Victorian literature scholar Morrison presents the first biography of the infamous writer in three decades, and the first to include unpublished works.
A magnetic and controversial figure in his time, Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859), like many creative intellects, combined literary brilliance with drug addiction. His drug of choice, laudanum, provided alternating bouts of euphoria, lucidity and debilitating depression. Despite the negative side effects, De Quincey was able to build a provocative and influential body of work, from his iconic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) to the terrifying short fiction he wrote toward the end of his career, which inspired the likes of Poe and Dickens. In his work on drug use, he innovatively used confessional writing directed at a mainstream audience, speaking “directly to our ongoing fascination with habit, desire, commercialism, and consumption.” His obsessive tendencies, toward drugs but also toward books, languages and death, may have originated during a childhood that was fraught with the loss of his sister, brother, and father, and a frustrating series of schools, none of which satisfied him. De Quincey also faced bouts of illness in his youth, which may have been treated with opium, a common ingredient in 18th-century medicines. At age 20, to treat a toothache, “one dose [of opium] changed everything,” and he began to use the drug in earnest. Around this time, he also began friendships with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, relationships he would maintain for most of his life. Misconceptions persist about De Quincey and his work, but Morrison’s adept narrative fills in many gaps and portrays the writer as a man struggling between the joys of writing and rigorous thought and the sorrows of addiction and debt. The author excels in his argument that De Quincey is an integral part of literary history, and above all, a “noble explorer of self.”
A welcome, refreshing literary biography.