The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

How was I to know when I was reading this book that I would be teaching a class on American Literature from the Beginning til the Civil War. The literary celebrities of that era appear in this fascinating novel. Maybe I could sneak this in as required, except it takes place in Boston in 1865; so, unfortunately, it just slips over the limit. However, coincidences are crucial: “Coincidences mean you’re on the right path.” ~ Simon Van Booy, Love Begins in Winter: Five Stories

In this excellent novel, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J. T. Fields, members of the Dante Club, solve a series of murders, all inspired by Dante’s Inferno. The Dante Club is a great book not just because of the mystery, but because it is solved by this group of immortal literary luminaries.

(For those unfamiliar with him, as I was, J. T. Fields was an American  publisher, editor, and poet. In 1839, he joined William Ticknor in the publishing and bookselling firm which became in 1846 as Ticknor and Fields  (which is very important in the book). Ticknor oversaw the business side of the firm, while Fields was its literary expert. He became known for being likeable, for his ability to find creative talent, and for his ability to promote authors and win their loyalty. Fields became the publisher of leading contemporary American writers, with whom he was on terms of close personal friendship. He was also the publisher of some of the best-known British writers of his time, some of whom he also knew intimately. The company paid royalties to these British authors, including Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, at a time when other American publishers pirated the works of those authors. Ticknor and Fields had such a substantial influence in the literary scene that writer and editor Nathaniel Parker Willis acknowledged in a letter to Fields: “Your press is the announcing-room of the country’s Court of Poetry.”In 1859 Ticknor and Fields purchased The Atlantic Monthly for $10,000.

His second wife aided Mr. Fields in establishing literary salons at their home in Boston, where they entertained many well-known writers. One such writer was Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hawthorne said he owed his success as a writer to him: “I care more for your good opinion than for that of a host of critics, and have excellent reason for so doing; inasmuch as my literary success, whatever it has been or may be, is the result of my connection with you”.

At Hawthorne’s death in 1864, Fields served as a pallbearer for his funeral alongside Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.,  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Edwin Percy Whipple.

Fields was particularly successful as a publisher because of his ability to build close relationships with writers. As author Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), a pioneer of literary realism in American literature, said, he was “the shrewdest of publishers and kindest of men. He was the wire that conducted the lightning so that it never struck amiss.” He knew the tastes of the reading public. Fields was reputedly able to ascertain what book a visitor to his Old Corner Bookstore would purchase within 10 minutes of arrival(Wikipedia).

As can be discerned, J. T. Fields may not be known today, but he during the nineteenth century was the most influential publisher in America. Ticknor and Fields  was later bought by H. O. Houghton, and became part of Houghton Mifflin.

Please forget my very lengthy digression. I find these people fascinating. For example, why have we never heard of Rebecca Harding Davis? Perhaps because she was a woman? Once more I digress.

On to the story:

In 1865 Boston, a small group of literary geniuses are working on the finishing touches on America’s first translation of The Divine Comedy and prepare to reveal the marvelous visions of Dante to otherwise ignorant United States. The powerful, reactionary members of Harvard College want to prevent Dante out of this country. They believe that the infiltration of such foreign superstitions into our libraries would be morally corrupting as the foreign immigrants landing in Boston harbor. The members of the Dante Club, poets and Harvard professors Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and publisher J. T. Fields, suffer the harassment of these intransigent Boston Brahmins for, what is to them, a sacred literary cause.

However the plans of the Dante Club are cut short when a there are a series of murders in Boston and Cambridge. With their familiarity with Dante, only Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, and Fields realize that the mode and manner of the killings duplicate Dante’s Inferno and its distinctive descriptions of Hell’s punishments. With the police baffled, lives endangered and Dante’s literary future at stake, the Dante Club must emerge from its isolated literary quest and find a way to stop the killer.

Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes carries the major burden of the investigation due to his unique literacy in both poetry and medicine. A noteworthy policeman, Nicholas Rey, the first and only black member of the Boston police department, risks his career after discovering the secrets of the Dante Club. Together, they find the key to the murders where they least expect it.

This is a fantastic book. You don’t have to know anything about these historical, literary gentlemen (although it helps). The mystery is engaging, clever, and unforeseen. I just wish I had learned about the book when it was published. Just look at the list below; many others have recognized its quality.

US News & World Report: Best Books.
NYPL: Books to Remember.
A Booksense 76 Selection.
Booklist: Top 10 Historical Fiction.
Library Journ.: season’s Best 1st Novels.
A People Magazine Page-Turner.
A Borders Original Voices Selection.
Borders: Best Mysteries/Thrillers of the Year.


1 Comment

Filed under History, Mystery

One response to “The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

  1. Thanks so much for the nice comments about the novel! So glad you enjoyed it and I appreciate you taking the time to spread the word. Some of these characters, including Fields, reappear in my third novel, The Last Dickens.

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