Robert Hollander, who led readers into 'The Inferno,' dies at 87

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Robert Hollander, who led readers into 'The Inferno,' dies at 87
Professor Hollander, one of the world’s leading Dante scholars and the author, with his wife, the poet Jean Hollander, of what is considered by many to be the smoothest English translation of “The Divine Comedy,” died on April 20.

by Alex Traub

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Robert Hollander was the sort of literature professor to recommend “years of rereading” to understand a great book. To study his own favorite masterpiece, Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy,” Hollander held himself to a yet higher standard. He mastered seven centuries of line-by-line commentary about the poem.

Such a body of writing more closely resembles Talmudic exegesis than literary criticism. Devotion to it is devotion to an extreme form of traditionalism. Yet the commentaries became, for Hollander, the engine of his most innovative work.

In the early 1980s, when few scholars had ever applied computer technology to the study of literature, Hollander set out to digitize the “Divine Comedy” commentaries. He secured funding from Apple and AT&T for what came to be known as the Dartmouth Dante Project. Undergrads used scanners the size of refrigerators.

Today, 33 years after the project released its prototype, “it is a go-to tool,” said Jeffrey Schnapp, a scholar of medieval Italian literature who helped oversee the Dante Project and who is the founder and director of metaLAB, a digital arts and humanities laboratory at Harvard.

The project’s impact ultimately extended beyond Hollander’s field, helping to stimulate advances in the digital humanities writ large, Schnapp said.

Hollander, one of the world’s leading Dante scholars and the author, with his wife, poet Jean Hollander, of what is considered by many to be the smoothest English translation of “The Divine Comedy,” died April 20 at his son’s home along the slope of the Mauna Kea volcano in the town of Pau’uilo, Hawaii. He was 87.

His daughter, Zaz Hollander, confirmed the death.

Hollander joined the faculty of Princeton University in 1962 and taught beloved classes on Dante for 42 years. For medievalist scholarship, the three-volume translation he produced with Jean Hollander found a wide degree of public interest, including two admiring reviews in The New Yorker.

In one, in 2007, New Yorker critic Joan Acocella called all three volumes of their translation “the best on the market.” (The Hollanders produced “Inferno” in 2000, “Purgatorio” in 2003 and the last volume of the epic allegorical work, “Paradiso,” in 2007.)

In the other New Yorker piece, in 2001, novelist Tim Parks, an expert on Italian literature, wrote that the Hollanders’ “Inferno” was “the most accessible” English translation to be found. In an email, Parks added that he had recently taken another look at translations of the poem and found that the Hollanders’ remains “the finest of them all.”

The couple brought complementary strengths to the project. Jean Hollander, the author of five books of poetry, attended to the music of the language. Robert Hollander ensured the translation’s accuracy and wrote introductions to each volume, along with notes to the text.

Acocella estimated that the notes amounted to 30 times the length of “The Divine Comedy” itself. That was Robert Hollander’s style. He interpreted moralistically and theologically passages usually appreciated for their beauty. His erudition wore down fellow scholars. He reported that A.B. Giamatti, the Renaissance expert and former president of Yale University, once asked him, “Are you going to try to ruin this scene for me too, Hollander?”

Yet Robert Hollander inspired generations of students by treating them with the same seriousness that he brought to the literary canon. Starting in 1977, alums made it an annual tradition to return to the site of Hollander’s lectures and read Dante together. Former students once accompanied the professor on trips to an 11th-century Italian castle to study Dante in an authentic setting.

Robert B. Hollander Jr. was born on July 31, 1933, in Manhattan. His father, Robert Sr., was a financier with a seat on the New York Stock Exchange. His mother, Laurene (McGookey) Hollander, was a nurse and then a homemaker.

Robert Jr. received a bachelor’s degree from Princeton in French and English literature in 1955, and he earned a Ph.D. from the English and comparative literature department of Columbia University in 1962. While there, his head was turned one day by a young woman he spotted on campus. It turned out to be a fellow graduate student interested in literature, Jean Haberman. They married in 1964.

It was Jean Hollander who provided the spark for the translation project. One day in February 1997 she looked over her husband’s shoulder as he studied a translation of “The Divine Comedy” from 1939.

It was “awful,” she recalled several years later in an interview with The New York Times.

Robert Hollander challenged her: “Can you do better?”

Two days later, Jean Hollander was back with a free-verse rendering of the text in current English idiom.

“Hey,” Robert Hollander said. “That’s not bad.”

On trips to the beach during a family vacation on the Caribbean island of Tortola, Robert Hollander would don his clip-on sunglasses, Jean Hollander would put on a sun hat and bring a picnic — and then the two would spend all afternoon debating cantos. They adjudicated microscopically fine distinctions, like whether sinners were hurled “down” or “below.”

Jean Hollander died in 2019. In addition to his daughter, Robert Hollander is survived by a son, Robert B. Hollander III; a brother, Fenton; and four granddaughters. Hollander lived most of his life in a renovated farmhouse in Hopewell, New Jersey, but spent his final years with his son in Hawaii.

He suffered a stroke in 2004, and his recovery looked uncertain. After several days, a nurse tested whether he could name a word for every letter in the alphabet — apple for A, ball for B.

Hollander followed along. When the nurse got to L, he suddenly had a gleam in his eye. “Leopardo!” he declared, switching to Italian. The nurse ended the exam.

He ultimately regained his full mental powers, Zaz Hollander, his daughter, said. “He gauged his recovery by how far he could get in ‘The Inferno’ by memory.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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