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Their Own Medicine

Pauline Hall

Matthew Pearl’s The Dante Club was .first published by Random House in 2003. Janet Maslin in The New York Times wrote: “Mr. Pearl, with this captivating brain teaser as his debut novel, seems ... to have put his life’s work on the line in melding scholarship with mystery. He does justice to both.” For Kimberly Strassel in The Wall Street Journal, “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.” The book was a huge critical and commercial success.

It is 1865 in Boston, where the numbers of the hungry and resentful are growing ‑ hack writers, criminals, demobbed Union soldiers, Catholic immigrants. Meanwhile in a comfortable firelit library, the heavyweight poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Dr Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell and George Washington Greene, together with publisher JJ Fields, are working enthusiastically on America’s first translation of Dante’s Inferno. Their concerns about the project stem from the hostility of the Harvard establishment towards a writer who is “scholastic, medieval and Catholic”, but that hostility fortifies them in their endeavour to open American literature to wider influences: “from true literature we mustn’t ever cower, not in Boston,” says Fields.

Set in a time when the country is debilitated by the just concluded Civil War, yet flexing its muscles for growth, Pearl’s novel treats themes that persist in the American psyche: nativist sentiment, the burden of racism, the value of thought versus action, the claims of religion and science, the country’s stance towards other continents and the impact of immigration. Above all, perhaps, the character of America ‑ at once cynical and idealistic, and its underlying Wasp and Calvinist colours.

Pearl blends fact and fiction. Members of the Dante club are the real-life writers and scholars Longfellow, Holmes, Lowell, Greene, and their “guardian angel”, JJ Fields. Ralph Waldo Emerson (a cultural nativist) makes a brief appearance and William James, Edgar Allen Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe are mentioned. One of the happiest touches, however, is the fictional Patrolman Nicholas Rey, the first African-American policeman in Reconstruction Boston, a city shaken by the trauma of the war, the assassination of Lincoln, and the consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act. 

Correcting WH Auden’s famous line, in this novel poetry does make something happen. Prominent citizens ‑ a judge, a clergyman, a business tycoon, the Boston equivalents of Dante’s sinners ‑ are being bumped off in meticulous re-enactments of Dante’s punishments from four Cantos of Inferno. Club members first recognise the Dantean character of the murders, by way of a gruesome detail: how a victim’s sweat and blood has flowed up, rather than down, his forehead. Their learned discussion of language has escaped from the study to the street, suddenly producing deadly consequences. As it becomes clear that there is a single killer, who is familiar with the details of Dante’s text and has knowledge they believed was unique to themselves, they feel impotent. If they report their suspicions, they may become suspects in their turn: if they don’t, other victims will meet exquisitely cruel ends. In any case, their translation will fail. They must face the fact that the horrors imagined by Dante can infect their ‑ very different ‑ continent. Holmes, physician and writer, moving from the mangled bodies on the mortuary slab to the draft Cantos on Longfellow’s desk, asks: “How much loyalty do we owe to a book of poetry?”

Middle-aged scholars, “brought too far from where they belong”, they assume a new, civic task, to become sleuths, action heroes. As “cold steel meets soft hands”, they follow Dante on a descent into a physical and moral underworld that lies underneath respectable churches and households. The rich layering of the plot does not slow the momentum. The high-minded poets are pitched into false starts, chases, captures and narrow escapes. As they go haring around Boston, “arm in arm, bracing each other”, they stoop to stalking, bribery, deceit and violence. They face risks to their safety, their shared trust and perhaps their sanity. “Protecting ourselves and Dante is one and the same thing now.” In the sacred task of translating a book, individual egos have been (mostly) submerged into an esprit de corps. When the task becomes to catch a murderer, sharper risk and sacrifice test the bonds of their loyalty.

