by Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow, and The Last Dickens (First 10 people to post a comment will receive one FREE copy of any of the books mentioned in this article. Simply post a comment and then email us with your full school mailing address).
Reading Dante for the first time was a memorable moment in my life as a student. I remember what first caught me. In the beginning of The Divine Comedy, Dante finds himself in danger in a wild forest until a spirit from the afterlife is sent to guide him. This spirit is Virgil, the Roman poet. Virgil was Dante’s literary idol, and now here was Dante resurrecting him as a character in a poem. I was just starting to read Dante, and already I had formed my next mission. I’d have to read Virgil, too.
One work of literature had the power to get me to run out and read another one. That wasn’t the first time it had happened to me. I had been a fan of T. S. Eliot, and his striking references to Dante had led me to the Italian poet to begin with. Later I’d discover the Dante Club, a group of American poets in the nineteenth century committed to bringing readers to their favorite medieval poem. In them, I found the same type of energy that had affected me when I put down Eliot to read Dante, and took a break from Dante to grab Virgil. This was reading as a continuum, a chain reaction. This would animate my writing through all three novels, each of which entered another corner of literary history: The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens.
This might explain why I am so gratified whenever someone tells me that reading my work made them go out and read Dante or Poe or Dickens for the first time, or to reread them with refreshed eyes. To make that more possible, I have worked with Modern Library during the writing of each of my novels to publish companion editions, the latest being our special edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. This is also why I have been absolutely thrilled at the fact that The Dante Club, The Poe Shadow and The Last Dickens have each been assigned in high schools and colleges, sometimes alongside with the original literature. Schools have chosen the novels as book-in-common for a grade or a whole school. Schools are probably my favorite places to visit for talks because interacting with the students brings me back to my own origins as a reader.
I always know when a high school student who is emailing me has an assignment, when an email begins, “Dear Mr. Pearl, what are the three main themes of The Dante Club?” (And is it a bad thing that I don’t know the answer?) There is something surreal about being handed a pop quiz about your own book! Homework aside, these students often tell me that reading my novels showed them that literary history and literature can be exciting. In The Dante Club, it’s a passion for Dante that drives the protagonists to solve a mystery. In The Poe Shadow, I set my protagonist on an adventure spurred by his fascination with Poe’s writings and his desire to discover the true nature of Poe the person. In The Last Dickens, I focus on a subject that I think demonstrates as well as anything the stakes involved in literature for the reader as much as for the writer. When Charles Dickens died suddenly in 1870, he was in the middle of writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He left behind not just an incomplete novel, but an unfinished mystery. This awakens so much anxiety and interest in readers, which I’ve dramatized in The Last Dickens‘s characters’ race to find the ending.
Reading can be a requirement, an obligation, or it can be something better. An inner compulsion, a need, an irresistible curiosity. The trick is how we inspire the latter. There’s a certain energy that sees literature as an integral part of our life, our culture, even our health. There is sometimes a misguided notion that students carry with them that if classic authors like Dante, Poe or Dickens and their respective characters do not resemble them (and they usually don’t), if they are removed from modern realities (and they usually are), they may not be that important or useful for us to pay attention to today. What can we find of ourselves in Dante? In Poe? In Dickens?
Here’s my response: We shouldn’t necessarily look for ourselves in Dickens, but we should indeed look for Dickens in ourselves. Just as Dante looked for Virgil in his own landscape of crisis and love, and found him to be a rescuer, and Longfellow and the Dante Club found Dante as a way out from a dark period. How many young people have discovered the same in Edgar Allan Poe?
All of these are examples of what I call Literary Learning. That is, understanding more about one poet, one writer, one book, through the reading of another writer or another book, and then another. This creates an irresistible cumulative continuum of reading. Literary Learning seeks to activate the student as reader, rather than compel the student to read.
I’ve felt blessed by the fact that my writing grew so directly out of my life as a student and that I’ve been able to share the passion I’ve felt for literature with others through my books. I wanted to learn more about the literary figures in my novels not just by exploring their names or reputations, not just by reading their work, as important as that is, but also by exploring them as three dimensional characters, as people, as figures exporting a passion for learning and for expanding art and cultures in areas that were thought to be risky or unconventional.
I think this is the key to Literary Learning. For students in the classroom and for lifelong students, Literary Learning is not just learning about literature, but letting that literature participate in your life by finding its place in our emotional and interpersonal realities. By converting literature into a source of personal power without ever changing a word of it. Dante does not change a line of the Aeneid, which is waiting there for the student to pick up; I choose to mobilize Dickens into a new story, but The Mystery of Edwin Drood also awaits any reader who wants to dive in. We can empower our literature to bring us to more literature. That is what turns students into readers, and turns readers into teachers: the recognition of Literary Learning as a process of linking great works of literature with each one of us.