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Poe: A Life Cut ShortPoe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone interested in the life of Poe will be aware of the tremendous hype surrounding his death. It is a fact that he died in a state of delirium, and was found in this state only a week after he had cheerfully waved goodbye to his aunt from a steamboat bound from Richmond to Baltimore. This was the last sighting of Poe until he was found dying six days later in a dirty tavern. What happened during that missing week is a complete mystery; one that is just as confounding as his tales of ‘ratiocination’ or detective fiction. Ackroyd’s short but succinct biography of this enigmatic literary figure begins with his death and the scant facts of his final days on earth.

As an author of the perverse and the macabre, Poe’s literary legacy has somehow managed to pervade all aspects of his life, and this is something Ackroyd explores without falling into the trap of sensationalism. But having said this, there were certain themes that ‘haunted’ Poe which Ackroyd looks at in great detail. Poverty, death from consumption, loneliness and abandonment were some of Poe’s most destructive and constant companions; demons that rode his back and coloured his outlook on life. As an orphan, Poe always yearned for love in the way of literary recognition. Acceptance by the masses was to be his vanity; which sadly pointed to a very deep and forlorn void stemmed by the women in his life; or a lack of them.

“Be silent in that solitude
           Which is not loneliness, for then
The spirits of the dead who stood
           In life before thee are again
In death around thee, and their will
          Shall overshadow thee: be still.”

Ackroyd deftly highlights in a straightforward manner how all these elements combined to produce Poe’s most extraordinary tales of terror and the suppressed psyche. Through them, Ackroyd explores the varying stages of Poe’s mental and psychological health, which unfortunately were always in a state of painful flux. If he was ecstatic and full of hope one minute, he would be found floundering in the pits of despair the next. Ackroyd doesn’t state as much, but he gives the impression that Poe might have been a manic-depressive or even bipolar. But it was probably his alcoholism that condemned him mockery by his literary peers and kept him from the fame that he so despaired for. Ackroyd documents how Poe struggled to keep a job down due to his binge-drinking and lost some very prestigious positions because of his unpredictable nature. In fact, drink was a common demon to the Poe family, as a letter by William (a cousin) shows.

“William Poe also wished to caution his cousin against that ‘which has been a great enemy to our family.’ The enemy was of course, a ‘too free use of the Bottle’. The Bottle was the demon of the Poes.”

But despite the negativity, Ackroyd also states Poe’s achievements. He was for one, a great critic who had an innate understanding of real art. He was a perfectionist, and it was often this sensitivity to beauty and an aggressive intolerance for anything short of it that earned him many enemies. Ackroyd describes how his reviews were often scathing, bordering on personal attacks. In ‘Poe: A Life Cut Short’ Ackroyd tries hard to present Poe as a more rounded personality. His loves were all-consuming and full of sacrifice; his hate was also much the same; and his financial state did not hinder him from saying exactly what was on his mind. His most famous disagreement to date is probably with Rufus Griswold, who abhorred him so much that after Poe died, he published a false memoir which stated all sorts of defamatory allegations against the deceased. Much to my relief, Ackroyd sensibly ignores this aspect of Poe’s life (again, too much hype), but does make a statement that very neatly sums up the actions of Griswold:

“Poe had met Griswold two years before, and they had circled each other in mutual suspicion masked by professional admiration. Griswold had succeeded Poe at Graham’s Magazine, where he had gained a reputation for literary chicanery. But the publication of his anthology in 1842 brought him a measure of success. Poe was ambivalent, describing it as ‘a most outrageous humbug’ to a private correspondent while lauding it in print as ‘the most important addition which our literature has had for many years received.’ The protestation was not enough. When a wholly and sarcastically negative review appeared in the Saturday Museum, Griswold assumed (wrongly, as it happened) that Poe had composed it. The there came Poe’s animadversions upon the book in his series of lectures. But Griswold eventually had his revenge. After Poe’s death he would be responsible for the most lethal character assassination in the history of American literature.”

This probably illustrates the reason why Ackroyd found it wise to steer clear of this episode (as interesting as it is). He acknowledges the fact, but does not allow it to take over and give birth to half-baked theories and gossip about Poe’s death that have found root over the years. A ‘character assassination’ it definitely was, but Ackroyd also makes it clear that Poe was no angel during his time as editor of various journals and magazines. For one, he reveals that Poe regularly wrote ‘spoofs’ or ‘hoaxes’ that were soon found out to be nothing but lies. These little events did not go in his favour, and reflected badly on his status as a credible editor.

Overall, I think this biography did a good job in weeding out the ‘gossip’ from the ‘facts’ surrounding Poe’s life. Ackroyd is an academic writer, and I appreciated his sensitivity in what went into the account and what was left out. The best thing about it is that Ackroyd allows the reader to make up their own mind about Poe. There is a very clear relationship between his life and his works and Ackroyd gets this just right. His account is not overdone with quotations which neatly side-steps the path to sentimentalism. After reading this I realised that Poe was a difficult man to pin down. The accounts of him vary from being as ‘unstable as water’, a ‘characterless character’ to being ‘the merest shell of a man’. Those who loved him commented on his deep intellect and his way with words. I think Ackroyd sums it up very well when he states that:

“Like a salamander he could only live in fire. But the fire was often started by himself. He stumbled from one passionate outburst to the next. He hardly seemed to know himself at all, but relied upon the power of impassioned words to create his identity.”

While alive, Poe’s words were constantly used against him. He was mocked and ridiculed, only because he had mocked and ridiculed others (a sign of starting the fire himself in many ways). But it was only after the death of this orphan, when only his words were left that he finally found his identity.

“Tennyson described him as ‘the most original genius that America has produced’, worthy to stand beside Catallus and Heine. Thomas Hardy considered him to be ‘the first to realise in full the possibility of the English language’… The science fiction works of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells are heavily indebted to him, and Arthur Conan Doyle paid tribute to Poe’s mastery of the detective genre… The orphan, in the end, found his true family.”

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