April 2008

Arts & Letters

‘Poe: A Life Cut Short’ by Peter Ackroyd

By Justin Clemens

Born into poverty, sickness and vagabondage, Edgar Allan Poe was doomed from the beginning. His parents were actors, a déclassé profession at the time, and both were consumptive. His alcoholic and incompetent father abandoned the family a few years after Poe's birth; his mother promptly died of tuberculosis. Adopted by Fanny and John Allan, the latter an émigré Scottish businessman, little Poe was by all reports an appealing child, excelling in his studies. But appealing can quickly become appalling. By the time Poe entered Virginia University he was prickly and nervous, a hard-drinking and heavy-gambling adolescent perpetually squabbling with his parsimonious stepfather over ever-ballooning debts. Frustrated in his studies, Poe spent a few, surprisingly successful, years in the army before getting himself an early termination, and into officer training at West Point - from which he was dishonourably discharged. Thereafter, he really became the Poe of legend: impecunious, itinerant, invariably dressed in a shabby black suit, a bizarre shell of a man whose too-stiff politesse when sober would give way to unbearable aggressiveness when drunk. Lurching from one abortive magazine job to the next, Poe worked like an "imp of the perverse", with an unerring instinct for self-destruction and misfortune. Yet he also had an incontrovertible genius for writing. A succession of epoch-making stories and poems flowed from his pen, culminating in the astonishing success of ‘The Raven', with its flesh-crawling refrain, "Nevermore."

Obsessed with extremity - torture victims, innocents buried alive, putrescent zombies, demonic metempsychosis and necrophiliac doublings - Poe exemplifies that peculiar ability of North American culture to conjure burlesque terror out of the calculations of pure technique. The novelist and relentless biographer Peter Ackroyd is admirably attentive to these paradoxes of Poe, and to the paradoxes of nineteenth-century America more generally. As he shifts between the democratic, industrialising North and the slave-owning, agrarian South, between the aspirational salons of Boston and the seamy taverns of Virginia, between literary considerations and international copyright law, his prose can assume glints of Poe's own. The orphaned Poe, Ackroyd proposes, finally found "his true family" posthumously, in the great writers who followed him.

Justin Clemens

Justin Clemens writes about contemporary Australian art and poetry. He teaches at the University of Melbourne.

Cover: April 2008

April 2008

From the front page

Labor’s trade dilemma

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is a minefield for the Opposition

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Illustration

The return of the Moree Boomerangs

The First on the Ladder arts project is turning things around for a rugby club and the local kids

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Jackey Jackey & the Yadhaykenu

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The orange-bellied parrot

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The silence of the phones

‘Disquiet’ by Julia Leigh


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein: show tunes and symphonies

Centenary celebrations highlight the composer’s broad ambitions and appeal

Still from Leave No Trace

The hermitic world of Debra Granik’s ‘Leave No Trace’

The ‘Winter’s Bone’ director takes her exploration of family ties off the grid

Image of Low

Low’s ‘Double Negative’: studies in slow transformation

Twelve albums in, the Minnesota three-piece can still surprise in their unique way

Covers of Motherhood and Mothers

To have or not to have: Sheila Heti’s ‘Motherhood’ and Jacqueline Rose’s ‘Mothers’

Heti’s novel asks if a woman should have a child; Rose’s nonfiction considers how society treats her if she does


More in Noted

‘One Hundred Years of Dirt’ by Rick Morton

A social affairs reporter turns the pen on himself

Image of Ancestral Spirit Beings Collecting Honey, 1985-87

‘John Mawurndjul: I Am the Old and the New’ at the MCA, Sydney

The celebrated bark painter’s ethos guides this retrospective exhibition

Cover of Kudos

‘Kudos’ by Rachel Cusk

A masterful trilogy concludes

Image of Michael Cook, Court (2014), no. 7 from the Majority Rule series

‘Colony’ at NGV Australia

Twin exhibitions explore the very different experiences of settlement for European and Indigenous peoples


Read on

Image of Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Portrait of Joseph Roulin’

‘MoMA at NGV: 130 Years of Modern and Contemporary Art’

An eye candy-laden, educational treasure hunt of an exhibition

Image of Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton

Turnbull fires back

Unlike Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull never promised ‘no wrecking’

Image from ‘In Fabric’

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part one)

A British outlier and a British newcomer are among the stand-outs in the first part of the festival

Image from ‘Patrick Melrose’

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect as the imperfect Patrick Melrose

The actor brings together his trademark raffishness and sardonic superiority in this searing miniseries


×
×