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from issue no. 05 - 2006

And then we came out to see again the stars and stripes

Interest in the Supreme Poet in the United States explained by a teacher at the James Madison University of Virginia

by Giuliana Fazzion

The images are 
by Sandow Birk, drawn from 
Dante, Inferno, Chronicle Books, 
San Francisco 2004. Image of the Dantesque Inferno , detail

The images are by Sandow Birk, drawn from Dante, Inferno, Chronicle Books, San Francisco 2004. Image of the Dantesque Inferno , detail

The presence of Dante in American culture dates back to 1867, when the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow finished the first American translation of his Divine Comedy. In 1865 the poet Longfellow founded a circle for the translation of Dante in his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The poet James Russell Lowell, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the student of history George Washington Greene, the publisher James Fields and Charles Norton, professor of art history, collaborated with Longfellow on the first complete translation of The Divine Comedy. Their group was called the “Dante Club” and in 1881 officially became “The Dante Society of America”, whose first three presidents were Longfellow, Lowell, and Charles Elliot Norton. Before Longfellow’s translation Dante was little known in the US (in popular culture), where Italian was not spoken, the Italian language was not taught frequently, travel to Europe was not assiduous, and those few Italians there were scattered a bit everywhere.
How did Dante come to America? Via England, where in the Renaissance period there was great interest in the Italian language and its literature. Then that interest declined with the end of the Elizabethan era. But it took off again in the closing years of the eighteenth century and in the first ten years of the nineteenth and was greatly focused on the study of Dante’s poetry. The Divine Comedy was thus entirely translated for the first time into the English-British tongue. And so crossed the ocean and encountered its first Americans readers.
It was not, however, a case of “veni, vidi, vici”: Dante, like all the immigrants from the Old Continent, had to wait patiently for many years before winning a place of his own in the young country.
It might seem odd in many ways that interest in Dante has, in the most diverse fashions, found fertile soil for growth in the United States of America. The image of an extrovert and somewhat rowdy America, spread by the movies and a certain literature, doesn’t totally match the truth. Because, in reality, America has behind it complex, tortuous elements, and continues to be veined, as Perry Miller (the author of studies on the Puritan ideology) writes, by the «subterranean current» of the ethical-religious strains connected with its origins, with its birth. Sensitivity to the ethical-religious side is a fundamental requirement for understanding America. Which was «born as a religious myth and was initially shaped as the dream of a new polis over the ocean, of a new Jerusalem desired with almost Augustinian intensity and with a vigor dynamic and atavistic at the same time. That vast, untouched landscape, that American space, was a field of adventure and terrain freighted with mysterious symbologies». Despite all the enormous changes that have intervened and the fact that millions of emigrants, from everywhere, then poured into the New World, at the basis remains the venture of the Puritan groups who, persecuted in England, crossed the Atlantic aboard the “Mayflower” in the late autumn of 1620 and founded the colony of Plymouth in the vicinity of Cape Cod.
The Puritans were zealous, strict, they aggravated, even to the point of grim fanaticism, the Protestant principle of free conscience, of direct and dramatic relations between man and God. And above all they had a sensibility ready to burst into flames for symbols and allegories, they framed events, people and nature as in a grid, almost late medieval in kind, of signs and imagery. In addition, as a writer speaking of American philosophy says, the character of Puritan religiosity developed from the beginning in a strictly logico-intellectualistic direction, whereby one could not arrive at an understanding of God, or even try to arrive, except by developing «a kind of discipline of the human mind».
To a culture like that of the Puritans, characterized by a tenacious, often obsessive activity of inner exploration (it’s enough to remember their diaries) and by the recurrent analysis of the themes of sin and salvation, Italian literature appeared, for the most part, as “full of profanity”, steeped in “papist” spirit and “paganizing”. To the more relentless Puritans our literature could even seem a concentrate of everything from which the Puritan and “virtuous” man must flee.
Dante, instead, appeared as the sole one, or almost the sole one, who could be “recuperated”, because of the qualities of ethical energy and firmness of character. On the other hand, Protestant propaganda had already appropriated, because of their antipapal polemic, attitudes and views from Dante. And a significant example is offered, precisely in America, by the eminent theologian and preacher John Cotton, who included Dante in a series of figures called, in his judgment, by God to testify to a “first rebirth” that would be followed, through the efforts of Protestantism, by a complete “resurrection” of genuine Christianity based on the “ministry of the Gospel”.

