Don Draper’s Dante

Apr 15, 2013 | News Item, Postings

I’ve been wondering which Dante translation Don Draper was reading on that beach in Hawaii. A well-thumbed paperback in the year 1968. “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray … and found myself alone in a dark wood.”

I plunged into “Mad Men” for the first time about two years ago as a reward for having finished the final editing of Alone in the Classroom. For two weeks I watched one episode after another, catching up on a series that was so much more gripping than anything I had written, or would ever write, that I wondered why I bothered to put pen to paper.

Around this time there was a piece in the criminally whittled-down arts pages in the Globe asking if television drama had made novels irrelevant. The fiction writers who were consulted came to the defense of their profession in rather predictable ways.

What would I have said? I would have made my confession, then added that after two weeks of watching, I had had enough. This doesn’t happen with books. I don’t tire of reading and I don’t seem to tire of writing.

To be fair, I don’t tire of “Mad Men” either when I watch it once a week. Far from it.

By coincidence, Dante’s Divine Comedy arrived in the mail a few days ago, the copy I ordered from ABE Books. It’s a 1950s edition of the 1814 Cary translation that Samuel Beckett read as a young man and carried with him to the end of his life. My copy is a neat, dark-blue hardback, the perfect size for handling, with an interesting puncture mark in the front cover and not a pencil mark inside – which is about to change, since I read with a pencil.

The translator was the Rev. Henry Francis Cary, later in life an assistant librarian in the British Museum. It’s easy to understand Beckett’s enthusiasm. Here’s the beginning of Canto II. “Now was the day departing, and the air, / Imbrown’d with shadows, from their toils released / All animals on earth.”

The last time Don Draper was reading a book, if I remember correctly, it was also poetry: Frank O’Hara’s Meditations in an Emergency. That was in season two, so I discover checking back. “Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again …” Afterwards he slipped the book into an envelope and mailed it to the angel in his life, Anna, the widow of the real Don Draper.

Ironically, what makes these scenes so haunting and atmospheric are the books being read. They give the actor depth while his great brooding voice lends the words new life. One form nourishes the other. What’s more, I really don’t mind having Don Draper’s company as I read the Cantos.