Every life and reputation could use some buffing up now and then, and Edgar Allan Poe, his influence obscured by legions of bad imitators, more than most.
Peter Ackroyd, in this short, sharp and immensely readable little biography, is just the man to do it. Poe's imprint is on everything from crime fiction (the Edgars are awarded annually to the best mystery stories) to holidays (our celebration of Halloween owes more to Poe than Christmas does to Dickens) to the nickname of Baltimore's National Football League franchise.
Yet in 2009, 200 years after his birth, Poe's image has faded, and he has receded a bit into what G.K. Chesterton called "the twilight realm of the praised but unread."
Well, not entirely unread, but perhaps less read than, say, half a century ago, when he was a staple of American literature anthologies. One of the few biographers with equal standing as a critic, Ackroyd is the first writer in decades to bring Poe's life and work into sharp focus and impress urgency on an appreciation of his oeuvre. (He also profiled Chaucer and the painter J.M.W. Turner in his Brief Lives series and has splendidly dealt with, among others, Shakespeare, Dickens and T.S. Eliot at greater length.)
Ackroyd rescues Poe from the layers of cliches and misinterpretations built up over generations. For instance, Poe did not invent Gothic literature, he "reinvigorated the Gothic tradition of horror and morbid sensationalism by centering it upon the human frame"
Though Poe's material was unabashedly romantic in flavor, he molded and honed it with a sensibility that was undeniably classic; far from being the undisciplined shaper of dreams and subconscious emotions that many early critics thought him to be, Poe was "the most calculating of authors, never to be confused with his disturbed and even psychotic narrators. Poe the writer arrived carefully after the most extreme effects."
"Anxiety," though, "was his childhood bedfellow." Born in Boston in 1809 to Southern parents — traveling actors "whose status was just a little higher than that of vagabonds" — Edgar was orphaned at the age of 2 when his father abandoned the family and his mother died of consumption; he was taken in and raised by friends of his mother. As a youth he was described by some as having "a very sweet disposition . . . always cheerful." It did not last long: Soon "young Poe harbored a grudge against the world."
He analyzed himself better than anyone else ever could a few weeks before his death: "I do believe God gave me a spark of genius, but he quenched it in misery."
It was a great deal more than a spark, perhaps a bit too much for the staid and stuffy literary establishment of his time. "It can be said with some certainty," Ackroyd concludes, "that Poe's true genius was not recognized until after his death." But then, he had no one but himself to blame.
As perverse as the doppelganger in his story William Wilson, Poe undermined his own career with his savage attacks on other writers. Though he was considered in his own lifetime to be one of America's most important writers — "The most controversial, and most widely discussed, literary journalist in the country," as Ackroyd describes him — he alienated nearly every influential writer and editor in that country.
Combined with his "unerring ability to choose frail, or in some way damaged, women, thus revisiting the experience of his fading mother," Poe practically ensured himself a life of poverty and deprivation. He died in 1849 in Baltimore under mysterious circumstances, possibly delirium tremens or tuberculosis or even a brain tumor — "The well is too deep for the truth to be recovered."
He has become, in our time, "the image of the poete maudit, the blasted soul, the wanderer. His fate was heavy, his life all but unsupportable," Ackroyd writes. Never accepted by his contemporaries, he was, in what would have been his old age had he lived past 40, lionized by European writers such as Baudelaire and Tennyson (who thought him "the most original genius that America has produced") and later by such diverse writers and poets as Nietzsche, Kafka, Yeats and Joyce. It's hard to believe that Poe wouldn't have considered such praise fair payment for a life drenched in misery.
Allen Barra's latest book, "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee," will be published in March by W.W. Norton.