Between the Enlightenment and Pre-Romanticism
But in the eighteenth century and in the pre-Romantic period, Puritanism was by then absorbing other cultural currents and, with the influences exercised by the new Newtonian physics, by Locke and the Enlightenment movement in general, “the relation between God and reason” was becoming ever closer. During the whole of the eighteenth century the theological intellectualism and Puritan activism were blending with positions of moderate enlightenment and with concepts such as freedom and salvation given an ever more politico-constitutional accent. In terms of literature and of the image of Italy, however, the prevailing attitude of distrust-deference remained. The image of Italy was associated with the evocation of incontinent passions, of fascinating though ruinous allurements expressed in “elegant language”. Dante, instead, appeared to stand in a zone of severe and solitary greatness of his own: that was further underlined with the spread of the first pre-Romantic tensions and disquiets, of the taste for the lofty and sublime. It is no surprise that the first translation of a passage from Dante to appear in America was that of the celebrated episode of Count Ugolino, a fearsome and pathetic episode, published in the New York Magazine in 1791. The author was William Dunlap, a writer, painter, a very active and adventurous theatrical impresario, director and cultural operator.
At the gates of the city of Dis

At the gates of the city of Dis

In 1843 Thomas W. Parsons published in Boston the first American translation of a good part of The Divine Comedy (the first 10 Cantos of L’Inferno). It should be said that in those times, when people wrote on Dante, the critics and writers based themselves on the English model. But in American intellectual circles there was such a great desire to become free of English influence that it gave a new vitality to the national culture. These American intellectuals effected their rebellion by importing new currents of art and thought from the literatures of the European continent. And there, in the front line, excelling all, was Dante, to whom these intellectuals turned in their quest for the beauty of new worlds and new horizons of thought and of art. They erected a monument to him not far removed from those of Shakespeare and Milton, and he became for them almost the symbol of a cosmopolitan culture to be followed as ideal in an imminent future. This movement led many American students and scholars to travel to Europe, above all to Florence, Rome, Venice and Paris. Thanks to growing familiarity, Italian literature reached the point of being considered superior to the French. An article published in 1817 in the North American Review literary magazine declared that the Italian language was much more fitted for every type of composition than French; had more dignity and force, a wide facility of expression, an immense sweetness and harmony. The two literary magazines the North American Review, between 1815 and 1850, the year of its closure, and the American Quarterly Review, in its ten years of life, published more essays, articles and commentaries on literature, on Italian art and history than it devoted to the culture of other European countries such as France and Germany. Already by 1822, English-British translations of Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto and Tasso had been reprinted in America. And in 1850, 103 Italian texts (some reprints of translations already come out in England and new versions done in America) emerged from American presses. This period coincides with Romanticism, when America encountered the Middle Ages for the first time. And the best guide to learning the true medieval world was The Divine Comedy, that gave the Americans a complete picture of that historical period, the key for unlocking its poetry and art, philosophy and theology, medieval religious and political thinking. But Dante and his world do not offer themselves easily to unprepared minds. In Canto I of L’Inferno, Dante says that «long study» and «great love» are the price to be paid if one wants to “penetrate” the secret of his art and the essence of the medieval spirit, of which The Divine Comedy is the loftiest expression. Many years of hard work and perseverance were to pass before Dante and the Middle Ages conquered the place they occupy today in American culture.
As mentioned earlier, the first American translation of a passage from Dante (the episode of Count Ugolino) was published in 1791.
One of the first translations to reach America was that by the English author Henry Cary who translated L’Inferno in 1805 and the entire Divine Comedy in 1814.
But even good translations like that of Cary cannot offer deep knowledge of the art of the great poet if one is unable to understand the tongue in which his Comedy was written.
The first official teacher of Italian in the United States we know of was Carlo Bellini, who in 1779, thanks to the help of his friend Filippo Mazzei and the recommendation of President Thomas Jefferson, was appointed to the chair in the Faculty of Languages at the “William & Mary University”. He made use of it to inaugurate courses on Dante. He left the chair in 1803.
The Minotaur

