Poe: A Life Cut Short

By PETER ACKROYD

In this commemorative season, when memories of Martin Luther King chime amid bicentennial celebrations of Lincoln and Darwin, the lugubrious remembrance of Edgar Allan Poe strikes a discordant note. Born on January 19, 1809, as the soon-to-be orphaned son of failing itinerant thespians, Poe was the child of sundered fortune. Haughty, insubordinate, and alcoholic, he suffered meaner troubles than the maddened, suffocating fates he told of in his tales; yet the whiff of some infernal magic about his life is unmistakable. His mother, a fragile, stagestruck creature, succumbed to tuberculosis when he was an infant, and the loss wove into him an aesthetic composed of delicacy and estrangement. “I could not love except where Death / Was mingling his with Beauty’s breath,” he wrote in youthful verse, revealing the compound of lurid intimacy and poetic inevitability that marks his legacy in letters. Poe: A Life Cut Short is an installment in Peter Ackroyd’s Brief Lives series, and the prolific novelist deftly captures the frustrated menace of the man and the ragged world of rented rooms and dirt-floor saloons in which he served his cheap and angry exile. Lurching through this grimy purgatory of the 19th century, Poe blazed a path for literature in America. With a fierce critical intellect and a glowering imagination, his brief life blazes forth amid all its dusty shadows.