When done well, the brief life gives its audience an intellectually plausible take on a famous person that’s also fun to read. Still, the form’s chief advantage—its brevity—cannot help leaving key matters undeveloped. The busy but attentive reader will put it down plagued by the maddening itch of unanswered questions.
Peter Ackroyd, a historian, novelist and the author of the best Shakespeare biography I’ve found, is nothing if not readable and credible. In this little book, he examines the life of Edgar Allan Poe to show why the author of “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher” still matters.
Born in Boston to a theatrical family, Poe was orphaned early and raised by adoptive parents in Richmond, Virginia. A feckless young man of striking features and personal charisma, he soon established the pattern of his life: Poe distinguished himself while sober, but sabotaged his prospects by sprees, drinking himself into shambolic insensibility.
Spending most of his adult life as a hack writer for one newspaper or magazine or another, Poe worked in Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore, where he died in 1849 at age 40. Yet he managed to write prodigiously, producing the short stories and poems for which he is chiefly remembered. He was also a prescient, if often vicious, literary critic.
Today, Poe remains a cultural touchstone, while most of his contemporaries and rivals are justly forgotten. As Ackroyd notes, he can be credited with inventing the modern horror story, the modern detective story, and, possibly, the modern sci-fi story.
Ackroyd gives us a rounded portrait, including items that may have eluded our English teachers. Poe was a Southern gentleman, for example, much devoted to the institution of slavery. His gothic sensibility—a fascination with sickly women, premature interment and a mingling of beauty, love and death—arose from the early losses of his mother and adoptive mother.
Still, Ackroyd gives only glancing attention to a number of intriguing matters. In an aside, he declares that heavy drinking and alcoholism are not the same thing. Given the role drink played in Poe’s life or death, that’s an idea worthy of explication.
Ackroyd mentions Poe’s debt to German romantic literature, but says little of what that entails. He suggests strongly that Poe may have written the horror stories with tongue in cheek, but offers scant support.
He notes in passing that Poe “disliked the culture of New England in general, and of Boston in particular; he despised in equal measure Transcendentalism and Abolition.” Abolition is understandable, but transcendentalism? The mind scrabbles for more—Poe vs. Emerson, please!—but Emerson’s name does not even appear.
Of course, I am asking for a different book than the one Ackroyd has written. If he answered my querulous demands for additional information, Poe: A Life Cut Short would soon be something approaching a full biography.