This is a biography of legendary American writer Edgar Allan Poe. It begins with his death detailing the strange circumstances surrounding it. Ackroyd follows Poe’s steps and actions during his trip to New York, which stopped in Baltimore then on to Philadelphia and back to Baltimore, where he met with members of his family. The writer’s death is treated with the utmost respect and mystery. Ackroyd frequently refers to his research and the words of colleagues to paint a picture of Poe’s travels. It shows that he was a true Poe admirer.
The chapters that follow paint a larger picture of Poe’s life from birth, and you do find several revelations surrounding the author’s life. For example, his birth name is Edgar Poe; Allan was the name given to him by his adoptive parents. While he had a well-maintained relationship with his adoptive parents, Poe lacked a view of his birth parents. He wrote this later in life about his mother:
‘ I, myself never knew her and never knew the affection of a father. Both died within a few weeks of each other. I have many occasional dealings with Adversity, but the want of parental affection has been the heaviest of my trials.’
The pages continue to follow his life with the adoptive parents Frances and John Allan, an upper class couple, his time at school, and slowly flows into the the man who we have come to know. There are also tons of little nuggets of shocking and interesting truths that will have you awkwardly looking away for a moment as well as stating the occasional ‘Oh, so that’s where he got that from.’
Peter Ackroyd’s writing is fantastic. While reading this book it feels as if you are reading any other story. It doesn’t feel like a biography and it isn’t written like a history book. It uses effective storytelling narratives such as starting at the end and then going back to the beginning, as well as proposing conversations that might have happened at the time in the form of dialogue. As stated before, this book is very well researched and you do see that Ackroyd did not just rely on books but also on the thoughts of others to complete his imagination of Poe. The book also comes with several pictures and illustrations showing Poe in various stages of his life, including members of his family such as his birth mother, his adoptive parents, his wife and where he grew up.
While reading this I was reminded of a quote by Science Fiction reviewer, Charles Sonnenburg (aka SF Debris). He was speaking of a fictional character in the Star Trek universe, but I think it applies here too. ‘He is like many great men and women in history, he is a deeply flawed person but in the eyes of the majority he is an ideal to be admired or at least respected for the greatness that he did rather than the imperfections of the man himself.’
He [Poe] is a man who had the worse start in life, who did not know nor think much of his birth parents, which plagued him for the rest of his life. He was a boy that was lucky for his second chance, given parents who loved and admired him. As a young man he saw the horrors of war, taking actions that would bring shame to him. He had failed relationships, experienced loss and turned to his pen and paper for comfort. He was the man who never smiled, the man whose death was just as mysterious as the stories that he wrote. If you are a fan of his work, I highly recommend you look for Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Poe: A Life Cut Short.’