The trials and passions of the romantic essayist and memoirist.
Until 2009, when Robert Morrison’s The English Opium Eater appeared, Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) had been ignored by biographers for nearly 30 years. Morrison’s fine biography offered a nuanced portrait of the opium-addicted, debt-ridden writer whose Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) proved one of the most startling and brilliant essays to emerge from the prolific British romantics. Critic and journalist Wilson (How to Survive the Titanic; or, the Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay, 2011, etc.) mines a wealth of archival and published sources (De Quincey’s writings alone comprise 21 volumes) to produce in her own well-researched and elegantly written biography a portrait largely indistinguishable from Morrison’s. Her emphasis, she writes, is “to follow the growth” and intersection of De Quincey’s two major obsessions—murder and William Wordsworth—placing the writer’s other interests in the background. To that end, she succeeds in conveying in grisly detail the two sensational murders of December 1811 that so indelibly captured De Quincey’s imagination. Wilson also sensitively handles De Quincey’s yearning for the friendship of the author of Lyrical Ballads, which so deeply impressed him. Eighteen-year-old De Quincey’s plaintive letter to the poet, Wilson writes, was his “first masterpiece.” Although Wordsworth cautioned his admirer against conflating the poetry with the poet, De Quincey idolized and idealized Wordsworth, whom Wilson reveals as increasingly unsympathetic and self-absorbed. She is certain (where Morrison was not) that Dorothy Wordsworth, 13 years older than De Quincey, expected his marriage proposal. Overall, though, De Quincey’s addiction (Wilson documents the drops of laudanum he took at any time) and perpetual debt (a repetitive chronicle) dominate the narrative. Nor does Wilson persuasively argue for his enduring influence. He may have anticipated tabloid sensationalism, the recovery memoir, and “the fine art of character assassination,” but to assert, “We are all De Quinceyan now,” is a horrifying notion.
A new, but not revisionist, portrait of a troubled artist.