Dan Brown wrote the book jacket blurb that appears on the cover of The Dante Club — “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?” But don’t let the fact that Dan Brown himself doesn’t really seem to know what these things are scare you away from the book. It’s an excellent read, paced just right, and the characters are really interesting. If Matthew Pearl hopes to get readers to check out Dante, then he succeeded. I had to check Inferno out of the library so I could check Pearl’s accuracy. He did not disappoint, and I don’t think the average reader will feel the lack if he/she doesn’t read Inferno. Pearl is so good at explaining the parts of Inferno alluded to that reading it isn’t necessary. But you’ll probably want to read it after reading this novel — especially the newly available translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, which has been out of print for over 40 years. Pearl’s novel revived interest in the translation and influenced its reissue. Pearl must have felt much like Oliver Wendell Holmes, a character in this novel felt when he wrote “Old Ironsides,” which culminated in the rescue of the U.S.S. Constitution from the scrapyard.
The setting of Pearl’s novel is Boston, 1865. The novel centers around American Romantic poets known commonly as the “Fireside Poets” — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and their publisher J.T. Fields. Longfellow’s wife died in a fire, and Longfellow was badly injured trying to save her. He embarks on a translation of Dante’s Inferno in order to occupy his mind. His friends come over regularly to go over Longfellow’s translation and to discuss and make suggestions for revision. Holmes christens the group “the Dante Club.” A series of bizarre, grisly murders takes place, and the Dante Club come to realize that the murders are punishments based on Dante’s Inferno. Armed with the knowledge that they are among the few Bostonians who know anything about Dante, they decide they must get to the bottom of the mystery. To top it off, they’re worried that Dante’s connection to the murders will be discovered and that Dante’s literary reputation will forever be besmirched by the association.
As an American literature teacher, I found this book fascinating. While the events are fictional, they are rendered with accuracy according to the time and place. It is amazing that so many great literary minds gathered regularly, all in one place at the same time. The novel also sparked my interest in the Fireside Poets. While I can’t claim that I didn’t like them, I will say that I wasn’t much interested in them. With the exception of Longfellow’s elegy for his wife, “A Cross of Snow,” I had not really “gotten into” them before. To be fair, however, I have read very little of their poetry that doesn’t appear in high school literature texts. I find Lowell to be absent from my current text, and the offerings by Holmes and Longfellow are spare. It strikes me that in the not too distant past, Longfellow was the literary celebrity. Everyone liked him. Schoolchildren had to memorize his poetry. To my mind, there has to be some reason why America loved Longfellow so much — indeed, why they loved the Fireside Poets so much that they read their poetry by the fireside (hence their nickname). I think part of Pearl’s goal is to show us that — to ask the reader not just to be curious about Dante, but about these American poets, too.
This book would be ideal for book clubs, being essentially about a book club itself. I found much to like in the characters, and particularly enjoyed Oliver Wendell Holmes. James Russell Lowell reminded me a bit of Steve, actually. This book is the literary thriller that The Da Vinci Code could have been in the hands of an abler writer who actually did his research. I was transported back to Boston in 1865, and I thoroughly enjoyed the trip.