Dante Novel Explores History of a Translation

Dante Alighieri’s three sagas of the Divine Comedy, written in the 14th century, have long intrigued readers with the stories’ treatment of the afterlife.

Dante’s opus is receiving new attention in the form of a novel entitled The Dante Club, written by Matthew L. Pearl ’97.The novel, which takes place at the end of the 19th century, is not only about Dante but also about Harvard. The protagonists are Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell. These men are also self-proclaimed members of the “Dante Club,” and are attempting to compile the first translation of Dante into English.

In the book, there are people both at Harvard and in Boston who wish to keep Dante from the public. Work on the translation comes to a halt when a series of murders resembling scenes from Dante’s Inferno takes place.

Pearl is also a teaching fellow for the core course on Dante, Literature and Arts A-26: “Dante’s Divine Comedy and its World.” Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Lino Pertile, who teaches the course, has placed Pearl’s new novel on the recommended reading list.

“I placed The Dante Club on my syllabus because, perhaps more than most critical works, it breathes new life into the Divine Comedy,” Pertile wrote in an e-mail. “[It] is a superb work of fiction that mixes history and fantasy in such a brilliant way as to make history more vivid than fiction.”

Though his first interests at Harvard were modernist writers such as James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, Pearl says he soon realized that these authors were Dante enthusiasts. Pearl himself encountered Dante through three sequential graduate seminars given by Pertile, each of which treated a different section of the Divine Comedy.

“I took the Inferno seminar, and fell in love, to the extent that I rearranged my schedule so I could take the other two,” Pearl says. “By the end I decided that this is what I want to do for my thesis.”

Because he had focused mainly on American and English writing as an undergraduate Literature concentrator, Pearl studied the intersection between Dante and American literature, upon the suggestion of Pertile.

Pearl’s Hoopes prize-winning thesis, “The Dante Club: A Re-assessment of the Emergence of Dante in Nineteenth Century America,” examines the first American scholars of Dante’s writing and how Dante was reintroduced to a general readership.

Pearl attended Yale Law School and there he began expanding his idea for a novel—and writing.

“I missed having an outlet of literary discussion,” he says. “I think that’s what drove me, if not deliberately, to play around with writing.”

Pearl laughs off any awe at his ability to undertake such a labor-intensive project in the face of the rigors of law school.

“I could only have done it during law school or some other structured environment because only writing is so much pressure,” he says. “I feel like I didn’t have that pressure, so it was easy for me to decide to play around with this idea.”

Pearl took such a relaxed approach to writing that he didn’t tell anyone about it, he says, although that he spent most of his spare time crafting his novel.

Yale inadvertently provided the final nudge that set Pearl on his literary path. Pearl and several other students participated in a reading group dubbed “Literature and the Law,” which focused on a different subject each semester. These ranged from Kafka’s The Trial, to Joyce’s Ulysses, to Melville.

Pearl led the group in “Dante and the Concept of Justice,” and it was his re-exploration of Dante that he says re-ignited his interest, and motivated Pearl to write snatches of scenes, which he calls “experiments.”

“I had never written any fiction, and I have never taken a creative writing course—not that I recommend that as a way to go. It was hard to jump in,” Pearl says.

But the actual writing of the novel did not take place until after Pearl completed several months of research. Though he was familiar with the Dante Club itself, he was unfamiliar with the details of daily life in 19th-century America.

It was not until Pearl had completed three-fourths of his novel that he tested the possibility of having it published. “I decided that I should figure out if this project was viable as a professional endeavor in order to make sure I wasn’t screwing up my law career.”

During most of the writing and publication process, Pearl received support and guidance from Pertile, whom Pearl dubs “Longfellow’s heir.” Pearl confesses to worrying about revealing his writing project to Pertile.

“I was terrified at telling him about the project, much less showing it to him, because you never know if you are doing something wrong or too commercial,” he says. “That is something that is drilled into you as a literature concentrator, that anything too commercial is suspect.”

Eventually, Pearl did speak with Pertile, who was very excited about the project in general. He read the manuscript and helped Pearl throughout the process.

“[Pertile] was a great friend…he was an advisor, a counselor, and a Dante expert,” Pearl says.

As if writing a novel were not difficult enough, Pearl conceived of publishing a companion edition of Dante’s Inferno. He says it was important because translating the Inferno is the main project that the protagonists pursue, and the Longfellow translation of the Inferno has been out of print for forty years.

Random House loved Pearl’s idea, and did in fact publish the companion, with a preface written by Pearl and an introduction by Pertile.

The translation itself also proved to be a huge undertaking. After reading the many versions of translations published during Longfellow’s life, Pearl chose the 1867 edition since it was the same text of the Inferno that the first Americans reading Dante would have seen. A large portion of the companion book is Longfellow’s notes, which serve as crucial guideposts throughout the text.

Pertile says the “living” quality of Pearl’s book is crucial to its success.

“[The Dante Club] proves the vitality of the Divine Comedy not only in Cambridge 140 years ago, but today as well,” he says. “The issues of justice and truth that are at the core of Dante’s great poem and inspire the Dante Club, are as relevant today as they were in both 1300 Florence and 1865 Cambridge.”

Pearl says he plans to write another novel for Random House, after the “commotion” of The Dante Club subsides. Though he claims that his idea is still vague, he said that it would be about another 19th century literary culture with different characters, and no Dante.

“I want to give Dante a break before I drive him crazy,” he says.

—Staff writer Rebecca Cantu can be reached at cantu@fas.harvard.edu.