The Minotaur

In 1805 Lorenzo Da Ponte (1749-1838) came to settle in New York, still small at the time. The venturesome Venetian man of letters, outlawed from Venice, had first moved to Dresden and then to Vienna, to the court of the emperor Joseph II, where he wrote, for Mozart, the libretti of the Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. In between love affairs and intrigues he left Vienna and went to London. There he married an Englishwoman and then settled in America. He was the first to open a private school there in which Italian was finally taught by a competent teacher. In 1807 Da Ponte founded the Academy of Manhattan, where he and his wife taught Latin, French and Italian to young people. In that same year he published in New York a short autobiography in Italian to which he added as appendix the translations of the episode of Count Ugolino and of some parts of L’Inferno. This book, which Da Ponte had put together for his classes, is important because it was the first text in Italian to be printed in America. He adored Dante and as soon as his students had learned how to use verbs, adjectives and nouns, he set them to read The Divine Comedy and pushed them into learning verses by heart. He was called to teach Italian at Columbia College, and there also he found a way to introduce Dantean matters. While Da Ponte was teaching in New York, a young Sicilian settled in Boston, Pietro D’Alessandro, a Romantic poet in political exile, who earned his living by giving Italian lessons; later another Sicilian joined him, Pietro Bachi, a man of excellent scholarship that was to lead to teaching Italian at Harvard where he was the first professor of Italian, then becoming assistant to George Ticknor. The latter, professor of Foreign Languages and Literatures, in 1831 devoted the first specific course of lectures on Dante. Ticknor was to leave Harvard in 1835 and his successor in the chair of Foreign Languages and Literatures was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow, from that moment, began to teach Dante rather intensely and continued to teach him for twenty years, for all the period, that is, during which he taught at Harvard. In the winter of 1838 Longfellow read and commented on Il Purgatorio to his Harvard class. And it was precisely in relation to this course that he began translating verses from Il Purgatorio into English. Longfellow began the systematic translation of Il Purgatorio in 1843, but it was a slow process, not least because in the ten years that followed he devoted himself to his own original writing. He finished it in 1853. After another long break, due to the tragic death of his wife, he returned to the translation of The Divine Comedy in 1861. This time he worked with tenacity and in 1863 completed L’Inferno. The Divine Comedy was completely translated in 1867.
There have been good translations, such as those of Cary and of Wright, but they were English translations. Longfellow’s translation was an act of homage by America to the genius of the immortal Florentine.
James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) inherited Longfellow’s post in 1855. He is not famous for having translated The Divine Comedy, but he is remembered for having written a very important essay on Dante. He was popular at Harvard for his course on the Supreme Poet. In 1877 he became minister of Foreign Affairs and was sent to Spain. He left his teaching post to another colleague and friend, Charles Norton.
Norton (1827-1908), publisher, professor of art history and a great friend and admirer of Longfellow, became the new teacher of Dante at Harvard. His passion for Alighieri led him to an intimate understanding of the great poet and his world. His great sensitivity to artistic beauty, an enthusiasm that he was able to communicate to others, earned him many friends and admirers, not only in America but also in England and in Italy, and his name became familiar to European Dante scholars.
Norton worked hard on founding the “Dante Society” in Cambridge. In the month of February 1881, there was a meeting at Longfellow’s home where, in 1865, the circle for the translation of Dante had already been formed. There it was decided to form the Society of which Longfellow was elected president. But two months later, in May 1882, Longfellow, died and the chairmanship went to Lowell. In 1891, on the death of Lowell, the chairmanship of the society went to Norton who held it up to his death in 1908.
In 1887 the Cambridge “Dante Society” instituted a prize to be awarded each year «to students or recent graduates of Harvard for the best essay on a Dantean subject ». This tradition still exists today.
The American aspiration to learn everything concerning Italy, its art, its literature, was, as I have said, derived from England. But from 1830 onwards Americans began to travel and to discover Italy. Even in the American consulates in the largest Italian cities there was not much to do, and so the consuls spent their time learning the language, the literature, the art, the history and all these experiences were collected in books, diaries, that then the American public read with great interest.
On the European side of the ocean there was another phenomenon that contributed to the enrichment of knowledge of Italian literature in the United States. In the post-Napoleonic period, the failure of various revolutionary movements drove many Italians of a certain culture to seek asylum in the United States and once there they survived by teaching the Italian language and literature. It was through these channels that the American people got to know Italy, to appreciate its natural and artistic beauties and learned its great history.
Florence and Rome were irresistible cities to Americans. Young American artists came to Florence and some remained for the rest of their lives. The name of Florence was unfailingly associated with Dante and those who seriously studied The Divine Comedy were convinced that they could not understand it without visiting Florence.
Throughout the nineteenth century essays on Dante were constantly appearing in American literary magazines. However, they made no reference to the allegory or to the symbolism, but concentrated instead on the history of his city, on the romantic story of his love, on his political ventures, on his exile.
Gerion's fly

