Gothic horror tale of a southern Yankee
WHEN Peter Ackroyd was being interviewed for a job at The Spectator, he was asked by the magazine’s notoriously bibulous editor whether he had any personal problems. He confessed to ‘‘ a bit of a drinking problem’’ and got the job instantly.
That was long ago and Ackroyd has eased off since then, but could it be his love of the occasional tipple that drew him to the subject of his latest biography? Perhaps and perhaps not. Edgar Allan Poe’s drinking had a desperate quality which few even of the most harddrinking can manage. Besides, there are other, deeper affinities.
Between drinks — and often it really was a long time between drinks — Poe was every bit as disciplined a writer as his prolific biographer. During his years in the army, he seems to have been a model of military discipline and what he managed on parade, he could manage at his desk. Everything he wrote was controlled and calculated.
The man who emerges from Ackroyd’s limpid account is more than something of a paradox. Poe was a northerner by birth but spent his formative years in Virginia and died, just 40 years old, in Baltimore, which is neither wholly northern nor wholly southern. He was a man of dual identity. There was Poe the southern gentleman: proud, jealous of his honour, an enemy of abolitionism, with an imagination that was thoroughly Gothic. Then there was Poe the Yankee: hard- working and in control, who increased enormously the circulations of the magazines he edited, who knew what the public wanted and gave it to them.
What they wanted was something that would grab their attention from the outset and not detain them long. ‘‘ All of his endings are abrupt and inconclusive,’’ Ackroyd says of Poe’s tales, ‘‘ thus prolonging a mood of uncertainty and even of anxiety.’’
In the works, morbid southern imagination and northern efficiency unite to unforgettable effect. Some of us have never quite got over The Fall of the House of Usher , and even The Raven , which is more than a touch overdone (‘‘ Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’’), still haunts with its plangent melody.
Sadly for Poe, however, his life was doomed, haunted, southern. His parents were actors, which seems appropriate: ‘‘ There was always a trace of vaudeville in his performance,’’ Ackroyd observes, and this, together with a talent for parody, is something else Poe has in common with his biographer.
Poe’s mother, Eliza, had already contracted tuberculosis when he was born and was dead before he was three. His father, David Poe of Richmond, Virginia, had already abandoned his family. The consequence of both parents’ desertion was that little Edgar Poe was taken into care by a Richmond businessman and his wife, Frances and John Allan, and thus became Edgar Allan Poe.
The more intangible result may have been that Poe, who venerated his mother’s memory, acquired a fascination with bodily decay and with frail, emaciated women.
He married one and, like a good southerner, married her when she very much underage. She died of tuberculosis, having spent a winter in New York with nothing but Poe’s greatcoat and their cat to keep her warm.
‘‘ His fate was heavy, his life all but insupportable,’’ Ackroyd says of Poe’s poor and vagrant existence. ‘‘ A rain of blows descended
on him from the time of his birth.’’ And his death? He went missing and was found in a tavern in Baltimore. He spent a couple of delirious days in hospital. Then he died. It could have been drink, it could have been a brain tumour: Ackroyd enumerates the possibilities but declines to speculate.
Even while he lived, Poe was acknowledged as one of his country’s most original writers. In death, he found, as Ackroyd movingly remarks, his true family: the writers who admired him, from Mallarme and Baudelaire, to Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle and Franz Kafka.
The French loved him for something that doubtless finds an echo with Ackroyd: a concern with perfection of form in literature rather than reportage.
But he was also a pioneer of science fiction and of the detective story. For all the Gothic horror of his work, Poe was one of us, a modern. He is even reported to have said, ‘‘ No man lives unless he is famous,’’ which makes him sound very now.
In Celebrity Big Brother, he’d be the drunk sleeping it off in the corner and, in unconscious delirium, devising his next great work. Alan Saunders presents The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design on ABC Radio National.