Thursday, March 12, 2009

Biography: Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd

To talk about Poe: A Life Cut Short (Doubleday/Nan. A. Talese) is to talk about Peter Ackroyd’s “Brief Lives” bite-sized biographies, because this latest entry falls into that series. But even that description -- “bite-sized” -- trivializes something that, though small, is actually quite grand.

Poe: A Life Cut Short is no Coles Notes biography: no abbreviation of a richer story. Rather it is an eloquently told biography in its own right, created by an author who knows his way around this world, having written internationally acclaimed biographies of William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Charles Dickens and others. To demonstrate, I offer up the beginning of Chapter Two, where Ackroyd’s subject is offered up in sketch form:
Edgar Allan Poe has become the image of the poète maudit, the blasted soul, the wanderer. His fate was heavy, his life all but unsupportable. 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.
Obviously, I pull that quote now because Ackroyd here might be seen to be attempting to live Poe’s advice. Does Ackroyd add to the knowledge of this tragic, talented writer? I’m no Poe specialist, but I do not believe there is actual new material here. However, he slices Poe’s life with expert precision and the insight of one who is accustomed to looking at distant facts and having them line up in a sensical way.

Poe: A Life Cut Short is an enjoyable and surprisingly detailed biography. Published in the United Kingdom in 2008, the book saw light in North America in January of this year, just in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe’s birth.

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