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Peter Ackroyd Biography

(1949– ), Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism, The Great Fire of London

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British novelist, poet, biographer, and literary critic, born in London, educated at Clare College, Cambridge, and Yale. London is a touchstone as much as a setting for many of his works. With Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism (1976), Ackroyd announced his impatience with contemporary English culture and the tradition of realistic fiction. He launched into literary fiction with The Great Fire of London (1982), in which a film director attempts to recreate Little Dorrit in the abandoned wing of a modern prison. The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983; Somerset Maugham Award), a fictional memoir told in Wilde's own extravagant voice, is a brilliant parody. Hawksmoor (1985; Whitbread Prize) is an astonishing feat of erudite invention. Chatterton (1987) features a young would-be poet and an eccentric older novelist persuaded that Thomas Chatterton may have faked his own suicide in 1770 to live on as a great plagiarist. Contributions in Chatterton's ‘own’ voice offer an alternative theory, while further chapters depict Henry Wallis, halfway between Chatterton's time and our own, painting his famous ‘Death of Chatterton’ with George Meredith as his model. First Light (1989) again displayed Ackroyd's gift for evoking the magic of other arts, in this case both archaeology and astronomy. English Music (1992), narrated by Timothy Harcombe, the son of a spiritualist healer practising in London during the 1920s, moves back and forth in time, portraying significant moments in English history through a series of visionary sequences. The past is similarly invoked in The House of Doctor Dee (1993) when its narrator, Matthew Palmer, inherits a house in Clerkenwell, formerly inhabited by the Elizabethan magus, John Dee, and is drawn into bizarre negotiations with his dead father. Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem (1994), set in Victorian London, is inscribed with the author's characteristic blend of Dickensian pastiche and contemporary knowingness, and concerns a series of gruesome East End murders, thought to have been committed by a monster from Jewish folklore—the ‘Golem’ of the title. Amongst those also suspected of the murders, which foreshadow those of Jack the Ripper, are figures as diverse as Karl Marx, George Gissing, and the music hall comedian, Dan Leno. In this, as in his earlier work, Ackroyd mixes fact and fiction, past and present, with apparent indifference to verisimilitude; the result, as ever, is surprisingly plausible. His works of non-fiction include collections of poetry, notably The Diversions of Purley (1987), and Dressing Up (1979), a study of transverstism and drag. Ackroyd has received wide critical acclaim for his biographies of Ezra Pound (1981), Charles Dickens (1990) and Blake (1995). His T. S. Eliot (1984; Whitbread Prize) greatly contributed to the understanding and desanctification of that monumental figure.

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