Latest entry in the prolific biographer’s Brief Lives series sketches a tormented existence begun in misery, ended in mystery.
In his portrait of Edgar Allan Poe (1809–49), Ackroyd (Thames: The Biography, 2008, etc.) offers no novelty, just brevity and some striking sentences—the final one in the book is alone worth the purchase price. The text opens with the destitute, disoriented, dying Poe discovered on the streets of Baltimore. Ackroyd wisely abstains from too much speculation about the writer’s demise (“the truth is lost,” he acknowledges) and does not advance any new theory about those final days missing from the historical record. The biographer pulls few punches. He reminds us that Poe’s foster parents, the Allans, were slaveowners and that the writer remained in many ways an archetypal Southern white racist his entire life. (Racial attitudes expressed in several famous tales, including “The Gold Bug,” make them difficult to read today.) Ackroyd also emphasizes Poe’s drinking problem, arguing that he was at times not just intoxicated but totally saturated in alcohol. He does not adequately explain, however, how a man continually besotted managed to be so astonishingly productive. Ackroyd sticks to an unadorned chronology, following the orphaned Poe from John Allan’s Richmond, Va., home through school and teenage activities (including some surprising acts of physical prowess—he swam the James River rapids) to his truncated adventures at the nascent University of Virginia, in the Army and at West Point. We see Allan breaking with Poe, who inherited nothing from his wealthy foster father. We watch a proud, even arrogant artist struggle to make his name in the literary world. Ackroyd deals sensitively with Poe’s marriage to his very young cousin Virginia Clemm, and is incredulous with his hysterical, simultaneous courtships of three women after Clemm died.
Necessarily sketchy, but often insightful, sometimes stunning.