Poe: A Life Cut Short.
A concise new biography marks the 200th birthday of Edgar Allen Poe.
Hippocratesâ€™s classic pronouncement that life is short but art is long could have been coined with Edgar Allan Poe in mind. Although he died in 1849 at age 40, his literary legacy endures â€“ not just in lugubrious stories and poems like â€śThe Tell-Tale Heartâ€ť and â€śAnnabel Lee,â€ť but in his influence on literature, including 19th-century French Romantic poetry and detective and science fiction.
Just in time for the bicentennial of Poeâ€™s January 19, 1809, birth, master biographer Peter Ackroyd â€“ born 100 years after Poeâ€™s death â€“ has written the brief but still amply detailed Poe: A Life Cut Short.
Ackroyd has demonstrated his adeptness at distilling masses of information with lively, full-gore biographies of such long-gone literary lights as T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Blake, and Thomas More. In â€śPoe,â€ť he provides a pared-down but rich portrait of a productive but dismal existence.
Poe dwelt, like the narrator of his poem â€śEulalie,â€ť â€śin a world of moanâ€ť against a backdrop of â€śmidnights drearyâ€ť not unlike that in his most famous poem, â€śThe Raven.â€ť Ackroyd writes, â€śHe was dogged by poverty, and cursed by lack of success.... His entire life was a series of setbacks, of disappointed hopes and thwarted ambitions.â€ť
Setbacks that started in childhood
He breathed the â€śair of menace and fatalityâ€ť from early childhood. By the time he was three, heâ€™d lost both parents, travelling actors, leaving him with â€śfeelings of utter abandonment,â€ť which, along with an association of death with beauty, would become a leitmotif in his work. As an adult he would be burdened with an unfortunate inclination to seek nurture from dark-haired consumptives like his mother, even as he battled a predilection for alcohol inherited from his father.
Young Poe was fortunate to be taken in by prosperous, doting foster parents, Fanny and John Allan, who provided him with not just a middle name but also a stellar education in Virginia and England. Yet this relationship also ended badly, with Fannyâ€™s death from consumption and Poeâ€™s bitter estrangement from his foster father, who cut him off
without a cent in late adolescence.
Poeâ€™s adulthood was a constant struggle against destitution and despair, frequently exacerbated by drunken binges. Even Ackroydâ€™s condensed account paints an exasperatingly repetitive cycle of â€śNevermore!â€ť followed by further rounds of self-destructive drinking.
In his search for â€śexternal disciplineâ€ť and a source of income, Poe enlisted in the Army during his late teens and later enrolled in officersâ€™ training at West Point â€“ both poor fits. At the same time, he was writing and publishing poems.
At 27, Poe married his 14-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. He had met her when she was 9, when he moved into her mother (and his aunt) Maria Clemmâ€™s household. Ackroyd comments that their relationship was â€śspiritual in temperâ€ť and notes delicately, â€śWe can only speculate that physical intimacy with his child bride, if it occurred at all, came at a subsequent date.â€ť
An entire industry could be built producing â€śEdgar Allan Poe Lived Hereâ€ť plaques. Until Virginiaâ€™s death from consumption in 1847, the Poes and Maria Clemm relocated repeatedly, scrambling between boarding houses in Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York as Poe chased literary hack work. Ackroyd dutifully tracks each move, commenting, â€śHe never felt at home anywhere.â€ť
Poeâ€™s steadiest source of income was not from his books, which earned him barely $300 during his lifetime, but from his employment as a â€śMagazinist,â€ť editing and writing stories and reviews for various literary journals. Unfortunately, he held each position only until seized by the self-destructive impulse he labelled â€śthe imp of the perverseâ€ť in an eponymous 1845 story.
Poeâ€™s reviewing credo was, â€śI intend to put up with nothing that I can put down.â€ť Not surprisingly, this â€śquerulous and acerbic criticâ€ť garnered attention and enemies but few friends from his snarky reviews.
A body of writing shaped by fear
There isnâ€™t much room in Ackroydâ€™s brief life to delve deeply into Poeâ€™s writing, but he manages to convey a strong sense of the emotional draw of his dark, sensational, morbid output, which touched on universal, deeply rooted fears.
Occasionally, Ackroyd gets carried away by his enthusiasm, dubbing Poe â€śthe greatest prose writer of the countryâ€ť â€“ ignoring contemporaries Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, for starters â€“ and â€śthe greatest exponent of fantasy fiction in the English language.â€ť
Yet Ackroyd acknowledges that, however brilliant and influential in his work, Poe as a person was â€śpermanently incomplete ... like a cuttlefish floundering in his own ink.â€ť As William Butler Yeats wrote, â€śPerfection of the life, or of the work.â€ť Ackroydâ€™s short biography makes it clear which Poe achieved.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.