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Poe: A Life Cut Short.

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

(Page 2 of 2)

In his search for “external discipline” and a source of income, Poe enlisted in the Army during his late teens and later enrolled in officers’ training at West Point – both poor fits. At the same time, he was writing and publishing poems.

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At 27, Poe married his 14-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm. He had met her when she was 9, when he moved into her mother (and his aunt) Maria Clemm’s household. Ackroyd comments that their relationship was “spiritual in temper” and notes delicately, “We can only speculate that physical intimacy with his child bride, if it occurred at all, came at a subsequent date.”

An entire industry could be built producing “Edgar Allan Poe Lived Here” plaques. Until Virginia’s death from consumption in 1847, the Poes and Maria Clemm relocated repeatedly, scrambling between boarding houses in Richmond, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York as Poe chased literary hack work. Ackroyd dutifully tracks each move, commenting, “He never felt at home anywhere.”

Poe’s steadiest source of income was not from his books, which earned him barely $300 during his lifetime, but from his employment as a “Magazinist,” editing and writing stories and reviews for various literary journals. Unfortunately, he held each position only until seized by the self-destructive impulse he labelled “the imp of the perverse” in an eponymous 1845 story.

Poe’s reviewing credo was, “I intend to put up with nothing that I can put down.” Not surprisingly, this “querulous and acerbic critic” garnered attention and enemies but few friends from his snarky reviews.

A body of writing shaped by fear
There isn’t much room in Ackroyd’s brief life to delve deeply into Poe’s writing, but he manages to convey a strong sense of the emotional draw of his dark, sensational, morbid output, which touched on universal, deeply rooted fears.

Occasionally, Ackroyd gets carried away by his enthusiasm, dubbing Poe “the greatest prose writer of the country” – ignoring contemporaries Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thoreau, for starters – and “the greatest exponent of fantasy fiction in the English language.”

Yet Ackroyd acknowledges that, however brilliant and influential in his work, Poe as a person was “permanently incomplete ... like a cuttlefish floundering in his own ink.” As William Butler Yeats wrote, “Perfection of the life, or of the work.” Ackroyd’s short biography makes it clear which Poe achieved.

Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.


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