Martin Eisner’s Award-Winning Book Offers New Perspective on Dante

Martin Eisner’s “Dante’s New Life of the Book” wins MLA award
Martin Eisner’s book “Dante’s New Life of the Book: A Philology of World Literature” is the recipient of the 2022 Howard R. Marraro Prize from the Modern Language Association.  

One could spend a lifetime exploring the literary works of Dante, the Italian poet, writer and philosopher — and some nearly have.

Martin Eisner, professor of Italian in the department of Romance Studies, is a Dante scholar and expert in medieval Italian literature. His 2021 book, “Dante’s New Life of the Book: A Philology of World Literature,” investigates Dante’s “La Vita Nuova,” published in 1294, by examining literary and nonliterary materials such as manuscripts, translations, adaptations, postcards, paintings, music and film to offer new analyses on the relationship between “Vita Nuova” the work and its varied and formative reception.

In early December 2022, the Modern Language Association honored Eisner with the Howard R. Marraro Prize, an award established in 1973, for an outstanding book in the field of Italian literature. The committee praised “Dante’s New Life of the Book,” writing:

“This strikingly original book illuminates the issues regarding the material transmission of a canonical work the way no other study of Italian literature has and, in so doing, opens up new perspectives and ways of reading. It will be fundamental reading not only for scholars of Dante but for all those working within the material turn in literary studies.”

We sat down with Eisner to discuss his first encounter with Dante, the discoveries he made while researching the book and the lessons he believes Dante offers for people today. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How did you come to be a Dante scholar?

At the beginning of “Dante’s New Life of the Book,” I discuss my first encounter with Dante’s “Vita Nuova” in my high school library, where it appeared in a whole range of physical forms — a pocket-sized version of an English translation, a slightly larger copy with the text in Italian but commentary in English, another followed by several interpretative essays and yet another in the company of other early Italian poems.

The practical problem of which version I was going to take off the shelf to read brought into focus the larger question that I investigate about the relationship between the idealized work and its material manifestations.

It was lucky for me that I was looking for the “Vita Nuova” both because Dante addresses this problem in his book’s first paragraph and because his works have generated one of the most extraordinary archives of manuscripts, editions, translations and adaptations. You could spend your life exploring all of it.

Before writing “Dante's New Life of the Book,” did you have a favorite interpretation of “Vita Nuova?”

One of the goals of writing the book was to figure out how Dante’s book had generated such divergent interpretations — amorous, literary, mystical, political. Although most modern scholars dismiss Gabriele Rossetti’s political interpretation — Umberto Eco uses it as his prime example of “overinterpretation” — I was surprised to find substantial support for Rossetti in Dante’s work, even if Rossetti’s claims remain too extreme and universalizing to be persuasive.

“Dante's New Life of the Book” travels, as the jacket copy explains, from “Boccaccio's Florence to contemporary Hollywood with stops in Emerson's Cambridge, Rossetti's London, Nerval's Paris, Mandelstam's Russia, De Campos's Brazil, and Pamuk's Istanbul.” What inspired you to approach the research this way?

Dante’s “Vita Nuova,” like most literary works, has most often been interpreted either in the context of its historical moment of composition in trecento Italy or from the perspective of a single later moment of reception, such as Emerson or Gertrude Stein. My book experiments with an approach that I call “a philology of world literature” that uses the work’s survival in the world to bring into focus its most crucial formal features.

Which sections of Dante’s work do you find particularly interesting?

Dante makes so many formal innovations in the “Vita Nuova” that it is difficult to choose one, but I find his decision to include an anniversary poem with what he says are two beginnings to be among the most fascinating. It is a formal experiment worthy of Sterne’s “Tristram Shandy”: how do you read a poem that has two beginnings? Dante being Dante, he puts this novelty to a larger purpose. The two beginnings of the anniversary poem commemorating Beatrice’s death dramatize the stasis of mere memorialization that he aims to escape in the final part of the book.

Where there any specific discoveries that you uncovered through the research process that you found particularly illuminating or astounding?

In the first chapter I examine Dante’s quotation of Homer to describe Beatrice as god-like, which is remarkable for several reasons.

First, Dante does not know Homer directly, so he must have found it in another source, which is most likely Aristotle’s “Ethics,” where Aristotle quotes Homer’s description of Hector as part of his description of ethical behavior. Dante changes the gender of the passage to apply the phrase not to a Homeric hero but to an eight-year-old Florentine girl.

Dante then returns to the same paragraph from Aristotle when Virgil describes the ethical system that organizes Hell in “Inferno.” Although critics have not often linked Dante's divinization of Beatrice and the structure of Hell, the Aristotelian connection is crucial for understanding the optimism that underlies Dante’s otherworldly vision. Dante is too often reduced to the punishments of Hell without addressing the daring democratization of divinization that informs his larger poem.

What do you see as Dante’s legacy?

That is a tough question! Dante’s historical legacy has been so rich and varied. He has been adopted by both freedom fighters and fascists, nationalists and multiculturalists.

One of the pleasures of collaborating with students on an exhibit about Dante in 2021 was seeing them encounter many of these, try to understand them and discover new ones. Of all these images of Dante, the one that I would want to transmit is Rodin’s sculpture of Dante that he designed for his Gates of Hell project. More commonly known as The Thinker, it shows the philosophical complexity of Dante’s poetry.

What lessons does Dante have for people today?

In the Dante course I teach every spring I am reminded how Dante’s works continue to challenge readers to reflect on the values that inform their actions. As Erich Auerbach argued a century ago, Dante uses the divine perspective to show the significance of our earthly existence. Dante’s vision is far more capacious and inclusive than is commonly thought, which is why readers from different cultural worlds have been drawn to him over time to think about language, ethics, eros and the cosmos.