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Poe: A Life Cut Short.

A concise new biography marks the 200th birthday of Edgar Allen Poe.

By Heller McAlpin / January 21, 2009



Hippocrates’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 – not just in lugubrious stories and poems like “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “Annabel Lee,” but in his influence on literature, including 19th-century French Romantic poetry and detective and science fiction.

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Just in time for the bicentennial of Poe’s January 19, 1809, birth, master biographer Peter Ackroyd – born 100 years after Poe’s death – 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 “Poe,” he provides a pared-down but rich portrait of a productive but dismal existence.

Poe dwelt, like the narrator of his poem “Eulalie,” “in a world of moan” against a backdrop of “midnights dreary” not unlike that in his most famous poem, “The Raven.” Ackroyd writes, “He was dogged by poverty, and cursed by lack of success.... His entire life was a series of setbacks, of disappointed hopes and thwarted ambitions.”

Setbacks that started in childhood
He breathed the “air of menace and fatality” from early childhood. By the time he was three, he’d lost both parents, travelling actors, leaving him with “feelings of utter abandonment,” 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 Fanny’s death from consumption and Poe’s bitter estrangement from his foster father, who cut him off
without a cent in late adolescence.

Poe’s adulthood was a constant struggle against destitution and despair, frequently exacerbated by drunken binges. Even Ackroyd’s condensed account paints an exasperatingly repetitive cycle of “Nevermore!” followed by further rounds of self-destructive drinking.

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