It should come as no surprise that Matthew Pearl LAW ’01, the author of a new book based in part on Dante’s gruesome visions of hell, enjoyed studying in the depths of Cross Campus Library.
“I’m usually attracted to the underground, weird library,” said Pearl, who wrote the first draft of his new historical thriller “The Dante Club” while attending Yale Law School in 1999.
“The Dante Club” tells the story of a distinguished group of Harvard scholars who help solve a chain of mysterious murders in post-bellum Boston. The scholars — among them Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes — all support the first American translation of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy,” to the protest of many of their peers. This much is is grounded in historical fact.
But there’s a gruesome twist; the scholars are the only people who realize that a serial killer is on the loose, imitating punishments described in “The Inferno.” The first to die — the chief justice of Massachusetts — is found stripped naked, having been more or less eaten alive by maggots.
Although written at Yale, Pearl said the original inspiration for “The Dante Club” arose not in CCL, but at a different gateway to hell — Harvard.
Pearl wrote his undergraduate senior thesis on Dante at Harvard; there, he first stumbled across the history of The Divine Comedy’s American translation. In the 1860s, foreign languages such as Italian were disliked among intellectual circles because of anti-immigrant sentiments. The group of scholars prominent in Pearl’s novel banded together in support of Dante.
While Pearl said his interest in this segment of literary history was scholarly at first; but after he completed his thesis he still felt unsatisfied.
“I always felt that there was something left over to do because there’s such a great human story behind these poets and professors who were translating Dante,” he said.
Pearl said that when he arrived at Yale for Law School, Dante kept “popping up.” Professor Giuseppe Mazzotta invited Pearl to speak to his undergraduate class on Dante, and a Yale law student reading group asked him to talk about the relation between Dante and justice.
Finally, on the suggestion of a friend, Pearl came up with the idea of turning the historical Dante Club into fiction. He settled on the genre of murder mystery because he said he wanted to force the Dante scholars to experience their own descent into hell.
“The flexibility of Yale Law School definitely was a huge factor in helping me start to write this,” Pearl said. “Plus, there’s not much to do sometimes when you’re in New Haven and it’s cold out.”
Over the next year, Pearl conducted much of the research for the historical aspects of “The Dante Club” in Yale’s libraries, and finished the first draft within a year. The result was a literary mix of genres — part historical thriller, part murder mystery.
“The dilemma when writing historical fiction is how do you create authenticity and accuracy,” Pearl said. “It was definitely painstaking to ensure that as the fictional events increase, the authenticity remains.”
He said one of most difficult parts of the writing process were the descriptions of the murders.
“It made me realize how creative Dante’s punishments are,” Pearl said. “I realized that a huge percentage of the punishments were impossible to create in real life. I’m not naturally inclined toward violence.”
Against all odds, he received a book deal immediately after he finished the draft. Pearl said he only recently realized how much luck is involved in the publication process.
“It went much smoother than it should have, in terms of statistics,” he said.
And after two years of editing, the good reviews have begun appear in newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times Book Review. “The Dante Club” is currently 26 on the New York Times Best-Seller List.
As a new author, Pearl said he is not yet used to reading reviews of his book.
“It’s like having your papers graded in public everyday,” he said. “I try not to dwell on them, although sometimes I do.”