious Patrolman Nicholas Rey. Boston's first African American police officer, the talented Rey suffers endless racism and corrupt treatment. Mayor Frederick W. Lincoln, cousin of the American president, removes "the Negro" Rey from the Dante case in deference to public opinion and pressure from the city's detectives. The Boston of "The Dante Club" is riven by the effects of the Civil War, whose mangled and disillusioned veterans flood the city's underfunded soldiers' aid homes. Pearl informs the reader of the war's more brutal aspects: Union officers return escaped slaves back to their masters, a soldier staves off hunger by chewing pebbles and paper and an Illinois regiment threatens to desert if President Abraham Lincoln frees one more slave.

No wonder, then, that Dante's words speak so directly to some of these veterans, who crowd to hear sermons based on "The Divine Comedy." "[Dante] was a former soldier, too, who had fallen victim to a great divide between the parties of his sullied [Florence] and had been commanded to journey through the afterlife so that he might put all mankind right. ... No bloodshed in Hell was incidental, each person was divinely deserving of a precise punishment created by the love of God." This particular veteran's zealous literalism in reflecting on Dante reminds us of how fanatics in our own world put textual interpretation at the service of a violent cause.

The novel reveals the political stakes inherent in literary criticism. Dante's admission into Harvard faces several obstacles. First, he wrote his epic in Italian, but the college's mandarins favored Latin and Greek and snubbed the so-called modern languages. Second, Dante's "immoral and impious book" (in the words of the college president) depicts "striking odors, filth, excrement, blood, mutilated bodies, agonizing shrieks, [and] mythical monsters of punishment," all inappropriate matters for a young gentleman. Above all, Dante was "too Italian, too Catholic" for the "Protestant ears" of Harvard's students.

Both the college administration and its enemies in the Dante Club believe that the soul of the nation is at stake in the struggle over "The Divine Comedy." The lords of Pearl's Harvard envision a genteel literary America that has no need for Dante's visionary excess. Though gentleman-scholars themselves, the initiates of the Dante circle consider the medieval poet to be the path to a more powerful and original literary sphere. Pearl alludes to the emergence of these new styles in American literature, from the gothic horror of Poe to the barbaric yawp of Whitman, two voices that belong more to bohemian New York than to staid Boston. The first properly American poet, Emerson announces to Holmes, will be "born to the streets rather than the athenaeum ....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." In promoting an iconoclastic and American Dante, the poet-scholars of the Dante Club anticipate their own cultural obsolescence.

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