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Lehigh professor discovered cultured Pearl

Matthew Pearl spoke at Lehigh in March.

Like many undergraduates, Matthew Pearl found himself uncertain about which academic path to take when he was at Harvard University in the mid-1990s.

Then, he took a course with graduate student and teaching assistant Scott Paul Gordon, who is now an associate professor of English at Lehigh and co-director of the university’s Gipson Institute.

“Scott was the teaching assistant—they called them fellows—in one of my first English classes at Harvard, and everyone loved him,” recalls Pearl. “I wasn’t sure what to concentrate in, and the class experience with him changed my entire experience about what it meant to read literature and to communicate about it.

“He’s not flashy or gimmicky—it wasn’t like Dead Poet’s Society or anything. He was just so genuine about his excitement and so interested in your thoughts and reflections on literature. He really inspired me.”

After graduating from Harvard in 1997, Pearl enrolled at Yale Law School. While there, in 2000, he wrote the first draft of a book called The Dante Club , which has gone on to become a New York Times bestseller.

Pearl’s life-changing experience in Gordon’s literature class set him on a course that he admits is a grueling and frequently demanding career path—albeit one that has been extremely rewarding for him.

“I do have a sense of how rare my success has been,” he says of his early and unexpected critical and popular acclaim. “I didn’t have much experience with the publishing world, which was probably a good thing. I didn’t even know what a literary agent or a publisher does or how much the odds are against you when you want to publish something. But now that I do know, and now that I’ve tried to help friends break into it, I can see that a lot of it is really luck, too.”

Poets confronting evil

Pearl discussed his work and the world of writing in a lecture titled “Hell, History & Mystery: A New England Inferno,” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 24 in the university’s Sinclair Laboratory Auditorium. The talk, which was free and open to the public, was sponsored by the Friends of the University Libraries and the Lehigh Visiting Lecture Series.

Pearl’s book of historical fiction is set in mid-nineteenth-century Boston and, in part, chronicles the work of a group of literary giants that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Longfellow, Holmes and others formed the actual Dante Club to produce the first American translation of Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

In Pearl’s interpretation, the members are assigned the fictional task of solving a series of grisly murders that, they ultimately realize, were inspired by sections from the Inferno. To identify the serial killer, they utilize their extensive knowledge of the classic masterpiece.

Pearl says he was drawn to the concept because he “wanted to re-create what I found so extraordinary in Dante: putting poets into a journey of confronting evil.

“That is what The Inferno is: Two poets—Dante and Virgil—travel through hell and confront violence and evil,” he continues. “I wanted the Dante Club to go through their own descent.”

A solitary pursuit

The difficulties involved in writing and the tremendous odds against success are harsh realities that many young students are unprepared for, Pearl says.

“I think they think of writing as more of a performing art, that it just flows out of you,” he says. “The reality is that only one in a million can write the way that Mozart composed music. It is a solitary, often tortuous process that can be anywhere from 85 percent to 95 percent tedium. The key is believing that the small percentage that is left for you to enjoy is enough to really fire you up.”

His work has taught him not only determination, but patience as well.

“I did need to train myself to be willing to wait for the process to work,” he says. “You can’t confuse the process with the final product—that was a realization that took some adjusting to. And, for the most part, it is a solitary pursuit. You need the discipline, the direction and the conviction to make it work.

“But when you’re really clicking,” he adds, “it’s amazing.”

Pearl’s book is this semester’s featured selection for “On the Same Page, Lehigh,” a university-wide book club that includes discussion groups and lectures, as well as an opportunity to meet the author. Previous selections included Lauren Belfer’s City of Light , a work of fiction set in turn-of-the-last-century Buffalo, N.Y., and Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s examination of the struggles of low-wage workers in America.

For information about Pearl's book, visit On the Same Page, Lehigh.

--Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Wednesday, March 17, 2004

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