Gerion's fly

Interest in Dante was given strong impetus in the period between 1880 and 1890, coinciding with a moment of great advancement in the general culture of the United States. That can be seen from the large numbers of publications on Dante produced in those ten years. But two things in particular are very important: one is that these publications came from centers like Chicago, St. Louis, St. Paul and Denver, and also from the South and from the Far West; the other is the contribution made by American writers, who have always had an important place in local cultural history, but this time collaborated in a very notable way to the fortune of the Florentine poet. And the reason for this is that before any other scholars they confronted Dante’s philosophy. The writer Susan E. Blow deserves to be mentioned for the articles collected and published in a book entitled Study on Dante. This book is the first attempt made by an American Dante scholar to analyze the structure of The Divine Comedy with the aim of uncovering in detail the philosophical and spiritual meaning of his allegory.
With the approach of the end of the nineteenth century and Romanticism, and with American life influenced by scientific discoveries, changes also occurred in literature and the arts. The new tendency was Realism, and Dante, the hero of Romanticism, seemed doomed to lose his great allure for the large public. Instead the study of Dante gained in intensity and depth in the country’s intellectual circles and university institutes. New books, no longer written by dilettantes, but by scholars of renown, found an enthusiastic readership in the intellectual classes. Thus, despite changes in ideas and taste, Dante remained on the American pedestal on which he had been set by the three great Cambridge men and their successors.

The Twentieth Century
In the twentieth century, Dante “is still alive and well”. Since 1954 the “Dante Society” has changed into the company the “Dante Society of America Inc.”, and its Annual Report is by now one of the most important reference tools: the bibliography of Dantean studies is reported there, essays, notes, papers, often of notable interest, are published there. The Society has a well-stocked library of Dantean literature at Harvard University that is second only in America to that which Cornell University inherited from the scholar and bibliophile Daniel Willard Fiske. The Society also engages in promotional activity, and administers a “Dante Prize” awarded for degree theses and research on Dantean themes.
American Dante scholarship is now providing notables contributions. For example, the number of twentieth century poets influenced by Dante is remarkable. Some years ago a book came out under the title The Poets’ Dante, a collection of essays by famous poets of the twentieth century. The editors, Peter Hawkins (professor of Religious Studies at the University of Boston) and Rachel Jacoff (professor of Comparative Literature and of Italian Studies at Wellesley College), say in their introduction that, like the majority of readers of Dante, they came across the Supreme Poet through Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. In their master level classes in the faculty of English, Italian became the language to learn for studying Dante. For them Dante was truly “l’altissimo poeta”, and because of that they read in particular James Merrill, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Charles Wright, Seamus Heaney, poets who had an affinity with Dante and towards whom they felt indebted for the inspiration they had received from him. From that they got the idea of making a collection of essays by contemporary poets who tell how they “encountered” Dante for the first time, what it was that attracted them to him, what kept them at a distance from the poet, and whether his writings had directly influenced their own work. There are essays by Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Osip Mandelstam, Robert Duncan, Howard Nemerov, Seamus Heaney, Jacqueline Osherow, Robert Pinsky, Rosanna Warren, Daniel Halpern, Mark Doty, a very fine essay by Jorge Luis Borges, and others.

