Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 273
Set in 1865, the novel features a group of scholars from Harvard University, led by renowned poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, collaborated a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy that they planned to publish in America for the first time. The group called itself the Dante Club, and Matthew Pearl’s novel of the same name focuses on the members of this group and their efforts to complete the translation despite attempts of the Harvard leaders who wanted to ban the book from the States and prevent the infiltration of foreign ideals. Pearl’s story tells of the murder of two judges and the search for the killer. The Dante Club gets involved in solving the crime because the killer committed murders that replicated the gruesome tortures in The Divine Comedy.
The members of the Dante Club included three Harvard professors; the poets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, and the physician and novelist Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes. It also included J.T. Fields, a publisher with Tickner and Fields, the Boston firm that would publish the translation. These characters are all real people, but the plot weaves fiction and fact. Dr. Augustus Manning is a fictional character and one of the Harvard Brahmans, a term coined by Longfellow to refer to the elite heads of the university. Manning considers Dante’s book heretical, and he intimidates and threatens the members of Dante Club to discourage them from pursuing their work. Nicholas Rey is also a fictional character. He is an assistant to the police chief who is assigned to the murder case and who works with the Dante Club to find the killer.