Dante Club (Pearl)

The Dante Club 
Matthew Pearl, 2003
Random House
464 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345490384

In 1865 Boston, the members of the Dante Club — poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, along with publisher J.T. Fields — are finishing America's first translation of The Divine Comedy and preparing to unveil Dante's remarkable visions to the New World. The powerful Boston Brahmins at Harvard are fighting to keep Dante in obscurity, believing that the infiltration of foreign superstitions onto American bookshelves will prove as corrupting as the immigrants living in Boston Harbor.

As they struggle to keep their sacred literary cause alive, the plans of the Dante Club are put in further jeopardy when a serial killer unleashes his terror on the city. Only the scholars realize that the gruesome murders are modeled on the descriptions from Dante's Inferno and its account of Hell's torturous punishments. With the lives of the Boston elite and Dante's literary future in America at stake, the Dante Club must find the killer before the authorities discover their secret.

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes and outcast police officer Nicolas Rey, the first black member of the Boston police department, place their careers on the line in their efforts to end the killing spree. Together, they discover that the source of the murders lies closer than they ever could have imagined.

The Dante Club is a magnificent blend of fact and fiction, a brilliantly realized paean to Dante, his mythic genius, and his continued grip on the imagination. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—October 2, 1976
Where—New York, New York, USA 
Education—B.A. Harvard University; Yale Law School
Currently—lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Matthew Pearl is the New York Times bestselling author of The Last Dickens, The Dante Club, and The Poe Shadow, and is the editor of the Modern Library editions of Dante’s Inferno (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) and Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales. The Dante Club has been published in more than thirty languages and forty countries around the world.

Pearl is a graduate of Harvard University and Yale Law School and has taught literature at Harvard and at Emerson College. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (From the publisher.)

Matthew Pearl's novels achieve the seemingly unachievable. They manage to be both informative and entertaining, utilizing historically accurate details about some very famous literary figures to fashion fictional thrillers that rival the works of Pearl's idols. While Pearl's work is indeed ambitious, he has the credentials to tackle such challenging projects that place immortals like Dante Alighieri, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edgar Alan Poe in the middle of mysteries of his own creation.

In 1997, Pearl graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude in English and American literature. He went on to teach literature and creative writing at both Harvard and Emerson College. Pearl's impressive background in literature and research provided him with the necessary tools for making history come alive in a most unique way. He is also bolstered by a genuine fascination with the theme of literary stardom. "I am very interested by literary celebrity, and both Dante and Poe experienced it in some degree," Pearl explained to litkicks.com. "Or, in Poe's case, he aimed for literary celebrity and never quite achieved it... Longfellow was more genuinely a celebrity. People would stop him in the streets, particularly in his later years. Imagine that today, a poet stopped in the streets! It was also common for writers like Longfellow to have their autographs cut out of letters and sold, or even their signatures forged and sold."

Pearl published The Dante Club,  his debut novel in 2003. The novel concerns a small group of Harvard professors and poets (including Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes) who must track down a killer before he derails their efforts to complete the first American translation of The Divine Comedy. The novel became an international sensation. Pearl's attention to historical facts, his imagination, his vivid descriptions and fine characterizations awed critics and delighted readers. Esquire magazine chose The Dante Club as its "Big Important Book of the Month." Since its 2003 publication, it has become an international bestseller, translated into 30 languages.

Pearl followed The Dante Club with another cagey combination of historical fact and mysterious fiction. The Poe Shadow takes place during the aftermath of the death of Edgar Alan Poe. In a labyrinthine plot that would surely have made the master of the macabre proud, an attorney named Quentin Hobson Clark seeks to uncover the exact details that lead up to the peculiar death of his favorite writer. The Poe Shadow was another major feat from Matthew Pearl. If anything, it is even richer and more intriguing than its predecessor. Poe's status as a great purveyor of mystery and the mystery which Pearl conjures within his plot makes for a most provocative mixture. Critics from all corners of the globe agreed. From Entertainment Weekly to The Spectator to The Independent, The Globe and Mail, Booklist, Bookpage, and countless others, The Poe Shadow is being hailed as another major achievement for Matthew Pearl. The novel has also become yet another international bestseller.

