Poe: A Life Cut Short, by Peter Ackroyd (Nan A. Talese, 224 pp., $21.95)
Emerson and the New England Transcendentalists loftily professed to know nothing much about evil, that hoary idea from the childhood of the race. But a noted contemporary of the “Frog-Pondians” (as he called them), Edgar Allan Poe, knew much about evil in man and in nature: the labyrinthine passages of self-deception, the human capacity for tormenting others, the horror of death, and the greater horror of the dead who yet walk.
Among the great imaginative writers of the 19th century, it is Poe (1809–49) and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with their knowledge of man’s mixed nature and deepest fears, whose works often reach the modern reader most effectively. Even today, students read and (more important) remember such stories as “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Cask of Amontillado,” and “The Fall of the House of Usher,” as well as the poem most closely associated with Poe (to the point that it became the poet’s sobriquet), “The Raven.” “He is the greatest exponent of fantasy fiction in the English language, because he manages to touch upon the most universal or deeply rooted fears,” claims Peter Ackroyd in the most recent biography of the Raven, published to coincide with the bicentennial of his birth.
Biographer of (among others) Shakespeare, Newton, and T. S. Eliot, Ackroyd has chosen a challenging subject in Poe. For while Poe the writer is renowned as the founder of the modern detective story (with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and “The Purloined Letter”) and father of the literary Gothic in America, Poe the man is often viewed in a less favorable light. He is widely perceived as a creepy mad genius, not terribly different from the over-the-edge narrators of his stories. This reputation is largely the result of two things: Poe’s physical appearance as captured in a small number of portraits — those burning eyes, the enormous brow, the slightly out-of-balance face — as well as a calculated smear campaign instigated by Poe’s literary executor, an ambitious minor poet named Rufus Wilmot Griswold.
Much of the history of Poe’s reputation for the past century and a half has involved acts of shaking off these distractions to reveal the man within; as late as 1923, three-quarters of a century after Poe’s death, H. L. Mencken claimed that Poe had never had a competent biographer. Several solid works have appeared in the years since, the best being Kenneth Silverman’s magisterial Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance (1991). Ackroyd’s Poe: A Life Cut Short seeks to present in shorter form a straightforward account of Poe. In doing so Ackroyd attempts to put some distance between the facts of Poe’s life and Griswold’s assertions (which he calls “the most lethal character assassination in the history of American literature”), to provide a clear picture of the man and how he became one of the most widely influential American authors of his era.
Ackroyd’s work is intended as a pocket guide to the chronological facts of Poe’s life, the mystery of his death, and the nature of his literary genius. The biographer is quite successful in reaching the first two goals, less so with the third. For at the end of the book, the reader comes away wondering how on earth Poe — stumbling from one drunken binge to the next, cadging money from friends, squandering what little money fell into his hands, moving his place of lodging repeatedly and into ever-lower circumstances — found time to write the myriad short stories, poems, and critical reviews he completed, and to do so with such brilliance and bursts of wisdom.
Through the life he led, Poe became the prototype of the tormented, self-absorbed artist so tiresomely common within Western culture in the years since his death: misunderstood by the unthinking herd and not bound by the rules by which other men live. But as Ackroyd demonstrates, Poe was far from misunderstood by his contemporaries. In fact, he was acclaimed as America’s greatest writer during his lifetime, and those who knew him understood him all too well — as both a remarkable writer and a relentless liar who made up “stretchers” about his history and accomplishments, as well as a scoundrel who betrayed every man who ever befriended or trusted him. His strange death in Baltimore — Poe was found outside a saloon wearing clothes not his own, muttering cryptic remarks, semi-conscious from either drink, drugs, exhaustion, illness, a serious beating, or a combination of the above, and then died before the truth of his condition could be discovered — was somehow fitting for a man intent on playing a self-imposed tragic role. “He was a congenital fabulist,” writes Ackroyd, “a mendacity that suggests insecurity and pride in equal measure.”
These characteristics seem to have arisen from Poe’s earliest years. Born in Boston to a struggling family of actors, and raised in Richmond, Va., Poe was abandoned by his hard-drinking father, David Poe, and then, at age three, orphaned by the death of his tubercular mother, Eliza. He was adopted and raised to adulthood by a well-off merchant family, the Allans. Despite his Northern heritage, Poe considered himself a Southerner and a Virginia gentleman (however imperfectly he played the role) all his life: gallant with women, comfortable with the Old South’s caste system, and resentful of the North’s cultural dominance. He also was forever drawn to young, dying women, pathetically seeking a substitute for his departed mother and his kind stepmother (who died when he was a young adult). From an early age, thanks in part to brooding on his mother’s death and ghostly tales he heard from the Allan family’s servants, he was drawn to cemeteries, to gloom and the fearful. Ackroyd records a story of Poe’s boyhood in which the lad was driven past a log cabin surrounded by graves, at the sight of which he abruptly screamed, “They will run after us and drag me down!”
His entire life became a fascinated gaze into the abyss, and an attempt not to be swept into it. He would entertain, but then thwart, the imp of the perverse. (In his story “A Descent into the Maelström,” the narrator both admires the deadly whirlpool into which his ship has been swept and takes practical action to escape it, eventually ascending to the ocean’s surface after lashing himself to a barrel.)
Through Ackroyd we learn that the circumstances of his subject’s life are intimately interwoven with his work, and that Poe’s 40 years were cut short not by madness, as Griswold suggested in a scurrilous obituary notice at the time, but by the man’s addictions, obsessions, and self-destructive choices. Poe became a binge drinker and a spendthrift in his mid-teens, during his single year at the University of Virginia; and for the rest of his life his behavior followed a fairly predictable pattern: When sober, he was industrious, charming, and courteous; when drunk, he was irascible, irresponsible, and mean as a snake. Insanity may have played some role in Poe’s downfall, but it was the strong drink that was decisive.
At times, Ackroyd seems unsure of his terrain. At one point he describes Poe as “the most calculating of authors, never to be confused with his disturbed and even psychotic narrators,” but elsewhere he speaks of the horror of Poe’s morbid despair and says, “Poe’s impersonality resembles the apparent calmness of the frenzied narrators of his stories.”
The biographer is entirely on target, however, in his capsule assessments of Poe’s accomplishments as a poet and short-story writer. And to his credit, Ackroyd gives Poe his due as a critic, describing him as possessing “a fine critical mind tempered with satire and mordant wit,” which he wielded like a whip of scorpions on some of the most respected books and authors of his age. He once stated that as a reviewer he would never put up with what he could put down — words with which Mencken might have heartily concurred. But as Ackroyd also notes, Poe also overpraised certain authors — particularly female poets he longed to ensnare romantically; and his ill-considered war of words against Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was borderline libelous, with Poe dismissing Longfellow in lectures and reviews as a mere adapter of other poets’ works, and even an outright plagiarist. (Longfellow’s chief sins, actually, were those of being a Northerner and being widely recognized as America’s greatest poet of the day, garnering praise that grated against Poe’s vanity.)
Longfellow never responded to Poe’s accusations. After Poe’s death he praised his tormentor as “a man so richly endowed with genius,” adding: “The harshness of his criticisms I have never attributed to anything but the irritation of a sensitive nature chafed by some indefinite sense of wrong.” That sensitive nature is brought to life in all its sadness, rashness, triumph, and doom in Ackroyd’s short biography.
– Mr. Person is the author of Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind and Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow.