Posted by: zhiv | October 30, 2008

The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl

I had an odd feeling that I wasn’t going to love this book.  I had started it once before, just reading a few pages, but when I picked it up again I discovered that I was confusing it with a different description of the death of Longfellow’s wife Fanny, who perished when her dress caught on fire.  There is a short reference to this tragedy in The Dante Club, but I must have read about it somewhere else.

I knew the basic premise, slowly gravitated back because of my current interest in 19th c. literary Boston, and discovered that the central characters, besides Longfellow, were OW Holmes Sr., close Leslie Stephen buddy James Russell Lowell, and none other than James T. Fields.  So that was more than enough to get me going–I was extremely curious to see how Fields might be portrayed in a historical thriller, and to see if Annie Fields plays an important role.

The book has many strengths.  Pearl is a very good scholar, and the book is permeated with his thorough knowledge of his primary topics:  Dante; American Dante translation and scholarship; and post-Civil War literary Boston.  The Dante Club is a dissertation topic turned into a thriller, which is an intriguing enterprise.  It has become a bestseller and long-standing commercial success, and as I was reading it I was able to identify that “odd feeling”: it was jealousy, pure and simple, over a scholar converting his intellectual passion into a page-turner.

And it’s not just “a dissertation topic”:  it’s a really good dissertation topic.  I suppose it’s my interest in literary history that is gratified by any story about the transmission of knowledge, literature, and scholarship.  I love that stuff, which is probably a subcategory of literary history–there’s the history itself, the making of literature, and then there’s the history of the reception and analysis and understanding of literature.  A book I’m very fond of–getting well off the trail for a moment–is “Scribes and Scholars:   A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature,” by L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson (1968, 3rd ed. 1990:  two guys with no first names, or are they guys?), and I guess I love any good history of scholarship.  The beauty here is that Pearl begins as a keen scholar of Dante, which is an admirable accomplishment in itself.  Going on from a contemporary and personal evaluation of the Divine Comedy and its meaning, he sets up camp in the history of American scholarship of Dante, which happens to include a number of significant literary figures, 19th century writers who are closer and perhaps more familiar to us, perhaps not.  None of them, Lowell, Holmes Sr., and the majestic Longfellow, has a first-rate 20th-21st century status; they’re all rich, accomplished, and complex topics in themselves that are little known and undervalued.  Just the way I like it.

All of this background is the ancillary value of the book.  We get the sense that the knowledge of Dante backing up the story is deep and real.  The amount of information about the actual Dante club, its central figures, and their Boston world is impressive, worn lightly, and put to good use, up to a point, at least.  The relatively famous literary characters come to life in a rather convincing way, although experts might quibble about the details–who knows?  I bought it; it seemed much better than good enough to me.  I didn’t know much at all about Lowell, Holmes Sr., and Longfellow, and I happen to have a keen interest in Fields at the moment.  This novel did an excellent job of portraying and activating all of their lives in this particular setting, Boston soon after the Civil War.

I enjoyed the thriller and grisly “Dante Serial Killer” elements and went along for the ride, but they weren’t as strong as the backgrounds were for me. Perhaps this book, in the end, is a (extremely successful) feathered fish, as we like to say in the movie business.  It’s not quite direct or committed enough to be completely satisfying as literary history (which no one but specialists would read), and it’s not quite at the level of a first-rate thriller–but it’s comes close enough of both counts.  Perhaps it’s the high quality of the scholarly topic that raises expectations and makes the fabrications seem exploitative.  The rub is that this story generates populist exposure to not just Longfellow and the other Bostonians, but to an even more worthy literary subject, Dante and his poem.  It’s an effective but somewhat troubling means of access, however.  “I really want to read or learn more about Dante now because I just read a novel about a serial killer in 1870s Boston who bases his murders on the torments in the Inferno”–who wants to fess up to that?  We all know that we take what we can get and give fiction and literature meaning, relevance and import any way we can, but this equation pushes it.

And for all of the accuracy and even liveliness, the novel seems to fall short of being outstanding, when that’s what we want it to be.  It’s not An Instance of the Fingerpost (great book) or The Name of the Rose, and it’s not Silence of the Lambs either.  There’s as much Da Vinci Code as anything else, working on a literary interest that has a religious base.  Others might be viciously critical of the readability of the Da Vinci Code (first rule of commercial fiction:  short chapters)–which I mentioned previously in my “Some Literary Blockbusters” post–but I thought it was a page-turner, and readability counts; readability across a broad audience spectrum counts even more. 

The irony here–if that’s what it is–is of course that I would never find Pearl’s work and book on Longfellow and the Dante Club if he hadn’t embedded it in a capable and convincing literary historical thriller.  I’m using Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters as a sort of gold standard of engaging and compelling literary history these days, and it does seem that Pearl might have made this material similarly brilliant, refined, and accessible, and stayed poor all the while.  I have to applaud him for performing the alchemy of literary, rather than scholarly, success–he wrote a besteller, and you can still buy it at any major airport.  Good for him:  he’s a smart, opportunistic young writer with real talent who clearly paid his scholarly dues, and he deserves the credit.  I’m well aware of protesting too much here, mustering half-praise, mostly a healthy layer of pure jealousy (though it’s hardly Dantesque), and most of the analysis deserves to be on the plus side.  But as much as this was helpful to my understanding of literary Boston, it is still a relatively conventional thriller, a work of commercial fiction. Not that anything’s wrong with that–and if you happen to be passing through the airport, about to get on a lengthy plane ride, it could be about as good as it gets.



  1. I tried twice to read this book after some friends and family recommended it and I just ended up putting it down. I think you really hit the mark that it isn’t enough of one thing or another. I agree with you that it must be a hard blend (literary and thriller) to pull off, but as you point out, The Name of the Rose does this perfectly, beautifully and The Dante Club just well, didn’t. Maybe Pearl was afraid to push the literary envelope, maybe he doesn’t have experience writing either genre and bit off more than he could chew…

  2. Fascinating stuff. I won’t be reading it though; the books are stacking up and up here.

    I’m going to steal that phrase ‘a feathered fish’ from you….it’s wonderful. Such an (sorry, that looks really pedantic but ‘a’ looks equally wrong) hilarious image. I’ll have fun letting you know in what various contexts I can sneak it in; I can’t promise that it will retain anything like the meaning it has now. eg to my 20 yr-old son ‘You have the dress sense of a feathered fish’.

    I’m defacing your blog with ridiculous, frivolous comments; sorry!

  3. Verb — I don’t think I would have gotten through it if I didn’t have the current interest in Fields. But it was a good, successful try, and I think you’re right, it might have been too ambitious. Do you know Iain Pears’ “An Instance of the Fingerpost”? Thinking about this made me try to remember the similar books that I liked, like Name of the Rose, of course. And as I said, I remember liking “The Alienist” too.

    View — You’re funny. You’re making me try to think of other Hollywood catchphrases, or tags that I find myself using a lot. “High class problem” is a good one. I’m not sure “feathered fish” applies to dress sense, but whatever works!

  4. Well, I won’t worry about getting to this book, then, and that’s good — I’m happy to have books that I don’t need to read. I too love the history of scholarship, or as you put it, “the history of the reception and analysis and understanding of literature.” Those are stories we don’t hear often enough, I think — we tend to think literary history gets made in a thoroughly fair and logical way, but it by no means does!

  5. True, the book does not live up to its reviews. Its concepts are highly ingenious but its structure and language are unreadably muddled. I yearned to unscramble its grammar and remove its tautologies. Was the copy editor asleep?

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