Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

"... it is evident that we are hurrying onward to some exciting knowledge - some never to be imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction." Edgar Allan Poe

2009 was the year that I became reacquainted with Edgar Allan Poe, an author that I enjoyed as a teen. It has been fun staying up late reading all the dark and gloomy tales, such "The Pit and Pendulum" and "Fall of the House of Usher." In April I read The Poe Shadow, a novel about Poe's mysterious death by Matthew Pearl, and in May I listened to a collection of Poe short stories called Tales of Terror. Now I have read Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd as a part of his Ackroyd's Brief Lives biography series. I think I may have learned every strange detail about Poe's life and death at this point, yet I am not done. I'd like to learn more.

As a starter biography, Ackroyd's account is excellent. He introduces all the main characters in the forty year story of Poe's life. There were the Allans who adopted him after his impoverished actor parents died, the drunken older brother, Aunt Maria Clemm who took him in after the Allans reject him, Virginia Poe who was both cousin and wife, and half a dozen women that he courted before, during, and after Virginia's life. There were also many publishers and investors who at some point supported and then withdrew from the mercurial author. Ackroyd masterfully recounts how Poe dealt with all these figures as he constantly circulated around Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York as a literary nomad.

Ackroyd introduces many ideas about what was really wrong with Poe beyond just the alcoholism and the drugs. Deep insecurity, basic maternal love deprivation, and multiple personalities pop up in the account. Wisely Ackroyd does not weigh in very far on any of these as all is speculation at this point. Poe will always be a mystery, which means we can return to reading about him almost forever without ever losing interest. Maybe I should read the poems next.

Ackroyd, Peter. Poe: A Life Cut Short. Doubleday, 2008. ISBN 980385508001

5 comments:

Poe said...

You are cordially invited to a free exhibition
at the Boston Public Library

The Raven in the Frog Pond:
Edgar Allan Poe and the City of Boston

December 17, 2009 - March 31, 2010

For more information, please see:
http://www.bc.edu/offices/pubaf/news/Poe_Exhibit2009_1202.html

Undine said...

Hi Rick--

If you'd like to learn more about Poe, Ackroyd's book isn't really that useful--it's basically a rehash of Kenneth Silverman's rather sensationalistic and inaccurate bio, and Ackroyd doesn't even do rehashing all that well. Poe doesn't have a truly definite biography, but Arthur Quinn's is still by far the best of the lot.

Actually, if you really want to try and understand Poe's strange personality, his own poems and stories are your best bet. I think he's yet to have a biographer that truly understood him.

adgorn said...

I am so pleased you alerted me to this new book on Poe. Amazingly, I just finished reading "The Complete Tales and Poems of EAP", a Modern Library Giant book I received as a birthday gift way back when I was 11 (40+ years ago.) Actually, starting a few years ago I began listening to as many of the stories and poems as I could find as books on tape at our local libraries. That ended up accounting for about 75% of his works. In November, I finally read all the remaining from my Complete Tales. It has been a long time goal to complete this collection and it feels good to have finally done it!

I have ordered a copy and look forward to stopping by and checking it out soon. Thanks!

Dan Trabue said...

I read Poe Shadow earlier this year and enjoyed it okay. I like the notion of this and the other Pearl books based on real people. I liked the Dante book by Pearl better, though.

Say, have you read the new Dacre Stoker "sequel" to Dracula? I'd be interested in your take (I was disappointed, but don't want to say too much).

ricklibrarian said...

Wow. I hardly ever get comments on book reviews. Thanks for the ideas. It appears that readers still like Poe.