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.
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.
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.
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.