A Life Cut Short
Nan. A Talese/Doubleday:
210 pp., $21.95
Peter Ackroyd is never less than instructive and, much of the time, incisive. This is a man of letters from, as it were, A to Z. Ackroyd is the accomplished author of more than a dozen novels, two books of poetry and a half-dozen volumes of criticism and nonfiction -- including “London: The Biography” and “Thames: The Biography.” As a chronicler of individuals rather than cities or rivers, he has offered up full-dress accounts of “Ezra Pound and his World,” “The Life of Thomas More,” “Shakespeare: The Biography,” as well as sizable biographies of Dickens, T.S. Eliot and Blake. Interspersing this banquet with a series of amuse-bouche bites, he has also produced a sequence of “Brief Lives.” Previous such studies concerned themselves with Chaucer, J.M.W. Turner and Newton; now he turns his omnivorous attention to Edgar Allan Poe, about whom Ackroyd writes:
“Edgar Allan Poe has become the image of the poète maudit, the blasted soul, the wanderer. His fate was heavy, his life all but insupportable. A rain of blows descended on him from the time of his birth. He once said that ‘to revolutionise, at one effort, the universal world of human thought’ it was necessary only ‘to write and publish a very little book. Its title should be simple -- a few plain words -- ‘My Heart Laid Bare.’ But -- this little book must be true to its title.’ Poe never wrote such a book, but his life deserved one.”
As Ackroyd’s “little book” suggests, Poe’s life was “cut short”; he died at the age of 40, in 1849, after having disappeared from the authenticated record for six days. Less fatally, he had vanished before -- as a result of drugs, perhaps, and certainly of alcohol, in thrall to delusions of passion as well as persecution.
Poe was self-aggrandizing, hysterical, a motherless mother’s boy with a penchant for young girls. He was fired as often as hired, ungrateful to sponsors and always in debt; routinely, he wore black. His boastfulness, as in the prose poem “Eureka” (1848), in which he mustered a theory of the universe, wears thin. And, as Ackroyd reports it, there’s more than a touch of hyperbole:
“At the beginning of 1845 Poe met a journalistic friend in a New York street and confided in him.
“ ‘Wallace,’ said Poe, ‘I have just written the greatest poem that ever was written.’
“ ‘Have you?’ replied Wallace. ‘That is a fine achievement.’
“ ‘Would you like to hear it?’ asked Poe.
“ ‘Most certainly,’ said Wallace.
“Thereupon Poe recited the verses of ‘The Raven.’ ”
If not, perhaps, “the greatest poem that ever was written,” “The Raven” is surely among the best known and the most often recited. Poe’s ear was excellent; the pure verbal music of “Ulalume,” “The Bells” and “Annabel Lee” is nearly nonpareil. Some credit him with having invented the genre of detective fiction, as in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and the French detective C. Auguste Dupin; others hail him as the preeminent practitioner of the gothic horror narrative, as in “The Fall of the House of Usher” or “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The writer’s influence abroad -- particularly on French Symbolist poets such as Baudelaire and Mallarmé -- cannot be overstated; and he continues to cast a dark shadow on the American imagination: husband of a child-bride, swashbuckler, failed student and soldier, dreamer, visionary, drunk.
Ackroyd is particularly good on Poe as journalist and editor. The author of “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym” was a brilliant critic, exacting and fond of invective; he knew how to gain and hold a readership’s attention: “He understood the virtues of terseness and unity of effect; he realized the necessity of sensationalism and of the exploitation of contemporary ‘crazes.’ In his lifetime he was sometimes condemned as a mere ‘Magazinist,’ but that perilous and badly rewarded profession would be the cradle of his genius.”
Every once in a while, the prose here grows perfunctory and the biographer borrows from his subject’s heavy-breathing diction: “So did fate choose to pursue Poe throughout his life” is the sort of gnomic utterance to which Ackroyd inclines. But mostly he’s judicious and acute: “All his life he liked to wander through cemeteries. Death and beauty were, in his imagination, inextricably and perpetually associated. ‘No more’ was his favourite phrase. The secret chambers and the mouldering mansions, in which his fictions loved to dwell, are to be construed as those of the mind or of the grave.”
If one cannot say of Ackroyd’s book that it’s a “Heart Laid Bare,” death and beauty are indeed associated here. The “life cut short” enlarges.
Delbanco is the Robert Frost distinguished university professor of English at the University of Michigan and the author of 24 books, including, most recently, “The Count of Concord: A Novel.”