Gothic hor­ror tale of a south­ern Yan­kee

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - By Alan Saun­ders

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.

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