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Fragments of Freedom: Dante's Relic in the Re-United States


Based on archival research at Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site and Harvard's Houghton Library, this essay provides the first full account of pieces of Dante's coffin gathered by a stone mason upon discovery of the poet's stolen bones in 1865. Through analysis of unpublished letters and other documents (several transcribed or translated for the first time), I trace the provenance of this relic, showing how Longfellow, soon after completing the first American translation of the Divine Comedy as the nation emerged from civil war, enshrined the fragments of Dante's coffin in his study in Cambridge—the very room in which Washington had consulted with military officers and political leaders when he broke the Siege of Boston and set the Colonies on their path toward independence in 1776. I contribute to scholarship examining Dante's place in nineteenth-century narratives of independence and liberation by placing the relic within the context of Longfellow's literary and epistolary responses to slavery and the civil war. Revered at a location in the "Re-United" States intimately connected with the nation's founding revolution, these physical traces of Dante's afterlife reinforce the poet's reputation as a prophet of political freedom for readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

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