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.

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