THE OPIUM EATER: A Life of Thomas De Quincey by Grevel Lindop

THE OPIUM EATER: A Life of Thomas De Quincey

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Fine work: the careful, unpretentious account of a man Lindop justly calls ""lovable and oddly heroic."" The last major biographies of De Quincey (17851859), by Edward Sackville-West and Horace Eaton, both appeared in 1936, and in the meantime a lot of new material has been unearthed, amply justifying Lindop's effort. But that 45-year-long silence tells us something about De Quincey's reputation: such neglect by the myriad toilers in the lit-crit industry can only mean that De Quincey has been damned as irrelevant. And not without reason. De Qulncey's lifelong addiction to opium prevented his completing anything on a large scale except his Confessions. Everything else was either potboilers (one of which, his novel Klosterheim, wasn't all that bad) or journalistic pieces, some of which--such as ""On Murder, Considered as One of the Fine Arts""--are quasi-immortal. But, despite his dreadful--and largely self-induced--poverty, De Qulncey held dullish Tory views. He has so little to say about the great issues of his turbulent age that it's hard to recognize in him a contemporary of Cobbett, J. S. Mill, Carlyle, or even Dickens. And De Quincey's prose style--rich, elaborate, effortlessly fluent, but liable to dissolve in Romantic lushness--goes against the modern grain. Still, if he is not, as Lindop admits, ""a writer of the very first rank,"" De Quincey belongs somewhere near it; and his unbelievably harried existence succeeds, in Lindop's retelling, as a sort of painfully touching shaggy-dog story. Lindop's thorough but unobtrusive scholarship makes this the standard life of De Quincey; as such, it ought to provide a generation of students of English literature, serious or casual, with a solid resource.

Pub Date: Dec. 21st, 1981
Publisher: Taplinger