Gothic, mysterious, theatrical, fatally flawed, and dazzling, the life of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America's greatest and most versatile writers, is the ideal subject for Peter Ackroyd. Poe wrote lyrical poetry and macabre psychological melodramas; invented the first fictional detective; and produced pioneering works of science fiction and fantasy.Read more...
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Gothic, mysterious, theatrical, fatally flawed, and dazzling, the life of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America's greatest and most versatile writers, is the ideal subject for Peter Ackroyd. Poe wrote lyrical poetry and macabre psychological melodramas; invented the first fictional detective; and produced pioneering works of science fiction and fantasy. His innovative style, images, and themes had a tremendous impact on European romanticism, symbolism, and surrealism, and continue to influence writers today.
In this essential addition to his canon of acclaimed biographies, Peter Ackroyd explores Poe's literary accomplishments and legacy against the background of his erratic, dramatic, and sometimes sordid life. Ackroyd chronicles Poe's difficult childhood, his bumpy academic and military careers, and his complex relationships with women, including his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin. He describes Poe's much-written-about problems with gambling and alcohol with sympathy and insight, showing their connections to Poe's childhood and the trials, as well as the triumphs, of his adult life. Ackroyd's thoughtful, perceptive examinations of some of Poe's most famous works shed new light on these classics and on the troubled and brilliant genius who created them.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 53.
- Review Date: 2008-11-03
- Reviewer: Staff
Noted author Ackroyd (The Thames) adds to his one-man Brief Lives series this exploration of the short—and predominantly miserable—life of Edgar Allan Poe. Bringing his novelist's skills to bear, Ackroyd opens with Poe's mysterious death in 1849: “Like his narratives and his fables, Poe's own story ends abruptly and inconclusively....” Born in Boston in 1809 to traveling actors and orphaned in 1811, Poe was adopted by Richmond, Va., merchant John Allan. Their relationship soured, and Poe left for a rocky academic career at the University of Virginia and a stint at West Point, and in 1836 he married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. Despite critical acclaim for his work—from 1839's “The Fall of the House of Usher” to his famous 1845 poem, “The Raven”—Poe constantly struggled with alcoholism and poverty, alienating almost everyone he met. At age 40, Poe was discovered dying in a Baltimore tavern; his whereabouts for the previous week remain unknown. But Ackroyd never demonizes the melancholic man who influenced writers as diverse as Jules Verne and James Joyce, and his readable account should appeal to Poe devotees and newcomers alike. Illus. (Jan. 20)
Happy 200th, Mr. Poe
British biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd offers a scaled-down biography, Poe: A Life Cut Short, the latest in the Ackroyd's Brief Lives series. Given the book's concision, Ackroyd does an admirable job touching the highlights of EAP's lifethough perhaps lowlights would be a more apt phrase, since so many of Poe's 40 years were spent in emotional despair and financial penury.
There have been a lot of Poe biographies, and known details of Poe's life and death have been well-documented: the desertion by his father and the death of his mother when he was still a boy; his affection for his adopted mother, Fanny Allan, and his fractious relationship with her husband, John; his short stint at West Point; his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, who, like his mother, would suffer from tuberculosis and die at a very early age; his own mysterious death in Baltimore. Ackroyd adds nothing new to the story, but instead contents himself with sketching a portrait of the artist behind some of the most original and influential stories and poems in the American canon.
Poe is thin on literary criticism and heavy on psychology. The study is, by necessity, inconclusive. "What was his character, in the most general sense?" Ackroyd wonders. "He has alternately been described as ambitious and unworldly, jealous and restrained, childlike and theatrical, fearful and vicious, self-confident and wayward, defiant and self-pitying. He was all these and more."
Mostly, Poe was a writer like none before or since, and while largely underappreciated and financially unrewarded during his lifetime (although Ackroyd reminds us that he had devoted followers and "The Raven" was an instant classic), his reputation started to grow immediately after his death. The tentacles of his influence stretch far and wide, to what we now call horror or gothic fiction, but also to science fiction and mystery (many credit Poe with inventing the detective story with "The Murders in the Rue Morgue.") Celebrating this lineage, the Mystery Writers of America, whose annual prizes are named in Poe's honor, has published two new anthologies that call upon the talents of some of the group's more prominent members.