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Poe: A Life Cut Short (Ackroyd's Brief Lives) Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 20, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Noted author Ackroyd (The Thames) adds to his one-man Brief Lives series this exploration of the short—and predominantly miserable—life of Edgar Allan Poe. Bringing his novelist's skills to bear, Ackroyd opens with Poe's mysterious death in 1849: Like his narratives and his fables, Poe's own story ends abruptly and inconclusively.... Born in Boston in 1809 to traveling actors and orphaned in 1811, Poe was adopted by Richmond, Va., merchant John Allan. Their relationship soured, and Poe left for a rocky academic career at the University of Virginia and a stint at West Point, and in 1836 he married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia. Despite critical acclaim for his work—from 1839's The Fall of the House of Usher to his famous 1845 poem, The Raven—Poe constantly struggled with alcoholism and poverty, alienating almost everyone he met. At age 40, Poe was discovered dying in a Baltimore tavern; his whereabouts for the previous week remain unknown. But Ackroyd never demonizes the melancholic man who influenced writers as diverse as Jules Verne and James Joyce, and his readable account should appeal to Poe devotees and newcomers alike. Illus. (Jan. 20)
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From Booklist

The fourth Brief Lives volume written by Ackroyd focuses on a man as famous for his personality as his works. As Ackroyd immediately remarks, Poe is the quintessential poete maudit, or accursed artist, greatly talented but thwarted by circumstances at every turn. Portraying Poe as permanently affected by his mother’s ignominious, youthful death, Ackroyd projects from Poe’s mother fixation his affectional preferences for ill young women such as his wife (and cousin) Virginia Clemm or, when such were unavailable, motherly (but not matronly) aesthetes; meanwhile, dying and dead young beauties haunt his stories and poems. Raised in England and Virginia as something of a charity case, Poe was acutely aware of his gifts, which included unforgettable looks, and, morbidly defensive of them, made for an erratic character, alternately efficient and perspicacious, charming and brilliant in conversation, and vindictive and bizarre in behavior—the last especially when he was drunk, as he lamentably often was; in short, definitely attractive-repulsive and ingratiating-infuriating. Though a bit breezy, this is a fine place to begin celebrating the 2009 Poe bicentennial. --Ray Olson

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Product Details

  • Series: Ackroyd's Brief Lives
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese (January 20, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038550800X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385508001
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 7.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #576,167 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 48 people found the following review helpful By Richard Masloski on April 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I love Poe. I love reading his writings and reading writings about him. Mr. Ackroyd's take on the Divine Edgar seems to have been written whilst on the run. (Or more likely to jump-the-gun and take some advantage of the fact that 2009 marks the 200th year of Poe's birth.) Anyway: this is NOT a book, it is an extended essay. It covers no new ground, offers no insight of any deep note into Poe's writings and even manages to get the color of Catterina (Poe's cat) wrong in the space of twenty pages. The book itself is only 160 pages long. Everything in this "book" can be found by browsing some of the better Poe websites out there in cyberspace. Instead of a thoughtful, leisured stroll-on-foot through the weird and haunting landscape of Poe's life, Ackroyd packs his readers in a speedster and puts his foot to the pedal and races us through it all as if he had a train to catch...or perhaps a paycheck to cash. Either way, Poe deserves much better and, hopefully, someone somewhere will offer us a rich and rewarding take on Poe as his birthday draws near.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By C. M Mills on July 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) pondered much as he lived out his short dark and dreary life. Poe first saw light in Boston the son of an impecunious actor father and actress mother. His father disappeared; the mother died while Poe was young. He was adopted by John and Fanny Allan from Richmond, Va. who raised the lad. Poe spent some years in England being given an excellent education for his time and place.
Poe had a disastrous relationship with his father; was expelled from West Point and starved in such cities as Boston, Richmond, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He eked out a living selling short story classics such as "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (the first detective story of note);
"William Wilson": "The Imp in the Bottle"; "The Fall of the House of Usher"; "The Tell-Tale Heart" and other masterpieces of the genre. He also wrote classic poems as "The Bells"; "The Raven" and "Ligea".
Poe married Virginia Clemm his 13 year old cousin who died in his arms. He had affairs with many women who were ill and frail. He often courted rich and married women. Poe was a nonbeliever in God; was a drunkard and never held a steady job for very long. He did edit several literary magazines and newspapers. Some people got along with him while several of his associates found him weird, melancholic and morose. He died in Baltimore in 1849 under mysterious circumstances.
Peter Ackroyd, the prolific London biographer, of such figures as Charles Dickens, William Shakeseare and others has done a superficial job in delineating the main events in Poe's life. The book can be read in a few hours containing the barebones account of the tragic poet's lugubriously unhappy life. There is little literary analysis of Poe's books. The work does contain fine photos of Poe and his circle.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jym Cherry on February 3, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Like Poe himself, Peter Ackroyd's Poe is of a different time. I remember when I was a kid, my grandmother had a library that she had amassed during her life. Leather bound first editions of some amazing authors, and included in that collection were slim volumes that were biographies of writers. Ackroyd's Brief Lives series, of which Poe is one, harkens back to this tradition, in Poe's case, remarkably well.

Poe is a short book, it does cover the major events of his life in some detail, but not in great depth but I don't think that is its goal. It also doesn't delve deeply into Poe's work and only touches lightly on Poe's major works such as the Raven and The Fall of the House of Usher, but it doesn't have the space to get into the experiences in Poe's life that created these stories or the circumstances that may have influenced their creation. Indeed, there are other biographies that dig into those territories. This Poe is for someone just discovering Poe and wants some basic information on his life, or for someone who wants to be conversant in Poe, or someone who wants a quick refresher course on Poe. For those people this nice little volume is the one to have.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By enubrius VINE VOICE on February 27, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A previous reviewer complains that this "is not a book, but an essay." First: there is nothing that prevents a "book" from also being an "essay". Second: What did he expect from an entry in a series called "Ackroyd's Brief Lives", EXCEPT a BRIEF life?
Of course the book is not as detailed as some 4-5-600 page doorstop might be; And there are those who might well wish to read such. But for those of us who just want a brilliantly written, stunning, moving, and deeply insightful overview of a tragic man's life, I suppose this will just have to do.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Eric Williams on July 2, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Poe: A Life Cut Short (Ackroyd's Brief Lives). Author: Peter Ackroyd. 224 pages. 2009.

My wife picked this book up on a recent library trip intending to read it as part of her personal on-going celebration of the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth. The book is slim and pocket sized so I believed that I could take it off her stack, read it, and return it in short order. I was correct in that assumption, partly due to the size and partly due to the writing.

This book begins with the final week of Poe's life and onto his death and burial. Using this device to set the stage the book returns to Poe's origin. The book follows Poe's life chronologically through its' many twists and turns. It is the story of a life, not for the meek. His was a life of tragedy and constant hammer blows of misfortune. Poe's life is more interesting in fat than it is in legend because of its constant revision. Poe routinely spoke and wrote of his life in a calculating manner revising its details, altering the context and meaning to suit his audience. In truth it seems that his life was a story being written and re-written as he lived it. It was filled by a narrator who like in his stories interacts with the reader and the characters in equal amounts. It was filled with darkness, doomed women and relationships, death around every corner, brief periods of light and others of a more constant darkness edging always towards the abyss.

Poe was a gifted talent, a practitioner who worked hard at his craft. His is often credited with being the father of the detective story, science fiction and the greatest American literary talent. This book delves but slightly into Poe's works and his legacy. The focus is squarely upon the man in the black suit with penetrating grey eyes.
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