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Dante in Boston

An old friend writes about How Dante Can Save Your Life [1]:

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.  [2]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 [3]. 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 [4]; 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 [5] 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. [6] 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 [7], 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.


19 Comments (Open | Close)

19 Comments To "Dante in Boston"

#1 Comment By James C. On April 22, 2015 @ 10:49 am

Rod, there’s also the Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts, headquartered at the Dante Alighieri Italian Cultural Center in Cambridge (near MIT).

You might be interested in the very fine statue of Dante in front of the building, as well as a big marble bust of Dante in the lobby (donated by the city of Florence).

And don’t be cruel (or merciful?)—we expect an oyster VFYT tonight! I love Wellfleets! Where are you off to? Jasper White’s? The Union Oyster House (America’s oldest restaurant)? Neptune Oyster in the North End?

Don’t forget the chowder, either.

#2 Comment By Fernando On April 22, 2015 @ 10:59 am


I am more than ready to start digging into Dante. I have the three books (Hollander) the audio courses you recommended and your book on the way. I have the opportunity to start in any way so it would be extremely helpful for us Dante newbies if you could give pros and cons as to where to start (first the audio course of first your book? All at the same time?).


[nfr: wow! Thanks Fernando. You can read my book quickly; it might give you some ideas of what you might look for on your own Dante journey. I would listen to the audio course in tandem with your reading if the Commedia. — rd]

#3 Comment By Chris Jones On April 22, 2015 @ 11:10 am

I’ll be there.

As James says, of course you have to have some New England seafood while you are here. But in addition you might want to renew your love for Sichuan cuisine at Sichuan Gourmet in Brookline. My son, who has traveled extensively in China (and lived and worked there for a while), says that he has never had better Sichuan food than Sichuan Gourmet, even in Sichuan province itself.

Then if you’re homesick, there’s the Louisiana cuisine at Darryl’s Corner in the South End … but don’t get me started on the wonders of dining in Boston. It would never end.

#4 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 22, 2015 @ 11:54 am

So Massachusetts isn’t the unmitigated liberal wilderness after all?’

(I love breaking stereotypes.)

#5 Comment By Peter On April 22, 2015 @ 12:01 pm

Seconded, wellfleet oysters are non pareil.

#6 Comment By DS On April 22, 2015 @ 12:21 pm

I also feared that I would have to lie about liking the book. And about understanding it.

But I liked it and understood, to the extent I am capable, it.

Good to know I’m not alone.

#7 Comment By alkali On April 22, 2015 @ 1:03 pm

I had hoped to get out to see you but unfortunately (but, let it also be said, fortunately!) I have kiddo obligations that night. Enjoy your time in Boston and safe travels.

#8 Comment By alkali On April 22, 2015 @ 1:07 pm

Additional food recommendations:

Peach Farm in Chinatown for Cantonese — try the garlic pea pod stems, twin lobsters, and Singapore noodles.

Lots of great sushi in Boston, including O Ya at the top of that food chain but there are many other options.

If you find yourself at a Legal Sea Foods don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a local chain; the food is very good.

Blue Ginger in Wellesley, Ming Tsai’s joint, for Asian fusion.

Santouka Ramen in Cambridge.

#9 Comment By Jill Fallon On April 22, 2015 @ 1:28 pm

The Dante Alighieri Society of Massachusetts ( [8]) also offers Italian language lessons, Italian cooking classes, Southern Italian Folk Dancing, concerts and Coro Dante, “classical chorus that sings music from the Italian language repertoire in order to keep this music alive.”

St Paul’s Parish in Harvard Square (home of the only boys choir school in the country) has presented an adult formation course in the Divine Comedy during this current academic year. We used the Esolen translation and the Esolen video lectures from Catholic Courses online which are splendid. Some of us Dante and Esolen fans are looking forward to your lecture Thursday night at Boston College.

[NFR: Oh, fantastic! I can’t wait to meet you. An adult formation calss in the Divine Comedy — that is so, so great. — RD]

#10 Comment By Carrie On April 22, 2015 @ 1:32 pm

Welcome to Titletown, Rod!:) See you tomorrow!