So, is Matthew Pearl heading for the kind of literary celebrity that so fascinates him? Well, Details magazine named the writer as one of its "Next Big Things," and Dan "The Da Vinci Code" Brown called him "the new shining star of literary fiction." Who knows? Maybe one day an aspiring young writer may see fit to place Matthew Pearl in the center of some fictional puzzler.

• Pearl was placed on the 2003 edition of Boston Magazine's annual "Hot List."

• His fascination with Edgar Alan Poe does not end with Poe's presence in The Poe Shadow. Pearl also edited a 2006 collection of Poe's C. Auguste Dupin mysteries titled Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Dupin Tales. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)

Book Reviews
In the ingenious new literary mystery The Dante Club, someone with intimate knowledge of The Divine Comedy appears to be staging murders that mirror the punishments of Dante's "Inferno." Considering that the prodigiously clever first-time author, Matthew Pearl, is a Harvard- and Yale-educated Dante scholar who won a 1998 prize from the Dante Society of America, it is fortunate that he was content with simply writing a book... Working on a vast canvas, Mr. Pearl keeps this mystery sparkling with erudition. Among its many sidelights are the attack by Dr. Louis Agassiz of Harvard upon Darwin's theory of evolution; a discussion of the Fugitive Slave Act and its consequences; the resistance faced by Italian immigrants, who number only about 300 in the Boston area in 1865; and the killing of Dr. George Parkman by John W. Webster, a crime that still haunts Holmes. Most vivid is the battle between the Harvard Corporation and the principals' artistic freedom. "I do not understand how you can put your good name, everything you've worked for your whole life, on the line for something like this,"says Manning, who has threatened to shut down Lowell's Dante class. And Lowell replies: "Don't you wish to heaven you could?" Mr. Pearl, with this captivating brain teaser as his debut novel, seems also to have put his life's work on the line in melding scholarship with mystery. He does justice to both.
Janet Maslin - New York Times

Many American devotees may not know that they owe their first translation of The Divine Comedy to another great poet: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The bard gave the New World not only its first taste of the Italian poet but, with Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell, its first Dante Society. This is the setting for Matthew Pearl's ambitious novel, The Dante Club.... Mr. Pearl's book will delight the Dante novice and expert alike.
Wall Street Journal

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. — Joseph Luzzi
Joseph Luzzi - Los Angeles Times

The serial murderer who draws gory inspiration from the torments of Dante's Inferno has cropped up in thrillers before—Michael Dibdin's A Rich Full Death and Thomas Harris's Hannibal—but Pearl's ingenious notion is to set his début novel in Boston in 1865, when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes were translating Dante into English. As they work through the cantos, the Dante-inspired corpses arrive on cue, and the versifiers must turn detective. Pearl, a Harvard graduate and Dante enthusiast, is at his best when discussing "The Divine Comedy" but is less suited to the generic demands of the thriller, which leads to obvious, and gruesome, B-movie plotting. He also has a fine sense of the period, but he overdoes things; the characters cannot walk down the street without tripping over some famous historical personage.
The New Yorker

Though [the] characters are shaped by rich detail, they remain a bit wooden, and their involvement with the police investigation seems contrived. Still, the book provides an imaginative look into the private lives of some of our country's most famous poets and the Boston publishing industry that shaped their careers.
Book Magazine

A serial killer is loose in this historical novel set in 1865 Boston. Strangely, the murderer kills his victims using the tortures described in Dante's Inferno. The Dante Club, whose members include Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, meet weekly to edit the first English translation of Dante's poem. These literary men soon realize that the murderer is using their translation as a model for his crimes and decide to search for the killer. John Seidman's narration of Pearl's debut novel is clear and easy to understand; recommended for public and academic libraries. —Ilka Gordon, Medical Lib., Fairview General Hosp.
Library Journal

