POE: A LIFE CUT SHORT
By Peter Ackroyd
Edgar Allan Poe is one of the iconic figures in American literature, in part because of the way his mysterious life occasionally mirrored his idiosyncratic art. He was even nicknamed “the Raven” – after his most famous poem – because of his black wardrobe.
Peter Ackroyd begins this brief biographical sketch with the mystery at the end of Poe’s short life – the obscure circumstances surrounding his death at the age of 40. It is a note Ackroyd plays to the full. As for the cause of Poe’s death, “the well is too deep for the truth to be recovered.” We also don’t know much about the events of his final days: “Poe’s own story ends abruptly and inconclusively; it is bedeviled by a mystery that has never been, and probably never can be, resolved.” Did the author go on a drunken spree? Ackroyd rejects the theory that Poe was a hair-trigger drunk, and denies that he was ever an alcoholic, but admits he was a heavy drinker who suffered frequent bouts of severe intoxication. So at the end of the day it’s possible the booze did him in.
There have always been divisions in the Poe camp about such basic facts. Poe himself was a hoaxster and tireless self-mythologizer, so one suspects he would have approved. But there have also been divisions about how to approach his work. Was he a great literary genius, a figure ahead of his time? Today he is widely recognized as the inventor of the detective story, and is sometimes credited with writing the first science fiction. Or was he merely a hack writer of sensational entertainments? For some reason the French have always taken him very seriously indeed. Elsewhere opinion is still divided, though his work is now an accepted part of the canon.
He does not cut an attractive figure in Ackroyd’s book. A self-identified southerner, his politics were anti-democratic and pro-slavery. Though the venomous obituary penned by a rival that claimed “he had few or no friends” has since been rejected, the fact is hardly anyone attended his funeral. He certainly doesn’t seem to have had any close friends. And his relationships with women were bizarre. An orphan at an early age, he appears to have suffered from a psychological need to find a mother rather than a lover, and to create the conditions of the family he always felt the lack of. His aunt and mother-in-law was probably a more important source of emotional strength to him than his cousin/wife Virginia, whom he married when she was thirteen. He called her “Sis.” The marriage, Ackroyd notes, “was not exactly illegal, but it was unusual.” It’s unclear if it was ever consummated. Sex wasn’t what he needed women for.
His fate was to be a needy person. It wasn’t just the women. Like many writers, he was always short of cash. This despite the fact that he was not an obscure genius. He was widely praised and celebrated and had successful runs editing various publications. “That recognition,” however, “did not mean that he was to be spared a life of poverty and deprivation.” Hundreds of people came to hear his lectures, but his books didn’t sell particularly well. He invented the modes of popular fiction before there was a properly functioning market for the stuff.
A brief, uncluttered biography like this is a pleasure to read, even if it is not without some reaching. For example, it’s unlikely Poe was greatly affected by his mother’s death, which occurred when he was two. He hardly needed the “blessing of amnesia” brought on by “overwhelming grief” at her loss to forget her passing. Ackroyd’s writing can be a bit theatrical when it comes to matter like these, and some of his conclusions are trite, but A Life Cut Short does a good job introducing its subject and will encourage readers to take another look for themselves at Poe’s work. Which is still one of the best tests for the biography of an author.
Review first published June 21, 2008.