NR Digital

Into the Abyss

by James E. Person Jr.
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.