Dante in America I

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Location: Special Collections

In connection with the 2021 Dante centenary, the Devers Program in Dante Studies and the Center for Italian Studies are organizing a year-long lecture series, which will be held on the Notre Dame campus throughout the 2021 calendar year. The aim of the series is to assess the ways in which Dante has impacted the literary and popular culture of the United States.

In the first session, David Wallace, Judith Rodin Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, will give an introductory lecture on Dante in American culture and Laura Dassow Walls, William P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at Notre Dame, will speak on Dante and the American transcendentalists.

This series is open to the public.

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David Wallace, "'But Dante's Hell is Heaven': American Dantes"

Prof. Wallace's lecture will likely begin with the deeply unfashionable figure of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, going on to rehabilitate him somewhat through a tradition of readership that leads to historical and near-contemporary African-American Dantism: Frederick Douglass, Spencer Williams, Amiri Baraka, Gloria Naylor, Cornell West. He will consider whether T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound are to be considered as American Dantisti, or European ones, and also engage the timely Dantean engagements of Robert Rauschenberg. But he will argue that, finally, African-American Dantism offers a raw directness of engagement that only Irish Dantism, in its own very different way, can match.

David Wallace (BA York 1976; Ph.D. Cambridge 1983) has been Judith Rodin Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania since 1996. He has served as President of the Medieval Academy of America and his recent books include Europe: A Literary History, 1348-1418, 2 vols (Oxford University Press, 2016) and Geoffrey Chaucer: A New Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017). He is Director-in-Chief of the online journal Bibliotheca Dantesca.

Laura Dassow Walls, "'A Star Unlike': Dante and the American Transcendentalists"

Dante's influence on the American Transcendentalists was pervasive (if little-studied), for these youthful idealists of the new American republic found in him both inspiration and challenge. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a lifelong reader of Dante, and learned enough Italian to attempt the first English translation of La Vita Nuova; but Margaret Fuller worried that the recent vogue for studying Dante reduced him to a mere schoolbook. Shut your books!, she admonished; only by spirit can Dante be discerned. His mind "has seemed so great to me, and a star unlike, if not higher than all the others in our sky." Could Italy's great national poet offer a model for the American voice? Or was his star too high, and too unlike, for its light to reach American eyes? One answer lies in Emerson's Transcendentalism itself, which can be seen as a novel reworking of Dante for modernity.

Laura Dassow Walls is the Willitam P. and Hazel B. White Professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, where she teaches nineteenth-century American literature and the history of ecological thought. She is the author of numerous essays on Thoreau, Emerson, Humboldt, and related figures; her book Henry David Thoreau: A Life (Chicago 2017) received the Phi Beta Kappa's Christian Gauss Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for Biography. Her other books include The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (2009); Emerson's Life in Science: The Culture of Truth (2003); and Seeing New Worlds: Henry David Thoreau and Nineteenth-Century Natural Science (1995). She is currently at work on a literary biography of the American author Barry Lopez (Notre Dame '66), and on Children of the Fire, a group biography of the American Transcendentalists.