Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the medieval Florentine poet Dante Alighieri was an almost completely unknown figure in the United States. Yet, by mid-century, he was considered by many Americans to be one of the world's greatest poets and his major epic, the Divine Comedy, was translated during the Civil War by the most popular American poet at the time, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This dissertation examines Dante's nineteenth-century emergence in the United States and the historical and cultural reasons why Dante, for many nineteenth-century Americans, became a highly-regarded literary figure and an unexpectedly popular poet during the Civil War. Using new historicist and book studies methodologies, it argues that Dante was widely viewed as an important theological-political poet, a cultural representative of Italy and nineteenth-century Italian nationalism and liberalism, one who spoke powerfully to antebellum and wartime issues of national disunity, states' rights, the nature of empire, and the justice and injustice of civil war. American periodicals and English-language translations of the Comedy touted Dante as a great national poet--a model who might inspire any would-be national poet of the United States--while interpreting his biography and the Comedy in terms of American and transatlantic political events, ideologies, and discourses. Aware of such promotion, many American writers, including Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, read and interpreted the Comedy in terms of national politics and, by the early 1860s, the Civil War. Given its relevance and popularity during the 1860s--numerous books by or about Dante were published in the United States during this decade--the Divine Comedy thus became an important epic poem of the Civil War, a poem that Longfellow and Walt Whitman turned to while constructing their wartime and Reconstruction-era poetry.
Copyright 2012 Joshua Steven Matthews
Matthews, Joshua Steven. "The American Alighieri: receptions of Dante in the United States, 1818-1867." dissertation, University of Iowa, 2012.