The Dante Club is a historical novel written by Matthew Pearl and clocking in at a lengthy 370 pages. Set in the days immediately following the conclusion of the American Civil War in Boston, Massachusetts with the literary elite of the time and Harvard as its background, it tells the story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, J.T. Fields, and George Washington Greene‘s endeavors to translate Dante’s Comedy from the Italian into English and the opposition they encountered from entrenched literary and academic concerns.
At the same time the novel addresses a fictional series of murders which are based on Dante’s Comedy and which the translators attempt to solve. An interesting side-story is the character of Nicholas Rey, a mulatto officer who serves as Boston’s first African-American policeman and the many challenges he experiences in serving in this capacity.
The book is a New York Times bestseller and has received rave reviews from a number of sources including The Wall Street Journal, People, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Esquire, and so on. Alexa.com listed the book as the number one bestselling book for reading groups.
So what makes this book so amazing? I’m unsure. It is certainly a solid read, but I did not find it an amazing read. The story plods along at a tremendously slow pace with occasional sprints. The story is largely concerned with slow-moving consideration of the characters, their interactions, and the scenery and culture of the day – but then is occasionally interspersed with graphic portrayals of the murder of various individuals in Dantean ways (one reviewer “said the novel’s murders are gruesome enough to make Stephen King flinch.”1From the Reader’s Guide at the end of the book, pg. 376.) – this creates an odd contrast between a slow-burning historical novel and a fast-paced thriller.
Overall, I wouldn’t call it a must-read, but if you are interested in the time period, you’ll probably find the descriptions of the cultural milieu fascinating and Pearl does a good job of bringing to light many of the travesties of the time period – as well as the violence of the American Civil War (and it is against this background that the graphic murders become more understandable in their descriptiveness).