81. Poe: A Life Cut Short

Poe: A Life Cut Short by Peter Ackroyd
Brief Lives series

Pages: 160
Ages: 18+ (though accessible to 15+)
Finished: Apr. 21, 2009
First Published: Mar. , 2009
Genre: biography, non-fiction
Rating: 3.5/5

Reason for Reading: I received a Review Copy from Random House Canada. I'm also a bit of a Poe fanatic.

First sentence:

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.

Comments: This is a short, or rather, brief biography of Edgar Allan Poe, part of a series the author has done called Brief Lives in which also includes biographies of Chaucer, Newton and Turner. This is not the first biography of Poe I have read, nor will it be the last. It has been quite some years since I last read of Poe, though, so the information was all coming fresh to my hazy mind.

For such a short book, there is a wealth of information and detail included that leaves nothing out of Poe's tragically brief life. His melancholy and morbid life is so fascinating as one compares it to the macabre literature and poetry that he wrote. Poe was an orphan early in life, taken in by people of no relation, who, after the mother's death, refused to have anything to do with him. He became notorious and well-known during his life but never enjoyed appreciation for his work while he was alive and thus fortune alluded him, leaving him always on the verge of penury. He also had a habit of attaching himself to women who died at young ages of consumption from his birth mother through several ladies down to his own wife. Of course, his frequent bouts of extreme drinking lasting for days which left him to be found laying in ditches by acquaintances did not help his health or his reputation.

The book is well written, including many direct quotes from contemporary sources, taken from people who knew him and newspapers of the time and his own words. The author has done a good job of giving a background as to whether the modern reader should take those quotes as truth or with a grain of salt. While focusing on his life a good deal of time is also spent on the writing of certain of his works and the literary criticism of the time; in fact a whole chapter is devoted to The Raven. I enjoyed the book and found it very interesting, even to one who had read the story before; I found this a rather studious approach to the subject. This does make the reader take the work serious but on the other hand, I did find the writing a bit dry at times. I prefer my biographies to be written in a narrative which almost reads like fiction and the quotes and literary criticism got in the way of that for me. But nevertheless a well-written book and certainly a good place to start for the person who has never read anything on Poe himself before; with only 160 pages it will give you the answer as to whether you want to read more about the man himself.


  1. I really enjoy Peter Ackroyd's biographies and I look forward to reading this one.

    Thanks for the great review!

  2. At 160 pages, it's very brief indeed! However, I think the quotes from the newspapers and his aquantices would be very interesting so I may have to check this one out. Thanks!

  3. I'm reading a history of crime fiction right now, and the author is very firm that Poe is where it all began.

  4. Molly - This is my first. I'd be tempted to try one of his others.

    Ladytink - Yep. Brief. :-)

    Bybee - Yes, Ackroyd also acknowledges that Poe should be credited with the invention of the detective in literature. I believe there is a quote in the book by Conan Doyle stating the same.


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