(Starred Review) Ingenious use of details and motifs from the Divine Comedy, and a lively picture of the literary culture of post-bellum New England, distinguish this juicy debut historical mystery. The year is 1865. The eponymous Club, whose members include Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, meet regularly to plan promoting American interest in Dante's masterpiece (by now Longfellow's translation is well underway). But Harvard's tenacious devotion to its classical curriculum discourages such eclecticism ("Italy is a world of the worst passions and loosest morals"). Moreover, several violent murders clearly inspired by punishments meted out to sinners in Dante's Inferno claim highly visible victims (a Massachusetts Chief Justice, a prominent clergyman, a wealthy art patron). The scholars therefore turn detectives, bumping heads with, among others, Boston's harried police chief, "mulatto" patrolman Nicholas Rey, and "minor Pinkerton detective" Simon Camp. Crucial clues to the killer's identity lurk in information possessed by a "disgraced" professor, entomological research performed by botanist Louis Agassiz, a series of sermons attended by wounded Civil War veterans, and standing evidence (so to speak) of the notorious Fugitive Slave Law. Author Pearl, a 26-year-old Yale Law School graduate and Dante scholar, offers a wealth of entertaining detail, but his fictional skills need sharpening: there are a few confusing shifts in viewpoint; in at least one scene a character speaks up before we've been told that he's present; and the eventual capture of the villain is inexplicably interrupted by a lengthy omniscient account of his personal history and developing motivations. Most readers will forgive such lapses, however—thanks to an intricate and clever plot, and the author's distinctive characterizations of the gentle, courtly Longfellow, quick-tempered Lowell, and mercurial, ironical Holmes. Great fun figuring out whodunit and why: a devil of a time.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
1. Discuss how the various characters benefit intellectually and professionally from their association with the “Dante Club” reading and translation group. How is the group similar to book clubs now popular throughout the United States? How does it differ?

2. (follow-up) What’s the secret of the power of collective reading? Compare the dynamic of the Dante Club to your own book club or reading group.

3. The death of Fanny Longfellow leads Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to take “refuge” in his translation of Dante. Discuss why Dante in particular seems to help him through his dark period. How is his sanctuary affected by the outbreak of violence from that same work of literature?

4. (follow-up) Are there ways in which literature has provided a refuge in your own lives at difficult or confusing times?

5. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dante’s poetic idol Virgil leads him through the dangerous passages of the afterlife. In what ways do the characters of The Dante Club guide one another? Who would you say is the real leader?

6. How does the backdrop of the American Civil War influence the events of the novel?

7. Did you guess who the murderer was before it was revealed?

8. (follow-up) Come on, did you really?

9. (follow-up 2) What are the ways in which the author “misdirected” the reader from the murderer? Or, if you had correct suspicions, what tipped you off?

10. In what ways were the murderer’s motives surprising? What do they reveal about the exploration of different types of “reading” that runs throughout the novel?

11. Discuss some of the instances in modern culture in which an artistic work – music, film or literature – seemed to have some impact on inspiring a crime. Some examples: Mark David Chapman carrying “The Catcher in the Rye” when he shot John Lennon; the Columbine killers supposedly drawing inspiration from Marilyn Manson songs and the video game “Doom”; several instances of people imitating “Natural Born Killers” in robberies and shootings. In that last instance, John Grisham led a campaign to prove Oliver Stone held responsibility after a friend of Grisham’s was killed. Is the work of art ever to blame? Do the murders in The Dante Club stem from the brutality of The Inferno?

12. (follow-up) Should the Dante Club members have revealed the source of violence to the public? What was at stake besides their reputations?

13. Patrolman Nicholas Rey's role in the challenges facing the Dante Club, with consideration for Rey's status as a type of "exile" in Boston, and how this fits into the larger story.

Discuss the character of Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. Why does he emerge as the character in the novel with the heaviest burden? What elements of his personal background make the events of the story so disruptive and frightening to Holmes?

14. (follow-up) Discuss Dr. Holmes’s relationship with his son, Wendell Junior. How does it compare or differ from James Russell Lowell’s relationship with his daughter, Mabel Lowell?

15. Take a look at the pictures of the characters in the “gallery” of The Dante Club website. Do their appearances differ from how you imagined them?

16. (follow-up) Also look at the link from the “gallery” to the gallery of book covers, showing cover art of The Dante Club from around the world. Which is your favorite, and how does it best represent or encapsulate the themes or story of the novel?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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