The Hottest Place in Hell: Neutrality and the Politicization of Dante in the United States

“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” You have probably encountered this quote somewhere—on social media, as the opening quote of a bestselling novel, in an op-ed advocating for activism on either side of the political spectrum—attributed to either Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), John F. Kennedy (1917-63), or Martin Luther King (1929-68). In fact, you may have seen people arguing on Twitter over who should be listed as the legitimate author of this saying. The truth is, this quote—which I am going to call “pseudo-Dante”—does not belong to neither of the three, and that is precisely what makes it so unique.

As many studies have demonstrated, Dante’s interest in political engagement and ethics has been a central aspect of his reception in the United States. Dennis Looney has uncovered the unique patterns of Dante’s reception by African American writers.[1] Guy Raffa has explained that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s support of Abraham Lincoln and abolitionism may have influenced his translation of the Divine Comedy into English.[2] Akash Kumar has shown that Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was an avid reader of Dante and that the Divine Comedy may have had some influence on his thoughts on inaction.[3] Finally, Deborah Parker has examined John F. Kennedy’s frequent and strategic use of the pseudo-Dante quote.[4]

The thing about apocryphal sayings—words that are attributed to an author or a celebrity although they never actually said them—is that they speak volumes about how communities take ownership of culture and ideas. Apocryphal sayings tell us ever-shifting stories of encounter, assimilation, and appropriation. The case we are going to discuss tells us a very specific story—how Dante, his authority, and the religious implications of the Divine Comedy were transformed into a strategic rhetorical tool in twentieth-century American political debates.

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