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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-01-20
  • Publisher: Nan A. Talese
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Gothic, mysterious, theatrical, fatally flawed, and dazzling, the life of Edgar Allan Poe, one of America's greatest and most versatile writers, is the ideal subject for Peter Ackroyd. Poe wrote lyrical poetry and macabre psychological melodramas; invented the first fictional detective; and produced pioneering works of science fiction and fantasy. His innovative style, images, and themes had a tremendous impact on European romanticism, symbolism, and surrealism, and continue to influence writers today. In this essential addition to his canon of acclaimed biographies, Peter Ackroyd explores Poe's literary accomplishments and legacy against the background of his erratic, dramatic, and sometimes sordid life. Ackroyd chronicles Poe's difficult childhood, his bumpy academic and military careers, and his complex relationships with women, including his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin. He describes Poe's much-written-about problems with gambling and alcohol with sympathy and insight, showing their connections to Poe's childhood and the trials, as well as the triumphs, of his adult life. Ackroyd's thoughtful, perceptive examinations of some of Poe's most famous works shed new light on these classics and on the troubled and brilliant genius who created them.

Author Biography

PETER ACKROYD is the author of London, Albion, and Shakespeare. He has written several full-length biographies, the four other books in the Brief Lives series, and twelve novels. He lives in London.


The Victim

On the evening of 26 September 1849, Edgar Allan Poe stopped in the office of a physician in Richmond, Virginia--John Carter--and obtained a palliative for the fever that had beset him. Then he went across the road and had supper in a local inn. He took with him, by mistake, Dr. Carter's malacca sword cane.

Poe was about to embark on the steamboat to Baltimore. This was the first stop on his way to New York, where he had business to transact. The boat was to leave at four o'clock on the following morning, for a journey that would last approximately twenty-five hours. He seemed to the friends who saw him off to be cheerful and sober. He expected to be away from Richmond for no more than two weeks. Yet he forgot to take his luggage with him. This was the last verifiable sighting of Poe until he was found dying in a tavern six days later.


He arrived in Baltimore on Friday, 28 September. He lingered in this city, instead of making his way to Philadelphia, the next stop on his way to New York, and there are accounts of his drinking. He may have been drinking to ward off the effects of the fever. He may have feared a precipitate heart attack. He had been told, by the doctors in Richmond, that his next seizure would prove fatal.

It is possible that he then travelled by train to Philadelphia. He visited some friends in that city, and became drunk or ill. On the following morning, in his bewildered state, he declared that he was going on to New York. But in fact, by accident or design, he returned to Baltimore. There are unsubstantiated reports that he then tried to return once more to Philadelphia but was found "insensible" on the train. The conductor took him back to Baltimore. The truth is lost. Everything is in a mist.

Neilson Poe, his cousin, later wrote to Poe's mother-in-law and unofficial guardian, Maria Clemm, that "at what time he arrived in the city [Baltimore], where he spent the time he was here, or under what circumstances, I have been unable to ascertain." Despite much research and speculation, no further light has been thrown upon the matter. He may have been wandering through the streets, or making his unsteady way from tavern to tavern. All that is known for certain is that, on 3 October, a newspaper printer sent a message to Joseph Evans Snodgrass: "There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan's 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe, and who appears to be in great distress, & he says he is acquainted with you, and I assure you, he is in need of immediate assistance." Snodgrass had been the editor of the Saturday Visiter, to which Poe had contributed. "Ryan's 4th ward polls" refers to a tavern that was being used as a polling place for Congressional elections taking place that day; Ryan was the name of the proprietor of the tavern.

The printer's note was sufficiently serious to summon Snodgrass. He entered the barroom and found Poe sitting, stupefied, with a crowd of "drinking men" around him. His odd clothes caught Snodgrass's attention. He was wearing a tattered straw hat, and a pair of badly fitting trousers. He had a secondhand coat, but no sign of waistcoat or neckcloth. With the possible exception of the straw hat, these were not the clothes with which he had left Richmond. Yet, surprisingly, he still held Dr. Carter's malacca cane. In his inebriated and beleaguered state, it might have seemed to him an instrument of defence.

Snodgrass did not approach him, but ordered a room for him in the same tavern. He was about to send word to Poe's relatives in Baltimore, when two of them coincidentally arrived. One was Poe's cousin Henry Herring, who had come to the tavern on electoral business. He was related to a local politician. Snodgrass recalled that "they declined to take private care of him" on the grounds that he had in the past

Excerpted from Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd, Peter Ackroyd
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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