Friday, April 17, 2009

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

After an unintended sabbatical, I'm coming back with a little non-fiction to get things starting again. The British biographer, essayist and historian Peter Ackroyd is currently turning out a series of quick, 200 page biographies, one of which focuses on every high school kid's favorite dark, spooky poet, Edgar Allan Poe.

I'm a sucker for short bios in this vein. My shelves are lined with the Penguin Lives series, as well as Times Books' American Presidents series, both of which can become quite addictive. While such books don't usually serve as more than an extended meditation on the life of the subject, the format allows the right writer to illuminate the major themes lying within any given biography and provide the right introduction to a reader who wants to dig a little deeper.

With his short, turbulent career and the mysteries surrounding his death, Poe is ideal for this. Ackroyd pays Poe a compliment that few American literary scholars seem capable of - he takes him seriously. Poe is problematic for several reasons - chiefly that while technically brilliant in his verse, his dark subject matter make some ready to dash him off to that same literary ghetto where H.P. Lovecraft dwells and Stephen King seems destined to occupy. That kind of blinkered thinking regarding the literature of the fantastic probably won't be extended to the natural realists.

Ackroyd pays plenty of attention to Poe the critic, the meticulous poet who believed in the musicality of verse, and the dogged craftsman - while giving us the haunted man who is convinced of his literary star. Ackroyd dispenses with a few myths I harbored - for example, that Poe was never adequately appreciated in his lifetime. On the contrary, his reputation was already assured by the time he died, though he never received the money he might have expected for his efforts in another age. But the picture of the desperate, pale, haunted author of "Annabel Lee" is still recognizable. It's interesting to consider in this year, the bicentennial of Poe's birth as well as Lincoln, that if Lincoln had been a short story writer, his subject matter might well have been as dark as Poe's.

Ackroyd also points beyond a particular story to the man it sprang from, such as his musings on "The Imp of the Perverse:"

"It was a narrative of rueful contemplation in which the narrator muses upon the human capacity to act in a contrary manner "for the reason that we should not." To do that which is forbidden - to do that which goes against all our instincts of self-love and self-preservation - therein lies the power of the imp. Never to stay long in any employment; to be drawn towards young women who were dying; to quarrel continually with friends; to drink excessively, even when told that the indulgence would kill him. Therein dwells the imp."

It might be fair to ask why we are drawn to tales of darkness. It's not enough for a literary heroine to fall in love with a dangerous man. Such things happen everyday. But make the dangerous man a vampire, and you have the Twilight series. Poe's life was a life of the mind, and the human mind is a very dark place - where sin and the self-contradictions of our moral awareness lie and cheat and steal against each other with our soul as the prize. If there is a mystery we cannot fathom in our lives, like Poe struggled with in his, it is the riddle of what we are to do with our lives should we rise above the passions that stalk our deepest dreams.

We can find two things in Poe's life as in his fiction - the fascination with a life that seemingly dwells beyond what might normally be anticipated, and the all-too-human outcomes that even the supernatural cannot undo.

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