Kevin Saving on
Peter Ackroyd's Poe: A Life Cut Short
(Chatto & Windus, 2008)
Born in Boston in 1809 to parents who were travelling actors, Edgar Poe was adopted at the age of two (after the death of his mother) by a prosperous but childless couple, John and Frances Allan -hence his middle name. Young 'Eddy' spent the five years between 1815 and 1820 with the Allans in England - including schooling in Stoke Newington - before returning with them to the United States. Two less than totally committed sojourns in higher education (at the University of Virginia and at West Point) book-ended a two year spell as an enlisted man in the U.S. Army, during which he rose to the impressive rank of Regimental Sergeant-Major. Thereafter an increasing estrangement with his foster-father ran concurrently with a penurious career as poet, sub-editor, reviewer, writer of sensational -in every sense of the word- short stories, lecturer and general literary hack. Though one of the first American authors to make the attempt to live solely via his pen,it has been estimated that Poe's total income from his books would not have exceeded $300. This was largely because printers in the New World could, at this time, 'pirate' work from the better-known British writers without incurring copyright expenses.
Haughty, a heavy drinker, an inveterate liar, occasional plagiarist and a trenchant supporter of the institution of slavery, Edgar Allan Poe does not come across as a particularly attractive individual. Some of his importunate correspondence (with John Allan and with prospective editors) calls to mind the later effusions of another dissipated, improvident and short-lived poet also prone to reading tours and short stories: Dylan Thomas. Other parallels are equally notable -the practised morbidity of the work and the peculiar combination of celebrity without prosperity in the life.
Poe died at the age of forty, but daguerreotypes make him appear older. He wed his fourteen year old cousin, Virginia, in 1836, but there are doubts as to whether the marriage was ever consummated. His wife was to succumb to T.B. in 1847 after a life of illness and poverty. Eddy was known to go off on a 'spree' (as he called them) for days at a time and it was after one such episode that he would be discovered, two years after her death, in a tavern dying of unknown causes. Some time previously he had conducted a one-sided controversy against Henry Wadsworth Longfellow -at that time perhaps America's most celebrated poet- accusing the latter (with some justice) of 'Literary robbery' from Alfred Tennyson. Throughout these tirades, which were fairly cynically designed to heighten public awareness of E.A. Poe, Longfellow maintained a dignified silence. Privately, however, he remarked that his defamer had most likely been provoked by 'the irritation of a sensitive nature chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong'. This seems an astute judgement.
Poe's output is multifarious and uneven. A good case can be made for his work providing the prototypes for at least three genres: an article which has come to be known as 'The Balloon Hoax' established a template for Science Fiction and The Murders in the Rue Morgue prefigure the 'Detective' narratives of Arthur Conan Doyle. Surmounting these, The Fall of the House of Usher 'ushered in' psychological Horror stories and The Raven is still, surely, one of the world's most widely-read poems.
Peter Ackroyd's Life of Poe forms the latest of his 'Brief Lives' series which provide short, introductory biographies for historical figures such as Geoffrey Chaucer, J.M.W. Turner and John Newton. These render a valuable service without necessarily featuring the startling, original research of earlier work (on T.S. Eliot for example) - or without being as spell-binding as his volume on Blake. Poe: A Life cut Short shows some evidence of being hastily written and contains several 'infernal' metaphors which, on reflection, might have been better avoided. We learn, for instance, that Poe was 'bound by ropes of fire to the first experiences of abandonment and of loneliness'. Whilst, later on, 'Like the salamander he could only live in fire. But the fire was often started by himself'. Once he has calmed down from these incendiary passages Ackroyd returns to his customary lucid style: this Poe is rather better than your average pot-boiler.
Kevin Saving © 2009