American translations of The Divine Comedy
There are currently more translations of Dante in English than in any other language, and the United States produces more translations of Dante than any other country. In 1929 the poet Eliot said that Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them: the half of the world that “belongs” to Dante grows each year. In 1989, around sixty years after Eliot, the writer Stuart McDougal said that the impact of Dante on the greater writers of the modern world has gone well beyond that of Shakespeare. Dante, in fact, has made the “crossover”. He has “emigrated” from the literary, cultural and academic field into the outside world and has had an impact both on the educated public and on the uneducated.
The twentieth century was the period of the great translations. And because of that a debate began in the twentieth century that in a certain sense continues today: translation in prose or verse? Some people are against English translation using the terza rima, and these are the reasons: 1) English is poor of rhymes; 2) this “making la terza rima” does not lend itself to the language; 3) verse in English does not adapt to the constant formation of rhymes.
Traduttore traditore. Every translator of Dante knows how true that is. In saying that, one recognizes with humility the extreme difficulty of doing justice to Dante, considered by Byron «the most untranslatable of the poets». In fact every translator acknowledges that, in trying to preserve some aspects of the poetry, others get lost in the translation. And many of these translators agree with Dorothy Sayers according to whom the greatest compliment their translation can receive it is that of pushing, of enticing the readers to read Dante in the original tongue.
What therefore does one expect from a translation? That it communicate the feeling and the sense of the original work. In the case of The Divine Comedy opinion is divided between those who claim that the spirit and the sense of the work is better communicated to the reader through a verse translation and those instead who prefer a translation in prose. Many critics agree, however, that both prose and verse translation offer their own advantages. Prose communicates the literal sense better, while verse can communicate the movement and rhythm of Dante’s poetry. In teaching Dante’s masterpiece in the United States dual-language editions are used, in which the original text appears on the left hand page and the translation on the right. The poet T. S. Eliot and other have stated that they learned to read Italian through these editions.

The translations most used in American universities
John D. Sinclair (prose) (dual language). This is still the most popular edition. Sinclair chose prose to achieve his purpose which was that of combining a literal translation, or almost, of the Italian text with a good English usage.
This translation is renowned for its accuracy and elegant English expression. Explanatory notes, considered by many teachers “a little gem”, are set at the end of each canto. They contain a summary of the Canto, in which the author deals with historical events, aesthetic qualities and provides elements of criticism. Always at the end of each Canto there are short numbered notes referring to various words in the text.
Charles S. Singleton (prose) (dual language). It is a clear and accurate translation. Each canticle is in two volumes; one containing the text and the translation and the other a commentary on the theology and mythology, linguistic, historic and biographical analysis. There are no summaries of the Cantos.
John Ciardi (verse). Popular, but it has aroused controversy also. Ciardi has used a dummy or “defective terza rima” so as to employ an idiomatic English and at the same time communicate the feelings of the poem. The critics have challenged the use of some unnecessary “poetic license”.
Mark Musa (L’Inferno) (verse). His version is much used in colleges. He chose a poetic form without rhyme to obtain an accurate translation.
The University of Harvard uses the translation by Jean and Robert Hollander for the teaching of L’Inferno and of Il Purgatorio, and that of Mandelbaum for Il Paradiso.

In the summer of 1999, the New York Times’ “Bookend” column was entirely devoted to Seymour Chwast, the creator of cartoons, who chose the world of The Divine Comedy for that edition. The page was entitled: Dante’s Divine Comedy: The Diagram. The amusing depiction of the three realms offered the Sunday reader of the column devoted to book reviews a schematic vision of Dante’s Comedy. A question arises: why was the cartoon there, without any particular explanations, and in one of the most famous and perhaps most sold newspapers in the world? And why did the New York Times assume that a normal reader would know the poem?
The fact is that Dante is known not only to those who have read the poem at least once, but also to an even larger number of people who have never read a word. Dante is a popular figure in contemporary American culture. For example, various American films – Clerks (1994), Seven (1995), Dante’s Peak (1997) – allude to and take elements from the poem. There is even a rock group that has chosen of be called “Divine Comedy” in the hope of being more easily remembered. The United States has a great many restaurants and bars called “Dante’s Inferno”. The latter expression is commonly used by journalists to refer to particularly critical social and politic situations.
As we have seen, Dante’s fortunes have not gone down in seven hundred years, and never will go down because his message is universal and always relevant.

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