Peter Ackroyd's life of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-49) opens with his end, his final days. No one knows what happened between the moment when friends saw him off on the steamboat to Baltimore and his discovery, raving in a tavern, six days later, by which time he was already dying. This mystery sets the scene for a short life packed with drama and tragedy (drink and poverty) combined with extraordinary brilliance. Tennyson described him as 'the most original genius that America has produced'.
Poe served as a soldier and began his literary career composing verses modelled on Byron. Soon he was trying out his 'prose tales' - often horror melodramas such as 'The Fall of the House of Usher'. He wrote for and edited a number of literary magazines, and was influential among critics and writers of the American South. His versatile writings - including for example 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' and 'The Raven' -continue to resonate down the centuries.
Poe has been claimed as the forerunner of modern fantasy, and credited with the invention of psychological dramas (before Freud), science fiction (before H. G. Wells and Jules Verne) and the detective story (before Arthur Conan Doyle). He influenced European romanticism and was the harbinger of both Symbolism and Surrealism. Peter Ackroyd, who places significance on Poe's childhood (his travelling actor parents were miserably poor, his mother had TB and he was orphaned), claims that Poe found his family among writers - writers not only of his time bur of the future generations who were influenced by the power of his imagination. Poe's life was Gothic, theatrical, fatally flawed, dark, dazzling, destructive, satirical and inventive.
PETER ACKROYD is the biographer of William Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, Dickens, Blake, and Thomas More, and the author of the bestselling London: The Biography. The subject of his previous Brief Life was Isaac Newton. He has won the Whitbread Biography Award, the Royal Society of Literature’s William Heinemann Award (jointly) and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and is the holder of a CBE for services to literature. He is the author of Thames: The Biography. His novels include The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (winner of the Somerset Maugham Award), Hawksmoor (Guardian Fiction Prize), Chatterton (short-listed for the Booker Prize) and most recently The Fall of Troy. He lives in London.
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