Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

A Gentleman and a Drunk

Poe: A Life Cut Short


Chatto & Windus 163pp £15.99

There’s a story by Malcolm Lowry in which an American writer in Rome is sitting in a bar drinking grappa and leafing through an old notebook. He comes upon some jottings he had made in the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond. ‘Excerpt from a letter by Poe – after having been dismissed from West Point – to his foster father. Feb 21, 1831: “It will however be the last time I ever trouble any human being. I feel I am on a sick-bed from which I shall never get up.”’ Actually, the writer reflects, Poe ‘had risen from it to change, thanks to Baudelaire, the whole course of European literature, yes, and not merely to trouble but to frighten the wits out of several generations of human beings with such choice pieces as “King Pest”, “The Pit and the Pendulum” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom”’.

Lowry himself is the ‘American writer’ of his story, scarcely disguised; his interest in, even identification with, Poe is natural enough. They were two of a kind: writers of rare originality, touched with genius, both unable to make any sort of sense of ordinary life, both also enslaved and eventually

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