Peter Ackroyd Introduction

Start Your Free Trial


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Download Peter Ackroyd Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Peter Ackroyd 1949-

English novelist, biographer, nonfiction writer, critic, poet, and essayist.

The following entry presents an overview of Ackroyd's career through 2000.

A leading practitioner of “British historiographic metafiction,” Peter Ackroyd has built his reputation upon a growing number of challenging novels and significant literary biographies that highlight the interplay of historical time, literary influence, and the problem of authorship. Ackroyd's unique literary vision is marked by a belief that writers find their voice through emulating writers of the past, a corollary to his theory that writing emanates not from life experiences, but from the writing that has preceded it. Accordingly, obscure references to English literature and shifting perspectives among author, protagonist, and other fictional and non-fictional characters abound in his texts. In acclaimed biographies such as T. S. Eliot: A Life (1984) and Dickens (1990), and novels such as Hawksmoor (1986), Chatterton (1988), and Milton in America: A Novel (1997), Ackroyd celebrates English culture and merges fact and fiction.

Biographical Information

The only child of parents who separated early in his life, Ackroyd was raised by his mother, Audrey Whiteside Ackroyd, and his maternal grandparents in a public housing project in West London. The family was Roman Catholic, and Ackroyd's religious heritage influenced both his critical work and his fiction. Early in life he was determined to escape his working-class origins, and at age ten he received a scholarship to attend a Catholic school in Ealing, Saint Benedict's. In 1968 he matriculated at Clare College, Cambridge, from which he graduated in 1971 with a double first in English literature. He then spent two years as a Mellon fellow at Yale University, where he was influenced by the avant-garde poetry of John Ashbery and Kenneth Koch. Ackroyd's early ambition was to be a poet, and his first published works, Ouch (1971) and London Lickpenny (1973), were volumes of poetry. While at Yale, Ackroyd produced Notes for a New Culture: An Essay on Modernism (1976), a literary manifesto that established him as an early proponent of postmodernism among his generation of writers. Upon his return to London, Ackroyd was hired as a literary editor for Spectator magazine. During this time, he produced Ezra Pound and His World (1980), the first of several large biographies of noted English authors. After eight years with Spectator Ackroyd resigned to devote himself to a full-time writing career. He has received many honors for his work, including the Somerset Maugham award for The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983); the Heinemann award for nonfiction from the Royal Society of Literature for T. S. Eliot: A Life; and the Prix Goncourt, the Whitbread award, and the fiction prize from the Guardian, all for Hawksmoor. In addition, Chatterton was short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. Ackroyd has since served as the chief book reviewer for the London Times, a position he has maintained while producing an extensive body of work, nearly one book a year since 1978. Ackroyd acknowledged that his rigorous work schedule contributed to the massive heart attack he suffered in 1999.

Major Works

Most of Ackroyd's prodigious body of work resides in the realm of historiographic metafiction—an experimental, postmodern technique that blurs distinctions between imagination and historical fact. In particular, Ackroyd's prose explores the convergence of past and present time, and human lives associated with a place—generally London—through successive centuries. In The Great Fire of London (1982) Ackroyd began the practice of merging fact and imagination and traversing time through characters and plot. A skilled mimic, Ackroyd identifies strongly with various literary figures. This is especially evident in The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde, a novel purporting to be Wilde's autobiographical account of the last months of his life in exile in Paris. Ackroyd captures Wilde's...

(The entire section is 1,658 words.)