Joseph Luzzi on Dante, and why some books stay and others go

Dante_Alighieri_Tour_Florence_Italy_0Students just entering the first-year Humanities haven’t yet encountered the Divine Comedy of Dante in the Core classroom… but for sure, they won’t forget it. Many Core alumni report that their exploration of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso in seminar with their Core classmates was a formative part of their undergraduate experience. Accordingly, we keep our eyes open for any mention of our man Dante in the world of letters beyond BU.

Here’s the latest clip. Over in the estimable Paris Review, in an essay titled “The Great Unread”, Joseph Luzzi asks the question: “Why do some classics continue to fascinate while others gather dust?” In the following excerpt, he explains the reason Dante’s great work didn’t go the way of so many texts lost to the modern reader in the dust-bin of literary history:

In 1756, Voltaire proclaimed “nobody reads Dante anymore,” and indeed the Enlightenment had little time for Dante’s religious allegories and Christian doctrine. He was about to go the way of Manzoni’s Betrothed: a classic that was once much admired but now rarely read. Then the Romantics came along and rediscovered Dante, celebrating his individuality and heroism—those same qualities from Inferno that Dante would reject in Paradiso. But that didn’t matter to the Romantics. They creatively misread Dante, and in so doing made him the literary touchstone he is today. Our interest in Dante’s hell, the universality of its concern with questions of justice and crime and punishment, overrides our indifference to his medieval vision of Christianity.

What do you think — is this a plausible and sufficient explanation of the enduring success of the Divine Comedy? A cynical (non-Core) explanation for why some books stick around and some books are forgotten is: The books that stick around are the ones the professors put on the reading list. There’s a dismissive truth to that explanation, but Core people know there’s a lot more to the matter than this kind of pat answer can supply.

Read the rest of Luzzi’s essay at The Paris Review, and learn more about its author at

Post a Comment

Your email address is never shared. Required fields are marked *