Poe: A Life Cut Short
by Peter Ackroyd
(Nan A. Talese, 224 pages, $21.95)
One year before his death, Edgar Allan Poe published a treatise on the origins and destiny of the universe, which predicted his work would finally be appreciated around A.D. 4000. Because Poe is not well known for his sense of humor, his remark is often interpreted as a wild misreading of his true cultural contributions. As a cosmologist, Poe was a laughingstock. As a writer of fiction, he not only invented the detective story but also produced a handful of chilling narrative poems and horror stories that are still widely read today. One of those poems, “The Raven,” made him a household name in his brief lifetime but earned him all of $9. At least his widely ridiculed foray into theoretical physics brought in $14.
British novelist Peter Ackroyd has produced a concise new life of Poe “just in time” to celebrate the doomed bard’s 200th birthday, said Heller McAlpin in The Christian Science Monitor. Born in Boston on Jan. 19, 1809, Poe lived a “productive but dismal” 40 years. Abandoned by his father at age 2 and orphaned a year later when his mother died of consumption, young Edgar was fortunate to be raised and educated by prosperous Virginia foster parents. But as Ackroyd’s “amply detailed” account makes clear, Poe rubbed many people the wrong way. After his foster mother died, his foster father cut him off “without a cent.” He battled poverty, “a predilection for alcohol,” and an obsession with dying maidens for the rest of his days.
Ackroyd isn’t a real Poe enthusiast, and “I can’t say I blame him,” said Adam Begley in The New York Observer. Though Poe’s tales can be “spellbinding,” they’re never “wholly transfixing.” He was better at dramatizing universal fears and longings than connecting to the pathos of the particular. That may explain Ackroyd’s own “shallow and lackluster” effort here. Even so, there’s a place for a book that simply recounts the particulars of Poe’s own life “in a tone equal parts crisp and Gothic,” said Sarah Weinman in the Baltimore Sun. “A Life Cut Short works best as a refresher course for the curious” rather than as “a definitive study” of Poe’s idiosyncratic output.