A pilgrim and his poet-guide, side by side, gaze up at the gates and read the weather-beaten inscription:
I am the way out of the city of woe
I am the way to a prosperous people
I am the way from eternal sorrow
If you know your Dante, you recognize this as the sign over the Gates of Hell. But you also notice that something’s wrong with the quotation; it should be “into” rather than “out of.” And what’s with the mention of “a prosperous people” here? Reach for the Ciardi translation of Dante’s Inferno and sure enough, the inscription should go like this:
I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE.
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE.
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.
Why the discrepancy? Because the first quote above is not taken directly from Dante’s Inferno, but from Linden Hills, a 1985 novel by Gloria Naylor (1950-2016). Naylor is best remembered for her first novel, The Women of Brewster Place, a critically acclaimed best-seller whose shelf life was extended by a solid run of Oprah-powered video adaptations. But Linden Hills, her second novel, is a darker, more ambitious work. And its action starts with a clearly telegraphed appropriation of Dante’s Inferno. In fact, Naylor’s use of Dante is an important element that enables her to accomplish so much with Linden Hills.
The presence of Inferno in Linden Hills is not merely decorative, but structural: Over the course of the four days before Christmas, the book’s two main characters descend the “steep, rocky incline of brier bush and linden trees” that has been turned into the settlement called Linden Hills: Five circular drives define the upper part of the slope, and three more define the lower development. At the very bottom, on Tupelo Drive, is the home of Luther Nedeed, direct lineal descendent of the town’s original developer; he manages all the town’s mortgages and runs its only mortuary. His home, attached to his place of business and enjoying a commanding view of the entire slope of circular drives, is surrounded by a pond which freezes solid in the winter. As the protagonists descend to this center-point, they encounter at each level characters who are increasingly caught in their own vices and betrayals. Each night of their descent, Willie (the pilgrim character guided by Lester the poet) has a series of disturbing dreams.
Of course I’ve listed all these parallels precisely to highlight the way Linden Hills tracks with Inferno, but there’s more going on than that. A second plot moves through the book, involving Luther Nedeed’s wife, trapped in a basement and reading through generations of archival records, slowly piecing together the long history of the place. Naylor weaves this story’s chronological development together with the geographical progress of the descent-to-the-bottom story, and its historical thread has numerous points of contact with the novel’s present. The two converge and fuse together in a conclusion that is apocalyptic in multiple senses: revelatory, an unveiling, gruesome, shocking.
So Naylor’s use of Dante isn’t the only thing happening in the novel, but it’s important. Here is the crucial connection: Linden Hills is a prosperous black town, designed to be the enviable address to which the most successful African Americans throughout the region can aspire to relocate. Anybody who lives there has “made it,” but the richest and most successful live closest to the bottom. This is how Naylor uses the Dantean template to support her own work. By making her earthly inferno a region of worldly success, and placing the most successful the furthest down the slope, she establishes a framework within which to explore moral disintegration. Naylor has in mind a particular set of temptations for Americans of African descent: assimilation to the shallowest realities of American culture. The power of the book is how this critique is worked out in detailed portrayal of a series of interesting figures. But in an interview, Naylor later gave a quick overview of the layout of her own literary hell:
Well, in Linden Hills I wanted to look at what happens to black Americans when they move up in America’s society. What do they lose? Well, the first thing is that they lose ties with the family because if you work for a big corporation you may have grown up in Detroit and end up living in Houston. So the first ties, the ties with the family are easily broken. Then there are the community ties…. If you live in another place you create a whole different type of community around you, mostly of a mixture of other professional middle class people. Then you lose the ties with your spiritual or religious values. And ultimately, the worst ties, the most difficult ones to go are your ties with your ethnocentric sense of self. You forget what it means to be an Afro-American. And actually, when the black Americans have access to a higher social status they still have to confront issues of racism but they don’t have none of the things that have historically supported the working class. like the family, the community, the church, or just their own sense of self.
So that’s what Linden Hills was about in one level. And I used Dante’s Inferno because I thought it was the perfect work for symbolizing when up is down, because Dante gives you that [mirror] image of Florentine society and then slowly begins to move from the lesser sins to the greater sin. So that’s what I did in Linden Hills. When you move down the hill you encounter what I consider to be a greater alienation, the repercussions from upward mobility.”1
When Naylor laid hold of Dante’s work to lend power and direction to her own, she knew what she was doing. There is a gravity and intensity to Linden Hills that she was able to import directly from Dante. Consider how narrow her scope might have seemed to readers, then and now: a black novelist’s warning in the mid-1980s about the spiritual perils of economic upward mobility for African Americans. That might be timely, and even perhaps urgent for some people to read, but it would require a literary artist’s higher powers to lift up those particular concerns and indicate the way in which they are universally valid and interesting. Especially for a writer like Naylor, who excelled at making observations, offering detailed description, echoing the patterns of speech with an ear for social location, and providing other little touches that securely locate her book in a particular time and place, the need was acute to marshal those specifics into a more general significance. Dante did it for her; that is, she did it by making use of Dante.
In general, Naylor was a somewhat academic, or learned novelist. She knew and cherished the “canonical” texts of the standard, university literature syllabus, even as she lamented the absence of people like her–black women–in the works from which she learned the craft of literature. The presence of Inferno in Linden Hills is just the most conspicuous redeployment of classic literature in her work. Even The Women of Brewster Place (1982) turns on its inner dialogue with A Midsummer Night’s Dream; while Mama Day (1988) is in great part a reimagining of The Tempest. You can read and appreciate Naylor without knowing or loving these influences, but she probably could not have written her works without consciously making use of them as she did. To read her without hearing Dante and Shakespeare is to miss a lot of what she is doing. Of course Gloria Naylor was also in a running dialogue with other influences: the sub-tradition of the greatest African American literature is pervasively echoed in her work, and readers who come to Naylor without an appreciation for that tradition are also missing a great deal. Naylor’s best-regarded novels are an excellent instance of the assimilative power of a literary imagination that doesn’t cut itself off from its own multiple pasts.
Finally, about those Gates of Hell that sternly warn Dante the pilgrim about the terrible realm he is about to enter. They show up in Linden Hills in an inverted, ironic form. Instead of warnings, they are invitations; they stand over the doors of a high school, promising “the way out of the city of woe” and “the way to a prosperous people.” And in their final line, they call out, “Abandon ignorance, ye who enter here.” But Naylor signals in these opening pages that the kind of education they promise is not a spiritually satisfying kind; it is only what fits “a prosperous people” for participation in the decadence of Linden Hills.2 It’s a great piece of Dante reception. The Inferno’s Gates of Hell are utterly blatant and hateful; those who read their warnings and enter beneath them know exactly what they are walking into. Naylor’s ironic redeployment of the warning of the gates reminds us of how we actually encounter such gates in the course of our earthly lives.
On the blank page before the novel begins, Naylor places an extracted bit of dialogue. It’s a concise preview of the book’s central idea:
Grandma Tilson, I’m afraid of hell.
Ain’t nothing to fear, there’s hell on earth.
I mean the real hell where you can go when you die.
You ain’t gotta die to go to the real hell.
Uh uh, you just gotta sell that silver mirror God propped up in your soul.
Sell it to who –the devil?
Naw, just to the highest bidder, child. The highest bidder.
1Angels Carabí, “Interview with Gloria Naylor,” Revista de Estudios Norteamericanos 1 (1991), p. 33.
2Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2011). Chapter 4, “African American Dante,” focuses on Linden Hills as Dante reception.