Wednesday, April 15th, 2009
By Peter Ackroyd
The Short Take:
The second of Ackroyd’s Brief Lives biographies, Poe feels even-handed in its treatment of the oft maligned yet seminal writer and poet, Edgar Allan Poe. In just under 200 pages, it provides substantial detail about Poe’s life yet doesn’t bog down in a lot of psychobabble. When you’re writing about Poe, that’s no easy pitfall to avoid.
My son insisted on reading a biography about Poe to fulfill a grade school requirement. I tried to dissuade him, to no avail. His final opinion: Poe was the saddest man who ever lived. Everyone he ever loved died.
Ackroyd would probably agree with that assessment. In his concise biography he reveals all the tragedies of Poe’s 40 short years — both happenstance and of Poe’s own making. But this book reveals no romantic tragedy, it points out again and again the dichotomy of Poe’s nature: Insecure yet haughty. Starving for approval yet a savage critic of others. Precise in his writing yet careless almost beyond belief in his personal life.
E. A. Poe’s influences on other writers is also noted. Arthur Conan Doyle himself said no one could improve upon Poe’s detective in Murders in the Rue Morgue, the very first detective mystery. Poe is also credited with writing the first horror story and of influencing writers as diverse as H. G. Wells and James Joyce. All this from a man who spent quite a bit of his adult life “under the influence” himself.
It’s a fascinating portrait, made all the better because Ackroyd does not judge. He occasionally speculates as to cause and effect, but maintains his role of reporter throughout. If you were ever interested in learning more about the enigma that is Edgar Allan Poe, this is a perfect place to start.
A Little Plot:
You probably already know the general story. Orphaned at an early age, Poe spent the rest of his life trying to compensate for that loss. This biography traces the arc of his life, from tragedy to continuous disappointments to death. Yet the haunted brilliance of this man transcends circumstances to create literary works that are still treasured at home and abroad.