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The Dante Club

The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
Feb 10, 2004 | 400 Pages
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    Feb 10, 2004 | 400 Pages

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    Feb 04, 2003 | 384 Pages

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"Matthew Pearl is the new shining star of literary fiction — a heady, inventive, and immensely gifted author. With intricate plots, classical themes, and erudite characters…what’s not to love?"
-Dan Brown

"Working on a vast canvas, Mr. Pearl keeps this mystery sparkling with erudition… 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, The New York Times
"Audacious and captivating."
-Adrienne Miller, Esquire

"Mr. Pearl’s triumph is mixing these two cultures: wealthy, cultivated men of letters faced with the mysterious and seedy streets of a 19th-century Boston… creating not just a page-turner but a beguiling look at the U.S. in an era when elites shaped the course of learning and publishing. With this story of the Dante Club’s own descent into hell, Mr. Pearl’s book will delight the Dante novice and expert alike." -Kimberley Strassel, The Wall Street Journal
"Pearl, a graduate of Harvard and Yale Law School and a Dante scholar, ably meshes the literary analysis with a suspenseful plot and in the process humanizes the historical figures… A divine mystery."
-Julie K. L. Dam, People Magazine (Page Turner of the Week)

"Just about anyone who admires smart historical fiction will get a literary jolt out of Matthew Pearl’s gory first novel… His Civil War memory fragments alone add up to one of the most unforgettable accounts of that chapter of American history yet written." -Celia McGee, The New York Daily News
"How the club and the police compete and then converge is the mystery and the thrill in a preternaturally accomplished book as wise as it is entertaining. ‘The Dante Club‘ is a carefully plotted, imaginatively shaped, and stylistically credible whodunit of unusual class and intellect… The writing is passionate, the narrative driven."
-Carlo Wolff, The Boston Globe

"Pearl has achieved that intoxicating blend of reality and imagination that Doctorow gave us 25 years ago with Ragtime. Here’s hoping Pearl decides to spend his career writing novels and letting that Yale law degree go to waste. The world has enough lawyers. Great novelists are in short supply."
-William Mckeen, The Orlando Sentinel

"Pearl masterfully synthesizes countless aspects of mid-19th-century life into a riveting mystery that creeps through all corners of crippled postwar Boston. To steal a revelation from the book: Lucifer did not create hell; it was Dante. In The Dante Club, Pearl adds one more diabolical ring."
-Christopher Bollen, Time Out (New York)

"This novel is as erudite as it is bloody. It swings from an account of exotic maggots eating a man alive to a discussion of the finer points of Dante’s artistic and political vision. The Dante Club is a unique, ambitious, entertaining read, a historical thriller with a poetic streak."
-Chris Kidler, The Baltimore Sun

"’The Dante Club‘ is a richly detailed microcosm set generously before us. Within it, wit, erudition and a healthy respect for good old fashioned hugger-mugger conspire to produce one of this year’s most agreeable entertainments."
-Bruce Allen, Raleigh News & Observer

"Pearl does what a good historical novelist has to do: Look at the past by the light of the imagination, creating a fictional situation — there was of course no actual Dante killer in 1865 Boston — to animate the ideas, issues and personalities of the time… There aren’t many writers around who can remind you of both James Patterson and Umberto Eco."
-Charles Matthews, San Jose Mercury News

"Young author finds a ‘Pearl’ in mystery. Boston winters are cruel, and Matthew Pearl captures every icy finger of wind, every sinister shadow and more than a few human-induced chills in ‘The Dante Club‘… Pearl is a young author worth following. He’s created a work that should appeal to history buffs, literary buffs and crime fiction fans alike."
-Robin Vidimos, The Denver Post

"A hell of a first novel… The Dante Club delivers in spades."
-David Lazarus, The San Francisco Chronicle

The Dante Club is a thoroughly accomplished first novel. Matthew Pearl does a marvelous job of evoking the period and making it come alive with finely drawn characters and an ingenious story.”
-David Liss, Edgar Award–winning author of A Conspiracy of Paper

“A fascinating, erudite, and highly entertaining account of a remarkable moment in American literary history.”
-Iain Pears, author of An Instance of the Fingerpost

