Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

Chauncey Mabe
Sun Sentinel (MCT)

Poe can be credited with inventing the modern horror story, the modern detective story, and, possibly, the modern sci-fi story.


Publisher: Doubleday
Subtitle: A Life Cut Short
Author: Peter Ackroyd
Price: $21.95
Length: 224
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9780385508001
US publication date: 2009-01

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.


Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.