This is a murder mystery, nail-biting as well as thought-provoking. Even by day, the city is smoky, menacing, yet somehow domestic in scale, as characters come and go, disappear and resurface. Pearl moves between major and minor characters and multiple parallel tracks. Unease creeps into every corner, like the freezing weather. The sequence of murders is intermittent, eerily tracking their translation sessions. After following many fruitless trails, apparently watched by the enemy they call Lucifer, “a craftsman of torments”, the hunters become hunted, separated from each other and rendered powerless one by one. The tension is sustained until the revelation that the killer is closer to home ‑ and more in the know about them ‑ than the poets realise. “He didn’t hide: they just failed to see him.” They are distracted from looking under their noses partly by tensions amongst themselves, and partly with their enemies, the Harvard conservatives. The reader too is distracted. Just when we think we are on the scent, the scent changes. Pearl gives just enough information to keep us guessing. And he works with devices of the murder mystery genre, the politics of police procedure and early forensic science, as in another historical crime novel, Caleb Carr’s The Alienist ( 1994). A distinguished entomologist helps them to one breakthrough. Holmes provides another through an attempt at what we would now call psychological profiling.

The Club members initially compete, then converge, with the police. They strike up an alliance with Nicholas Rey, a handsome mulatto and veteran of the Civil War. His appointment as a patrolman heralds change, but in Reconstruction Boston, black men in uniform are still “a jarring sight”. The Police Department and Nicholas Rey’s boss, Kurtz, attract criticism from the public and the City bosses over lack of progress in tackling what is being seen as a scourge on the city. Kurtz caves in to the atmosphere of panic, and permits the rival, and corrupt, detective unit to take over. They come close to sidelining Rey altogether, and he is obliged to act outside the law. Because of his colour, Rey does not have full authority as a patrolman, and similarly, the Club members are denied an intellectual place for their work on a “barbaric author”, writing in Italian, a language despised as “vulgar, unseemly, only fit for opera” by the starchy authorities at Harvard. Here is the source of the sympathy the poets feel for Rey: they know what it is to be discounted. Rey is certain that the murders, bizarre as they appear, make sense to someone, and that the distinguished writers have the knowledge that will lead him to the killer. “You saw it before it happened and did nothing,” he tells them. After he has become their ally, they explain to Rey the notion of contrapasso in Dante: “a word for which we have no exact translation … the notion that each sinner must be punished by continuing the damage of his own sin against him”. Lucifer uses blowflies, fire, blades and ice to prolong the agony of his victims, long suspended in a state between life and death.

The Club members are well discriminated, with Holmes possibly the most sympathetically presented: dapper, mercurial, full of nervous energy. He is troubled by how his son ‑ barely out of his teens ‑ wears the authority of having served in the war: “only the narrow can be truly brave”. Lowell is prickly, hearty, impetuous, always combative, Longfellow courtly, sweet-tempered and stoical.

The city of Boston itself is almost a character: Mrs Healey, wife of the first victim, insists: “It was Boston that killed him.” Raked by squalls of bitter weather, the city’s turbulence rises also from the desperate lives which are lived side by side with those of the smooth establishment. Incorporating the city authorities, Harvard and the police department, this establishment is itself corrupt in places and as riven with feuds as Dante’s Florence. Religion and science vie for mastery; and within both camps, disputes simmer. A Calvinist clergyman is ousted from his church when his congregation turns Unitarian and the works of Darwin are destroyed by a learned natural scientist. The Reverend Talbot, a Unitarian, conflates the “blasphemous idolatry of the Catholic church” with “the tendency of the Irish to cluster in the neighbourhoods of their churches and convents, which would give rise to secret plotting against America, and signalled resistance to Americanisation”. A more direct warning is the burning down of a convent by Boston labourers. Though this is presented as a reaction to the rumour that kidnapped Protestant girls are held in dungeons there, it is mainly a warning to the Irish who are increasingly competing for jobs. The number of Italian immigrants is also growing. Here too are faint stirrings of the demand for women’s suffrage, the arrival of some more formal police practices, changes in publishing. We hear of the printing business, the safecracking business, and the language teaching business ‑ as practised both inside and outside of the university. As for the emergence of a distinctive American poetic voice, here aesthetic judgements conceal struggles for power. Where should the nascent American literary sensibility turn: outwards towards Europe or inwards to New England’s Puritan and classical, (especially Roman) heritage?

