Matthew Pearl: The Dante Club

Over the weekend, unable to put my hands on Dear Theo or To Kill a Mockingbird (there must be a box of books somewhere) and not quite up to committing to Song for Arbonne or Lions of Al-Rassan, I picked up something I received a while back through paperbackswap.com … Why on earth I was yelled at once for sending a book that had a little yellowing of the pages, but it’s perfectly fine for people to send out ex-library books with pages falling out (it’s happened a few times), I don’t get.  Still, the book sounded intriguing, and it fit my requirements.

Except … My strong recommendation is: read this, but do not eat rice at any point directly before, during, or after reading it.  And especially don’t do as I did, which was to put rice on to cook, open the book and start to read the first chapter – about the discovery of a body covered and filled with thousands of blowflies and their maggots – and then sit down to a dinner of said rice and scallops.  Really.  Don’t.  Did I mention the maggots?

(Spoilers follow regarding deaths, but not the killer…)

The book takes place in 1865 Boston.  The Civil War is only months over – Abraham Lincoln is only months dead; the city is filled with returning soldiers in all conditions.  And in the heart of the city, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is translating Dante.  There never has been an American edition of The Divine Comedy, and any British ones have been (for kind of obvious reasons) unavailable.  The translation was something Longfellow worked on periodically – until his wife, Fanny, died in a terrible accident, and it became almost a therapy for him; he has worked on the translations solely for years.  One of his friends speculates that if he were to return to his own poetry, he would not be able to not write about Fanny, and she would become just a word.

– – Pictures taken, with gratitude, from Matthew Pearl’s site. No pictures of Greene are immediately to be found.

As the translation has progressed, Longfellow has formed a Dante Club, along with George Washington Greene, Oliver Wendell Holmes,  James Russell Lowell, and their publisher, James Thomas Fields (also a poet).  At meetings each Wednesday a canto of the piece is discussed, and the translation is perfected, and then dinner.

Holmes, as a professor of medicine at Harvard, is tangentially involved when the body of a murdered man is brought in.  It is that of a chief justice, who was supposed to be away and therefore had not been missed for several days, and was at the last found naked under a blank white flag by a servant out in the house’s grounds – still, if her testimony was to be believed, alive, though barely.  No, say all of the pathologists – impossible, for he was the one who was horrifyingly infested with flies and maggots and wasps – these only eat dead flesh, so therefore he must not have been alive.

Except he was.

The lives of the men of the Dante Club incorporate and move past this murder of a man of their set, but with whom none of them were particularly close.  And then there comes word of a second death – this one of a minister, who was found in the crypt of his church, buried naked upside-down up to his waist … with his feet on fire.

Again Holmes is one of the first to see the body – and it strikes him in a horrible blow that this death, and in fact that first one, bear a very strong resemblance to punishments meted out in Dante’s Inferno.  He flies back to his Dante Club to discuss this, and the first impulse is to take it to the police – but they are stopped by the fact that Longfellow’s translation is already meeting with opposition.  It’s too Catholic a poem, it’s too graphic, it’s not fitting for a Protestant country or state or – most importantly – city or college.  There are those who feel it their duty to fight Dante – along with other heretics like Darwin – tooth and nail.  And any adverse publicity – such as “Dante inspired horrid murders” – would be the end of the project.  This isn’t, to their credit, important because of the potential lost investment (though that’s never so far from Fields’s mind), but for Dante’s sake: they want him to be known.  Shakespeare lets men know themselves; Dante lets men know each other.

At that point it becomes a four-way race – among the Dante Club; the police, who are a new body and not exactly Boston’s Finest at this point; Nicholas Rey, a mulatto police patrolman, the first black cop in Boston (at least), who is not exactly having an easy time of it among much the rest of the police force or the criminal element; and, of course, the killer, whose timeline seems to be connected to the Dante Club’s: the murders seem to be taking place just days before the cantos to which they pay tribute.

I knew little about any of the poets involved; Longfellow’s work, of course, is an old friend, but I knew nothing about the poet.  I  don’t think I knew Oliver Wendell Holmes was a poet; I have his Autocrat of the Breakfast Table on hand (though I have not yet read it), and honestly I think I thought he was a lawyer – which is a little ironic.  I wasn’t at all familiar with Lowell, or with Fields, their publisher – and this was a fascinating look at poetry and publishing in 19th century Boston.  I’ve said before that real persons’ appearances in fiction make me a little uneasy, but in truly well done historical fiction – when the people themselves are gone and hopefully their heirs are on board – isn’t objectionable.  (Although there was one centering on Poe – oh, and P.T. Barnum, I believe? – which I did not enjoy at all … Can’t remember title or author.)  In fact, I enjoyed this a great deal.  I believed the author’s depictions of the characters, both real and fictional, and believed the weaving together of real and fictional.  And the mystery was lurid and intriguing: I guessed the killer, but only by using the old “which named character in the cast could be the one” method; there was no way for the reader to deduce the killer’s identity logically, nor his motivation, not all of it, but this is never a great priority with me.  Also, of course, the chapter which takes us inside his head was powerful – all else is forgiven after that.

This was a rich book, deeply enjoyable on many levels – biography, history – of Boston, of Harvard, of publishing; mystery, thriller, literary pastiche … It was dark chocolate: a bit decadent, but – anti-oxidants!  Good for you!

The end result of a book like this, blending fact and imagination, is always that I want more – I want to know more about the real people involved, and I want to (in this case) read their poetry.  I never knew Longfellow translated Dante, and I want it.  (Also, I find, he translated Michelangelo – I want that too.)  And does it need saying I want the rest of Matthew Pearl’s books – and that I hope he writes many more?

Along with everything else, I love the jacket of the book: an etching of Harvard University, dotted with droplets of blood …

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