#11 Comment By Loic On April 22, 2015 @ 1:45 pm

“Kim Ki-duk’s Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring begins with a wise Buddhist monk and a small, innocent boy, his pupil. A few years later, a young woman arrives to be healed, and chaos is unleashed: the woman and the boy – now an adolescent – copulate, and the boy follows her to the city, abandoning the monk’s lone dwelling on a raft that floats on a mountain lake. A few years later, the boy, now a man in his early 30s, returns, pursued by two detectives. He has killed the woman out of jealousy, thus realising the prophecy of the old monk, who had warned him that love for a woman leads to attachment, which ends in the murder of the object of attachment. The first thing to do here is to take the film’s cycle more literally than it takes itself: why does the young man kill his love when she abandons him for another man? Why is his love so possessive? An average man in secular life would have accepted it, however painful it would have been for him.

So: what if it is his very Buddhist-monk upbringing that made him do it? What if a woman only appears as an object of lust and possession, which ultimately provokes a man to kill her, from the Buddhist position of detachment? So that the whole natural cycle that the film deploys, murder included, is internal to the Buddhist universe?

In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel wrote that evil resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself. Does Kim Ki-duk’s film not provide a perfect case of this insight? Evil is not just man’s possessive lust; evil is also the very detached gaze of the monk, which perceives possessive lust as evil. This is what, in philosophy, we call reflexivity: the standpoint from which we condemn a state of things can be itself part of this state of things.

Slavoj Žižek”


Does not this critique of the religious logic of punishment and evil hold much psychological insight, more than a purely faith-driven adherence to proscriptive dogma?

#12 Comment By James C. On April 22, 2015 @ 1:48 pm

but don’t get me started on the wonders of dining in Boston. It would never end.

Agreed. I was just in the middle of writing a long e-mail to Rod with recommendations when I just stopped where I was. Too much.

Of course, when you add the stuff not only in Boston proper but in the Boston area, you are really hitting the jackpot!

There’s a Jewish deli in Brookline with pastrami on rye as good as anywhere in New York. There’s a local place in Beverly on the North Shore with the best roast beef sandwich I’ve ever had (it’s a past VFYT). There’s a 1940-era place in Watertown with some of the best diner food anywhere. Fried Ipswich clams in Ipswich. Lobster mac-n-cheese in Chatham on the Cape. Clam chowder in Marblehead…

I better stop.

#13 Comment By Carrie On April 22, 2015 @ 6:31 pm

What about the Publick House in Brookline for the best beer selection in town?

#14 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On April 22, 2015 @ 6:51 pm

If you find yourself at a Legal Sea Foods don’t be put off by the fact that it’s a local chain; the food is very good.

It is indeed very good. I went there after a Christmas Eve mass this last December, with my mother and teenage cousin. They had a great sangria, in addition to the seafood.

Blue Ginger is also great (my brother’s wife is gluten intolerant, and he makes enough money as a lawyer that they can go there on special occasions: it’s very expensive).

If you find yourself in Boston on Sunday morning with no place to go, see if you can take the red line down to All Saints Ashmont, Rod. Look up Fr. Jarvis, tell him I sent you, and start chatting with him about Dante and Moral Therapeutic Deism. You won’t regret it. (Though he might reply to your Dante quotes with T. S. Eliot ones).

#15 Comment By Chris Jones On April 22, 2015 @ 7:10 pm

Yes, James, we had better stop.

You didn’t name the places in Brookline, Beverly, etc. but I am pretty sure that I have been to every one of them (and concur in your assessment of them).

#16 Comment By Isidore The Farmer On April 22, 2015 @ 9:38 pm

I’m about 1/3 of the way in, and it’s really tremendous so far.

#17 Comment By Matthew Robare On April 22, 2015 @ 11:42 pm

I second a visit to St. Paul’s in Harvard. Also, Brattle Books on West Street Downtown is great.

One of the joys of Boston is being able to wander the streets for hours.

#18 Comment By James C. On April 23, 2015 @ 4:10 am

Carrie, my Knights of Columbus friends took me to the Publick House in Brookline to celebrate my anniversary of becoming a Catholic. I devoured a big bucket of moules frites and had a Duchesse de Bourgogne Flemish sour red ale on draught. You’re right—and I love the Trappist decor of the place.

#19 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On April 23, 2015 @ 6:04 am

Good luck with your talk tonight. I won’t be able to make it because as usual duty calls.