A pivotal figure for European culture, Dante began to be widely recognized in the United States only in the nineteenth century. Among the earliest and most notable of American Dantists was the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who published the first complete American translation of the Inferno in 1865 and of the entire Divine Comedy in 1867. This moment in literary history, when Dante became a part of American culture, is accurately reconsidered, yet creatively retold in Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club (2003). The novel is a historical detective story in which the illustrious members of Longfellow's real Dante Club (which later became the Dante Society of America) engage in a fictional investigation of grisly murders inspired by punishments in the Inferno. While focusing its attention on the beginnings of Dante's reception in the United States, Pearl's best-seller also provides a fascinating illustration of the poet's continuing appeal, intellectual as well as emotional. My study attempts to investigate further the relation between the Medieval poet and contemporary popular culture. I point out how Pearl adopts techniques typical of popular genres such as the Gothic novel and the detective story, a strategy that associates his work with many previous English and American literary appropriations of the Divine Comedy. What renders The Dante Club noteworthy, however, is Pearl's genuine scholarly interest in the Medieval poet and his attempt to alert readers to the dangers of misreading the Commedia as a mere sensationalistic work of punishments. In the final analysis, the novel explores not only whether, but also how one should read the Divine Comedy, and it illustrates the social and political relevance that Dante's work may still have in the modern world.


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pp. 85-103
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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