Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd
Edgar Allan Poe served as a soldier and began his literary career composing verses modeled on Byron; soon he was trying out his ‘prose-tales’—often horror melodramas such as The Fall of the House of Usher. As editor of the Literary Messenger he was influential among critics and writers of the American South. His versatile writings—including, for example, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and “The Raven”—continue to resonate down the centuries.
Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Poe opens with his end, his final days—no one knows what happened between the time when friends saw him off on the steam-boat to Baltimore and his discovery six days later dying in a tavern. This mystery sets the scene for a short life packed with drama and tragedy (drink and poverty) combined with extraordinary brilliance.(via Goodreads)
Why was I interested in this book?
I believe Jay from Bibliophilopolis recommended this book to me when I was bemoaning a lack of good Edgar Allan Poe biographies. Poe’s work has been some of the most influential on me as a writer and a reader. By even the most inaccurate account, Poe lived a very interesting, if short, life.
Poe: A Life Cut Short is part of Ackroyd’s “Brief Lives” series and I surprised at just how small this book is when I found it at the library. It’s only 205 pages, but it also has a small form factor—it’s the height and width are smaller than the usual trade paperback. Which considering the ginormity of my other current reads, The Count of Monte Cristo and Poe’s unabridged works, was kind of nice.
I liked the straight-forwardness of this biography. With Poe, there often is a want to explain him, whether via substance abuse or Freudian analysis or psychological diagnosis. Ackroyd resists that and sticks to the facts as best as he can find them. He uses letters to and from Poe as well a public record. Poe himself even engaged in myth-making. He would write to people about events that clearly never happened, such as occasional arrests of which there is no record. Very often, contradicting impressions of Poe exist and the biography presents both, showing that Edgar Allan Poe was probably very charming and polite in some company and very much not when around other people.
What Didn’t Work
Lately I’ve been saying this about every nonfiction book I read: more dates, please. Also a rough-sketch timeline would have been great. These are minor quibbles.
I’d also like to read more of the actual letters used as sources, but that isn’t the purview of this book.
Good biography. It gives me a little firmer footing on Poe-the-man as I continue through his works this year. If I find a copy of this books cheap, I might add it to my collection.
Publishing info: Doubleday, 2008
My Copy: hardback, Tempe Public Library