“In The Dante Club, Matthew Pearl expertly combines rollicking entertainment with serious insights about Civil War–era America. The book is fun, smart, and enviably audacious.”
-Darin Strauss, author of Chang & Eng and The Real McCoy

“This first-rate thriller breathes such life into the genre that the term ‘thrilling’ genuinely applies. Matthew Pearl not only succeeds with a deft and elegant plot, but delivers an eloquent and quirky message for our times about the value of literary heroes. In The Dante Club we are privileged to meet the most unlikely quartet of sleuths.”
-Gregory Maguire, author of Wicked and Lost

“The Dante Club is pure pleasure for the reader, magnificently informed without being stuffy, gripping without being merely sensational. I particularly enjoyed the nice, easy swing of its pacing. This book can be savored.”
-Peter Straub, co-author of Black House

“An ambitious and entertaining thriller that may remind readers of Caleb Carr.”
Publishers Weekly

"Expertly weaving period detail, historical fact, complex character studies, and nail-biting suspense, Pearl has written a unique and utterly absorbing tale."
Booklist Magazine (starred)

"Matthew Pearl’s dazzler of a debut novel, The Dante Club, is just what an historical thriller should be–a creative combo of edge-of-your-seat suspense, fully imagined characters, fictional and real, and an evocative, well-researched, well-realized setting"
Bookpage Magazine

"A devil of a time… 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."
Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"Absorbing and dramatic… Pearl has proven himself a master."
Library Journal

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Matthew Pearl, author of THE DANTE CLUB

Q: Was there a historical Dante Club?

MP: Yes, and it was indeed centered around Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, America’s most revered poet of the 19th century. Longfellow had begun to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy as a way of coping with his wife’s tragic death. His friends and colleagues, many of whom Longfellow had inspired to read Dante, rallied around him. They called themselves the “Dante Club” and included poet and Harvard professor James Russell Lowell, author and editor Charles Eliot Norton, poet and publisher J. T. Fields, poet and Harvard medical professor Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, author and editor William Dean Howells, and Revolutionary War historian George Washington Greene. I couldn’t quite fit them all into the novel in a satisfactory way, however, and so Norton and Howells make only brief appearances. The members of the club would meet every Wednesday night at Longfellow’s house in Cambridge (which we can still visit!) to look over and critique Longfellow’s latest translations, and then adjourn for supper, often remaining until one or two in the morning. This somewhat informal group eventually inspired the formation of the Dante Society of America in 1881.

Q: What kind of research did you do to reconstruct the world of 1865 Boston?

MP: The central historical figures in the novel were writers — so lucky for me (or unlucky, depending on how you look at it) they wrote down everything. Letters, journals, notes, memoirs, I had endless entrances into their lives. I always find their comments about one another most intriguing and revealing, particularly when they’re critical about their friends. As for the rest of the world of 1865, everything helps. Historical maps, contemporary accounts of daily life, newspaper articles. When you’re writing historical fiction, you want to know what your characters would have had for breakfast, what kind of hats they would wear, how they might greet each other if meeting on the street.

Q: The novel is historical fiction. The historical circumstances of 1865 Boston and post-Civil War literary circles are interspersed throughout. What are the fictional elements of the novel, and did it ever seem as though they were intruding on the historical elements?

MP: As a writer of historical fiction, I believe you don’t want to fictionalize gratuitously, you want the fictional aspects to prod and pressure the history into new and exciting reactions. In The Dante Club, a series of murders, modeled after the punishments in Dante’s Inferno, disrupt life in Boston and Cambridge. This outbreak is the primary fiction of the novel, in addition, obviously, to the challenge it presents to the members of the Dante Club to react. However, I see this as very organic to the material. Dante, after all, designed his story as one in which a poet (that is, Dante himself), not a soldier or warrior, must descend into the bleak and horrifying terrain of Hell as the first step toward growth and redemption. I wanted to arrange a parallel descent for the Dante Club, to force them to confront the abyss present in their own day and society. Which really brings the fiction back to history: directly after the Civil War, crime and murder rapidly increased in American cities. So while the Dante murders are fictional, they reflect a very real, new sense of violence that had to be confronted at all levels of American culture.

