Friday, April 9, 2010

Poe: A Life Cut Short

Miss Lemon was just browsing some reviews of Poe: A Life Cut Short (2008) by Peter Ackroyd, (after the fact of reading it, as she is often wont to do) and finds she must agree with at least one critic, who acidly observes that this could be resubtitled: A Book Cut Short.

Not that Miss Lemon intends any unkindness toward Mr. Ackroyd, whose tale  The Lambs of London, for instance, held her in utter thrall. It's just that she couldn't fight the feeling of disappointment that trailed her like a ball of lead as she slogged through the pages of this lithe and airy looking biography.

The problem, it seems, is that barely any life at all is breathed into the American poet and master of the macabre.

The biography begins promisingly enough -- and with Miss Lemon's favourite, a mystery:
On the evening of 26 September 1849, Edgar Allan Poe stopped in the office of a physician in Richmond, Virginia -- John Carter -- and obtained a palliative for the fever that had beset him. Then he went across the road and had supper at a local inn. He took with him, by mistake, Dr. Carter's malacca sword cane.
From there, Poe set out for a steamboat to Baltimore. It was the last time anyone would see him or officially account for his whereabouts. That is, until six days later, when he was about to meet his death.

With so much potential, it's a pity the biography doesn't continue in this arresting and mysterious vein. But what follows seem more like scattered vignettes and snippets of Poe's disappoinments and disgraces. What Miss Lemon longed for -- but did not find -- were the portraits of Poe as a writer. What, she wanted to know, fueled Poe's creative fire? How did he work?

Indeed, the way Mr. Ackroyd tells it, it's difficult to imagine Poe ever setting pen to paper at all, occupied as he was in getting himself dismissed from West Point, engaging in inappropriate love affairs, nursing his consumptive relations, running up debts, insulting his colleagues, getting sacked from various offices, and hitting up erstwhile friends and relations for the loan of $10 or more.

Poe's 1841 story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue," credited as one of the first modern detective stories, is scarcely given a passing mention. But perhaps, this being a brief biography, there simply wasn't room. Even so, Miss Lemon noticed bits of repetition in the narrative -- one of her pet peeves, to be sure, and evidence of her notion that perhaps this biographical endeavor was put together in too much haste.

But all is not lost for Mr. Ackroyd's tribute to Poe. For what it did do was send Miss Lemon back to what she views as two of the greatest contributions to American lyric poetry: "The Raven"  and the stunningly onomatopoeic "The Bells." For that, she isn't sorry.


  1. A very spot-on review! When I read Ackroyd's book, I couldn't even take it too seriously because I found it so feeble. Like you, I got the impression that it was a hastily-done hack job commissioned by the publishers.

    By the way, not only does it give no insights into Poe's work, it's even worthless for learning about the man himself. Ackroyd basically just condensed Kenneth Silverman's silly 1992 biography (a book that is something of a joke among Poe scholars,) and he didn't even do that very well. There are a lot of factual errors, not to mention many claims that are based on discredited or dubious evidence (although I'm used to seeing that in books about Poe.)

    By the way, I love the title of your blog.

  2. Dear Undine,
    Thanks much! I do appreciate your thoughtful comments. Could you recommend a better biography for Miss Lemon? She's ever so curious about Poe ... esp. as a writer.
    --Miss L

  3. Well, Poe was such an unrevealing and complicated character, he's basically a biographer's worst nightmare. There aren't too many books about him that are any good, but by far the most intelligent biography is the one published by Arthur H. Quinn in 1941. (I believe it was re-issued a few years ago.) You can find the book online at the site of the Edgar Allan Poe Society ( Quinn avoids the endless stupid psychoanalyzing that characterizes most Poe biographies, and concentrates more on his work. The book has its flaws, but, as I say, it's definitely the best of the lot.

  4. Oh, I'll certainly take a look. Thanks again!