Reading and writing loom large in Boston and in the United States. The novel dramatises this civilisation’s unreasoning fear of books on the one hand (Darwin’s pamphlet is burned), and unswerving faith in their power to instruct on the other. It is a Protestant culture, a culture of the Word, where Scripture and sermons dominate. The Harvard authorities believe that Dante in English will infect the purity of their plain and upright civilisation, and given the murders, it seems they are correct. Yet our heroes, the poets, loyally cleave to their commitment to literature, even when literature proves capable of wreaking fearful damage. As they struggle towards understanding the Dante- inspired deaths, club members acknowledge how literature “can master a weakened mind”, like the “Roman” words uttered by John Wilkes Booth as he shot Lincoln.

At the moment they decide to pursue the killer, (“this will never stop unless we stop it”), their commitment is forged by Lowell’s quoting lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses”. Each in turn continues to recite, as the poem works in them as reproach and inspiration. Ulysses, who ventured beyond the limits of the known world, steels them, summons them, to face into the grubby menace of the streets. Like Dante as he appears in Inferno, they face a test of their courage and resolve, to venture into the deepest circles of Hell, a test that validates their credentials as Americans. As with certain mid-twentieth century writers, (Hemingway and Mailer, for instance), the persona of man of action is counterposed to popular views of writers as bloodless creatures, if not outright sissies.

Longfellow is a celebrity, recognised in the street and revered by the public, who point out his house and know his poems by heart. All these poets aim to advance their careers, at a moment when Fields wants to turn them into personalities. Creators of the new literary voice of America, as working authors, they are free from New England snobbery towards European languages. Yet books are feeble beside lived experience. Rey used to be a reader, but since the war ended, he has come to mistrust books and reads only newspapers. The stench of the battlefield has wafted into drawing rooms and classrooms. It transpires that the wounds of the war have been opened, rather than closed, and it has not really ended. Nor is there any poetry in the war, as Holmes’s soldier son remarks.

Many minor characters (printers, soldiers, safecrackers, servants, a suicidal vagrant, a jobbing tutor, a Pinkerton detective), swarm across settings that include a crowded police station, a grim abandoned fort, a municipal banquet, a frozen lake, a warren of underground passages, an embarcation quay. The names too are almost Dickensian: Pliny Mead, Frederic Camp, Langdon Peaslee, Willard Burndy, Phineas Jennison. Most of the writers glory in three names. And one crucial change of name lies at the heart of the mystery.

Though there is one brief mention of women’s suffrage, women characters mostly hover in the background, invariably within the home, asking questions about what is happening or worrying as their menfolk come and go. “I must not be trusted with real matters,” says Mabel, Lowell’s daughter, though both she and the delightful Annie Allegra, Longfellow’s daughter ‑ gifted and brave ‑ take important initiatives.

As gentlemen, the poets are entitled to bear arms, but are ill-prepared to do so. In a poignant moment, the humane Holmes (who is glad he did not have to enlist in the Union army, as his son did) takes down a flintlock left over from the Revolutionary war to go in pursuit of one he knows to be a brutal and single-minded murderer. The era when America won its independence still resonates.

Pearl’s story testifies to how Dante’s poem, even in fragments, casts a spell, inspiring a literal-minded reader to seek to purify the corruption of the time. A thwarted idealist is deadlier than a self-serving villain. And the contrapasso punishments are not alien, but home-grown. The Dante Club became a New York Times bestseller, securing for its young author, just graduated from Yale Law School, an advance of epic proportions. Matthew Pearl was a summa cum laude graduate from Harvard in English and Italian literature, and like his protagonists, a distinguished scholar of Dante.

The Dante Club depicts a time of hectic change, like our own: As Fields says, “the mind of our country is moving with the speed of a telegraph, and our great institutions are stage coaching behind it.” Change the metaphor and the words could apply to 2018.

1/5/2018

Pauline Hall is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books.

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