Looming large in the popular imagination as a serious poet and lively drunk who died in penury, Edgar Allan Poe was also the most celebrated and notorious writer of his day. He died broke and alone at the age of forty, but not before he had written some of the greatest works in the English language, from the chilling “The Tell-Tale Heart” to “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”—the first modern detective story—to the iconic poem “The Raven.”
Poe’s life was one of unremitting hardship. His father abandoned the family, and his mother died when he was three. Poe was thrown out of West Point, and married his beloved thirteen-year-old cousin, who died of tuberculosis at twenty-four. He was so poor that he burned furniture to stay warm. He was a scourge to other poets, but more so to himself.
In the hands of Paul Collins, one of our liveliest historians, this mysteriously conflicted figure emerges as a genius both driven and undone by his artistic ambitions. Collins illuminates Poe’s huge successes and greatest flop (a 143-page prose poem titled Eureka), and even tracks down what may be Poe’s first published fiction, long hidden under an enigmatic byline. Clear-eyed and sympathetic, Edgar Allan Poe is a spellbinding story about the man once hailed as “the Shakespeare of America.”
The combination of the life of one of the most intriguing Victorian writers in the hands of one of the best narrative history writers around at the moment meant that Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living an immediate addition to my TBR list. Collins has done a great job in the past with The Murder of the Century and Duel with the Devil, and I included both in my list of top ten books to get someone started on narrative history. Here, he has a much smaller canvas than usual – this is a streamlined biography, but one that works extremely well.
In a few short chapters (according to my Kindle, the dead tree version has 132 pages), Collins manages to paint a clear portrait of a man whose genius was in constant battle with his demons. From the death of his parents, the difficult relationship with the man who raised him but refused to adopt him, to his struggle with poverty and alcoholism, Poe did not have an easy life. Yet throughout, Collins shows that he continued to try and find his way out through his writing. Calling particular attention to the genre-changing creation of Dupin (the proto Holmes) and the writing of the Raven, Collins points out the huge impact that Poe had on modern literature. All in all a great, if short, biography that should be accessible to all.
I gave Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living 4 stars.
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