Another example of fiction in the novel is the character of Nicholas Rey, the first African-American policeman in Boston. Although he is fictional, his situation comes from my research into the historical circumstances of early non-white police in the 19th century. I make a distinction between “accurate” and “authentic” when writing. Even when I’m not accurate, that is factual, I always try to be authentic.

Q: One review said the novel’s murders are gruesome enough to make Stephen King flinch. Is that true?

MP: I don’t think they’re quite that bloody! Part of what’s gripping about violence in narrative is that it often harbors secrets. Indeed, Dante’s Inferno is brimming with secret lives (and deaths) of its characters. The Dante murders jolt the Dante Club out of their steady and safe literary careers. As James Russell Lowell remarks in the novel, while they were translating Dante into ink, someone else translates Dante into blood. The violence is a signal of the power of literature — of the way in which literature can escape our control. Personally, I’m not a violent person at all. I’m a vegetarian! But if you see Stephen King, please give him a copy of the book and ask him what he thinks.

Q: Does a reader have to be familiar with Dante to enjoy The Dante Club?

Absolutely not! There are no prerequisites for the novel. I worked very hard with the goal of creating an engrossing story, whether or not you’ve ever read Dante or ever will. That said, I’m always excited to hear that the novel does end up making some readers want to read (or reread) Dante, or to rediscover Longfellow and his poetic peers of the 19th century. The characters in the novel are driven by a passion in literature, and so if the novel itself helps foster that passion in someone else, that’s an added bonus.

Q: You wrote the first draft of the novel while at Yale Law School, and then worked full time on the novel after receiving your law degree in 2000. Do you plan on practicing law?

MP: I was fortunate that Yale has a very open and creative law school. I took many courses outside the law school and every semester the students had a literature reading group. I was asked to lead one on “Dante and the Concept of Justice” and it was around that time that I began writing the novel. Being a law student meant constantly thinking about justice and punishment, in relation to the legal system and outside of it. This intersected with my literary interests in Dante, and I think both threads can be seen in The Dante Club. Although I don’t plan to practice law, I don’t feel I’ve left it completely behind. Recently, I wrote an article for Legal Affairs magazine on “Dante and the Death Penalty,” discussing how Dante’s use of justice sheds light on our debates about capital punishment.

Q: Although the events take place in 1865, the issues within the book feel very topical. Do you see a relation between the story of The Dante Club and any current trends or events?

MP: Definitely. Whether it’s the Columbine massacre or the assassination of John Lennon, we’re constantly asking ourselves whether art (literature, music, movies) can influence people to commit violence. And if so, then what? Do we prohibit that work of art? That’s a question the Dante Club must ask themselves. We have to ask ourselves how our communities can become healthier readers and audience members.

Q: recently listed The Dante Club as the number one bestselling book for reading groups. Is there something specific about the novel that would appeal to book clubs?

MP: I like to think of the novel as, in a way, being about a book club. The Dante Club was one of America’s most important book clubs, as their Wednesday night meetings ultimately led to our country’s first exposure to Dante’s poetry on a wide scale. There’s a remarkable power about reading together, reading collectively, that’s brought out by reading groups.

Q: What has been surprising about your experience of having the book published?

MP: Well, I’ve been contacted by some descendents of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, two of the central figures who appear in the novel, expressing their delight at the novel and thanking me for bringing their ancestors to life. I lived with those characters for so long as part of my life it’s strange to actually hear from their families!

Q: With the release of The Dante Club, you have also helped reissue a new edition of Longfellow’s translation of Dante’s Inferno from Modern Library, for which you wrote a preface. How does Longfellow’s translation hold up these days?

MP: Longfellow’s translation is one of the most important, as it was the first translation of the Divine Comedy into English by an American. Since Longfellow was so famous, readers paid attention. The translation managed to introduce Dante to the country for the first time when it was published in 1867. Ironically, it did such a good job of inserting Dante into our culture, many translations followed and pushed Longfellow’s into obscurity. In fact, Longfellow’s translation had been out of print for over forty years until Modern Library reissued it alongside The Dante Club. Longfellow’s version is still one of the most accurate and faithful to Dante’s text. Pulitzer Prize winning poet James Merrill said he thought Longfellow’s was the best translation of Dante into English ever produced. I think it’s time to rediscover this remarkable product of America’s literary explorers!

From the Hardcover edition.

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