Pretty Letters

Megan Marshall

  • Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd
    Chatto, 170 pp, £15.99, February 2008, ISBN 978 0 7011 6988 6

Where to begin? It’s the biographer’s fundamental dilemma. These days it’s a rare biography that opens with a recital of its subject’s pedigree, then works its way methodically from cradle to grave. Chronology is both a gift and a curse, offering an attractively simple narrative structure but risking the tedium of ever-forward motion. Why not borrow the sure-fire novelistic tricks of flashback and flash-forward to elude that soporific ‘and then’?

So, it is little surprise to find the prolific genre-bender Peter Ackroyd beginning his brief biography of Edgar Allan Poe with a recounting of his subject’s final days. Never mind that Paul Strathern’s recent biographical study, Poe in 90 Minutes, and a new novel by Matthew Pearl, The Poe Shadow, made the same opening gambit. It is a span of six days that has baffled first Poe’s family and friends, and then his biographers, since his death in 1849 at the age of 40. As Ackroyd writes, ‘like his narratives and fables, Poe’s own story ends abruptly and inconclusively; it is bedevilled by a mystery that has never been, and probably can never be, resolved.’

On Thursday, 27 September 1849, Poe was to have boarded a steamer in Richmond, Virginia, bound for New York by way of Baltimore. The last sighting was by a doctor Poe consulted the night before for a fever; he administered a ‘palliative’. Was there alcohol in the dose? Poe had recently joined a temperance society, finally acknowledging the dire effects of what he called the ‘mania a potu’ that seized him in moments of elation and depression. It took just one drink to send him off on a spree. Poe’s luggage remained behind in his Richmond hotel, but surely he left the room wearing his customary black cape, waistcoat and cravat. Not without reason he’d been nicknamed ‘the Raven’ after his poem, published four years earlier, brought him a measure of the fame he craved. The dark-haired, black mustachioed Poe cultivated a likeness to the bird.

Poe left no trace of his whereabouts, but the following Wednesday he turned up in a Baltimore tavern, nearly comatose and wearing a straw hat and ill-fitting clothes, sans waistcoat and neckcloth. He was taken to a local hospital, and spent the next day in a delirium. The resident physician noted his ‘constant talking – and vacant converse with spectral and imaginary objects on the walls’. Poe recovered his senses long enough to tell one of his obscurely motivated lies – he had a wife waiting for him in Richmond, he told the doctor, when in fact his much younger wife, his first cousin Virginia Clemm Poe, had died two years before – and to recoil in horror when the doctor suggested that friends would soon arrive to care for him. Friends? Poe declared the best thing any friend could do for him would be to take a gun and blow his brains out. By Sunday morning he was dead anyway.

Poe’s biographers, like so many post-mortem enablers, have tried to come up with an explanation other than alcohol for his lost six days and early death. Ackroyd runs through most of them – tuberculosis, ‘lesion of the brain’, diabetes. Matthew Pearl recently made headlines suggesting evidence of a brain tumour. ‘The well is too deep for the truth to be recovered,’ Ackroyd concludes, insisting, in his turn, that Poe was ‘not an alcoholic’: merely ‘a habitual drinker’.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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