Poe by Peter Ackroyd

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Poe by Peter Ackroyd

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A concise biography of the father of the detective tale and the horror story, who battled with ill-health, alcoholism, and the fear that he could distinctly hear the sound of the darkness as it stole over the horizon.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: February 2008
Publisher: Chatto and Windus
ISBN: 978-0701169886

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They say rules are made to be broken, and Ackroyd breaks one in the opening chapter of this concise biography, by starting with Poe’s last few days on earth. Normally I would find this approach irritating, though I’ve often seen it done before. Nevertheless it does lead the reader well into the story, by way of an introduction to what was an extraordinary life.

Edgar Allan Poe’s literary achievements are legion. He was the first famous American author to try and earn his living through writing alone. As Arthur Conan Doyle would later readily admit, he was the ‘father of the detective tale’, as well as arguably of science fiction and horror stories, and even a founding father on Symbolism and Surrealism before such terms were recognised or even coined. The most remarkable thing is that everything he did was condensed into a life of only forty years.

The son of travelling players, Poe was born in January 1809 under an unlucky star. I do believe God gave me a spark of genius, he would say later, but He quenched it in misery. His parents died when he was young and he was ‘taken in’, though not officially adopted, by a couple who took him to England in 1815, and moved back to the US five years later. After a brief military career he took to writing poems and short stories, while working as an editor and reviewer for various literary journals and periodicals. His cousin, later his wife, Virginia, died of tuberculosis in 1847, a tragedy which tipped this already unstable man over the abyss. He had long since had a drink problem, and a member of staff on one of his journals called him a fine gentleman when he was sober, but one of the most disagreeable men I have ever met when not. An unsuccessful courtship failed, perhaps because of his intended mother-in-law's interference, perhaps through his erratic behaviour. Eventually he lost his reason, saying in a lucid moment that he often thought he could distinctly hear the sound of the darkness as it stole over the horizon.

In a distant age when facts about the lives of the great, the good, the bad and the unfortunate are often distorted or incomplete, or both, an air of mystery hung about his death. It is known that he died in hospital, but the events of the preceding few days are distinctly odd. Whether alcoholism, tuberculosis, a brain tumour, a combination of the three, or some other cause (even involvement in some dubious political vote-rigging), did for him, will never be known.

As biographies go, this is relatively brief – though it can be argued that a 500-page blockbuster on someone who died so young might be unwarranted, as well as heavy going. But Ackroyd succeeds brilliantly in bringing his tormented subject to life, and the selection of plates is good. It is clear from his telling of the sad story that Poe was a talented, extremely imaginative spirit, yet constantly at war with himself. Would he have produced more dazzling works of fiction or poetry that put his existing oeuvre in the shade, had he lived another few years – or would he have eked out a few more miserable years, full of potential which he had little chance of achieving?

I might add that I was only about three chapters into this book before itching to get my hands on a book of Poe’s writings and renew my acquaintance with an author whom I had not read since my teens.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag..

Recommendations for further reading – Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer.

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Buy Poe by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Poe by Peter Ackroyd at Amazon.com.


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