"... 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