Poe: a Life Cut Short
Peter Ackroyd Chatto & Windus, 170pp, £15.99
Of late, Peter Ackroyd has seemingly been immersed in the darkened corners of the capital, whether in his mammoth London: the Biography or the meditation on its Sacred River, or appearing as an entertainingly hammy television chronicler of the capital's hidden histories. On the face of it, this little biography of the American poet, short-story writer and critic Edgar Allan Poe might be a departure from his resolutely English stomping grounds. But there are definite parallels. Not only was Poe a one-time resident of Stoke Newington, but in stories such as "The Man of the Crowd" he was one of the first writers to describe the effects of the regimented urban bustle thrown up by the Industrial Revolution.
So we might have the right to expect Ackroyd's propensity for psychogeography, unexpected connections and gnostic (re)interpretations to feature in this biography. After all, not only was Poe's progeny remarkably wide-ranging - modern horror, detective fiction and science fiction all derive from his work, not to mention most of the American Gothic schlock tradition from Roger Corman to Tim Burton - but his influence on psychoanalysis and philosophy is almost as significant. From Sigmund Freud to Jacques Derrida and from Walter Benjamin to Jacques Lacan, Poe's tales of the uncanny, of haunted modernity, of logic and unreason, have been central to modern thought.
Of course, a book of this size (presumably one of Ackroyd's "brief lives", joining Chaucer, Turner and Newton), cannot encompass all of this. Yet it is surprising just how prosaic and leaden A Life Cut Short actually is. It is a straightforward, A-to-B life in which the subject's education, publications and loves are listed, with only flickers of the rhetorical flourish for which Ackroyd is known. It is a quick read, and appears to have been quickly written. The book is pockmarked with ill-thought-out phrases, such the description of Poe's nine-year-old cousin (whom he would marry four years later) as "childlike".
In "The Purloined Letter", that most oblique of mystery tales, Poe's detective Dupin relates that, to solve a crime, he has to get inside his adversary's head, think like him, resemble him and mimic him, in order to re-create his trains of thought and course of action. This is detection followed with inhuman, military precision, yet it carries the uncanniness of the double. Ackroyd is clearly no match for his quarry here, and any probing of Poe's extraordinary mind is restricted to the most basic cod-psychoanalysis, such as the observation that an obsession with teeth could have come from observing his dying mother. Tellingly, the only thinker directly cited here is Carl Jung. Ackroyd follows the Jungian preference for irrationalism over reason, despite Poe's clear affinities with both.
Devoid of ideas, this short biography is left to rely entirely on the details marshalled in it: on the particular facts of Poe's own life. It was not completely uninteresting, if decidedly grim. Poe, an orphan whose mother was an émigrée actress from Covent Garden, would be raised by John and Fanny Allan. Though he loved his mother, whose early death confirmed him in his morbidity, his foster father - a successful businessman - would be Poe's nemesis and source of money. Ackroyd picks up intriguing scraps of detail, such as Poe scribbling his first poem on Allan's sums of compound interest. As Benjamin noted, "There is something demonic about Poe's businessmen." Poe's attempts at a career, from a spell in the military to a spot of clerical work, were always subsidiary to his passions: gambling, heavy drinking, writing and strangely sexless relationships with pale, ill women.
This is what most of the book focuses on, and it's a fairly standard slice of living fast, dying young and leaving a pale and interesting corpse. Certainly, Poe comes across as both unpleasant and unfortunate, with his self-pity, support for slavery (racism is a frequent defect in horror writers, for some reason), a histrionic (if justified) belief in his own genius, and a propensity to rename love poems after whichever consumptive beauty he was in pursuit of.
As the book limits itself to mere biographism, bar a brief concluding note on his posthumous fame, the romancing and boozing have to hold the reader's attention. Poe's seeming charmlessness makes this task rather difficult. In the end, one has to ask: What is all this for? There are plenty of other books on Poe (18 are listed in the bibliography), so what does Ackroyd offer that the others don't? He could have poured his more recondite interests, or the fantastical urbanism of so much of his work, into this biography and made something much more strange and powerful. Instead of that, we have a fairly mediocre literary potboiler - one unworthy of its subject, or, for that matter, its author.