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Dante in Boston

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Dante saved his life too (Painting by Thomas Buchanan Read; image by Mark Skrobola/Flickr)

An old friend writes about How Dante Can Save Your Life:

I was worried that the book was going to be so far over my head that I would have to lie to you about it. I guess I thought you were going to take us through, line by line. Started it last night and read way too long before putting it down. Congratulations on reaching people like me. I love it.

That’s so gratifying to hear. I told her that I wrote the book for people like her, and people like me: those who aren’t literary scholars, but who still need to read Dante because there is so much life-changing wisdom and beauty to be found there. Here is the first chapter of my book. The whole thing is written in this tone and in this spirit. You do not have to have any familiarity with the Divine Comedy to read my book and to learn from it. 

This morning I’m sitting in the airport in Houston, after having had a fantastic evening last night at Houston Baptist University. I shared the stage with Prof. Lou Markos, a literature scholar, a Dante specialist, and an absolutely mesmerizing teacher. Folks were so generous in Houston, but then, they’re Texans, so I expected that.

I’m headed to Boston, where I’m going to be attending and addressing the Q Ideas conference. Really excited about that. Andrew Sullivan is going to be there, and I’m looking forward to catching up with him in his post-blogging life and finding out how he’s faring. If you’re a reader of this blog and a Dante enthusiast, please come out to hear me talk at Boston College on Thursday evening, from 5:30 till 7. Information is here; it’s all free and open to the public, but BC asks that you please register so they can get a good idea of how many to expect. I’m excited to be going back to Boston, and so grateful to Alan Wolfe, Yael Levin, and all my friends at the Boisi Center for having me around.

As you might guess from  my anonymous friend’s e-mail, this will not be a scholarly lecture, because that’s not how my book is. This is about applied literature and spirituality. I’m going to tell stories. There will be books for sale, and there will be Q&A. Come out and say hi.

Another reason I’m eager to be in Boston — aside from the fact that I have dinner plans tonight that involve raw Massachusetts oysters — is that the Dante Society of America was founded there in 1881, and is headquartered there. If you discover that you have a love for Dante, please consider joining the society. It’s almost exclusively an academic society, but it doesn’t have to be. I understand they are eager to welcome lay members (so to speak) who love Dante. I joined.

The first president of the Dante Society was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who made the first American translation of the Commedia. His is a staggeringly tragic story. Look:

The last and somewhat diminished stage of Longfellow’s career began in 1861 with the tragic death of his wife Fanny. In the midst of melting sealing wax, she set fire to her own gauzy clothing and was enveloped in flames. She died the next day. In his futile efforts to put the fire out, Longfellow burned his hands and face. To hide his facial scars, he eventually grew the beard that gave him the sage, avuncular look reproduced in so many later paintings and photographs, such as the famous Julia Margaret Cameron image. A month after Fanny’s death, on August 18th, 1861, Longfellow gave voice to his despair in a letter to his late wife’s sister, Mary Appleton Mackintosh. He wrote, “How I am alive after what my eyes have seen, I know not. I am at least patient, if not resigned; and thank God hourly – as I have from the beginning – for the beautiful life we led together, and that I loved her more and more to the end.” It was 18 years before he wrote “The Cross of Snow,” his only poem that deals directly with his grief.

Following his wife’s death, Longfellow immersed himself in translating Dante. The task aided his inner healing. I am looking forward to the June release of Joseph Luzzi’s memoir Into a Dark Wood, which tells a similar story about himself and his wife’s death. Dante is for anyone who has suffered, and who struggles to make sense of the suffering.


I hope to see you in Boston.


about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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