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The Dante Club

by Matthew Pearl

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6,9751551,092 (3.36)216
In 1865, the preparations of the Dante Club--led by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes--to release the first translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy" are threatened by a series of murders that re-create episodes from "Inferno."
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» See also 216 mentions

English (135)  Spanish (6)  Italian (5)  German (3)  Catalan (2)  Danish (1)  Dutch (1)  French (1)  All languages (154)
Showing 1-5 of 135 (next | show all)
I just could not get into this book. There is no doubt it was well written, but I had a hard time following the characters and felt it relied too much on knowledge of the historical characters to tell the story. ( )
  sbenne3 | May 8, 2022 |
Boston. 1865. A small group of elite scholars prepares to introduce Dante’s vision of hell to America. But so does a murderer.

The literary geniuses of the Dante Club – poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and publisher J. T. Fields – are finishing America’s first translation of The Divine Comedy. The powerful old guard of Harvard College wants to keep Dante in obscurity, believing that the infiltration of such foreign superstitions will prove as corrupting as the immigrants invading Boston Harbor. The members of the Dante Club fight to keep their sacred literary cause alive, but their plans fall apart when a series of murders erupts through Boston and Cambridge. Only this small group of scholars realises that the gruesome killings are modelled on the descriptions of Hell’s punishments from Dante’s Inferno. With the police baffled, lives endangered and Dante’s literary future at stake, the Dante Club must shed its sheltered literary existence and find a way to stop the killer. ( )
  nordie | Apr 18, 2022 |
I like historical fiction, and the older I get, the more I enjoy murder mysteries. The Dante Club combines these two genres. I first read it soon after it came out in 2003; it recently came to mind while reading Dante’s Divine Comedy. It struck me that I remembered that the framework was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s first American translation of Dante’s work and that the work was overshadowed by (fictional) murders that mimicked punishments suffered in the Inferno. I also recalled that it somehow had to do with the trauma of the recently concluded Civil War, but other than that, my mind was blank. So I decided to reread it.
It was hard for me to concentrate on the book this time around; about halfway through, I decided that it might not be (only) my fault. So I set aside other books (I usually have three to four going simultaneously) to concentrate on it fully. One of the problems, I soon discovered, was that I often had to stop and reread a paragraph to get the sense of it.
For instance: “Now a guard twisted and pulled Bundry into a room and then pushed him down into a chair. He was a red-faced, wild-haired man with so many lines crisscrossing his face he resembled a Thomas Nast caricature” (p. 246). Did the guard twist himself, or did he twist and pull Bundry. And which of the two men was red-faced?
Once I started noticing this, I came across more examples. “Holmes couldn’t remember how Longfellow had translated the verse, so leaning on his mantlepiece, he did it himself. . . . Holmes shot up from his easy chair” (p. 253). Just how low was the mantlepiece? And just how unsupportive was the easy chair that Holmes needed to lean on it? I noted more examples but won’t mention them here.
In addition, some words seem imprecisely used, causing non-sequiturs. For instance, horse distemper rages in Boston at the time. One horse, Pearl writes, was “writhing on the ground, unable to move” (p. 310). In my understanding, it’s impossible to writhe without moving. He also writes of nickel crime magazines loathed by Longfellow’s publisher, Fields, because of “their deteriorating influence on an eager public” (p. 363). Fields should spare his loathing. If the influence is deteriorating, the public won’t long remain eager.
All in all, it seemed as if this manuscript was one thorough edit short of being ready for publication. The net effect was that I enjoyed it less than I expected to. I enjoyed eavesdropping on the club evenings as Longfellow and his friends labored over the translation. It was clear that Pearl took pains to clearly delineate the club members—Lowell, Holmes, Fields, and Greene—and give them contrasting personalities. The poets have gone out of fashion; I imagine Longfellow is the only one read today. The future of American poetry wasn’t with them and the other fireside poets, but with their contemporaries Whitman, Melville, and Poe. This gave some poignancy to the description of their labors. The most elusive of the group is Longfellow, portrayed in Olympian terms.
It was also interesting to see how little times have changed in how Pearl recounts how detective bureaus originated and their methods. The travails of the first African-American Boston policeman, Nicholas Rey (a fictional character), remain sadly relevant, as does the hypocritical treatment of traumatized veterans. The nativism and paranoia of those who opposed Longfellow’s effort also recall contemporary politics, although I felt the character of Augustus Manning was overdrawn. Symptomatic of Pearl’s straining for effect is the invention of a book-burning in Harvard Yard (a century-and-a-half after the only one known to have occurred). Books promulgating Darwin’s theories are consigned to the flames in the presence of naturalist Louis Agassiz.
Yet Pearl strives to nuance this opposition. Not only was it because of Dante’s supposed “foreignness” and Catholicism (I guess the opponents of publication had never read Dante’s scathing denunciation of the woman riding the beast), but also because Dante’s description of the terrors of the inferno reminded these upright Unitarians of the rigid Calvinism that had dominated the Bay State until the generation of their fathers. In addition, as Holmes concedes at one point, on commencement day that spring, many had visited a grave rather than their son’s graduation. They need no other hell “than what we have just come out of” (p. 62).
It’s interesting that one of these poets who have to leave their studies to become amateur sleuths is named Holmes. Throughout, he seems the least of the group and abandons the project midway. Yet, he rejoins them in the end and indeed becomes the one who solves crucial puzzles. Unfortunately, I felt he grasped this and other mysteries a bit too quickly; perhaps the author was rushing to finish the book.
By this time, I was rushing to finish as well. Despite its flaws, it was a good read overall. However, I was disappointed that author and editor didn’t take the trouble to make it better. ( )
  HenrySt123 | Nov 20, 2021 |
  5083mitzi | Mar 18, 2021 |
A complex novel, featuring several real historical figures. In fact, few of the characters are not from history.

The Dante Club did in fact exist and did in fact originally contain Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and J.T. Fields. These four emerge as the main characters here.

Holmes, Lowell, and Fields are helping Longfellow with his translation of Dante's Divine Comedy, in 1865, when a strange murder happens. Not long after, a second murder. The club members notice something familiar about the murders: they resemble scenes from Dante's Inferno. Slowly they realize that they are perhaps the only persons in Boston at that time who might be able to solve these murders.

Meanwhile, hot on the trail is Nicholas Rey, the first mulatto policeman in Boston. Not a Dante scholar, he has nevertheless enough intelligence to hone in on the Dante Club for assistance. Theirs is not an alliance, at least not at first, as the club members figure they will be taken for suspects if what they know becomes public.

Written with a great deal if insight into the time and the characters, the story is fleshed out in the slower tempo typical of the day.

A good introduction into the time after the Civil War, including details of war itself, and into the characters of Holmes, Lowell, Longfellow, and Fields.


When the perp is finally discovered, Pearl takes us on a journey of his life up to then, an attempt to explain his actions. I found the explanation complicated and hard to believe. It is almost as if the killer is strung along by puppet strings because his actions are hard to put together with his thoughts and beliefs. ( )
  slojudy | Sep 8, 2020 |
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» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Matthew Pearlprimary authorall editionscalculated
Abelsen, PeterTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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To Lino, my professor, and Ian, my teacher
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John Kurtz, the chief of the Boston police, breathed in some of his heft for a better fit between the two chambermaids.
The proof of poetry was... that it reduced to the essence of a single line the vague philosophy that floated in all men's minds, so as to render it portable and useful, ready to the hand.
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In 1865, the preparations of the Dante Club--led by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes--to release the first translation of Dante's "The Divine Comedy" are threatened by a series of murders that re-create episodes from "Inferno."

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