Thomas De Quincey: Father of Addiction Lit

Review: Frances Wilson, 'Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey'

Oil painting of a man smoking an opium pipe / Wellcome Images
December 24, 2016

Frances Wilson ends her rife-with-scandals, name-droppy biography of Thomas De Quincey—the English opium eater from the celebrated "Confessions of an English Opium Eater"—by citing Borges, that author of fragmentary parables that presented culture as a hall of mirrors, with books echoing books and intellect lost in the labyrinth of literature. Borges wrote of De Quincey that "for years, I thought that the almost infinite world of literature was one man." Wilson concludes: "We are all De Quinceyan now."

I get the literary hall of mirrors thing, but I'm not sure that means we are the heirs of De Quincey. This book is called "a life," but of course the life it mirrors wasn't lived by Wilson, but by De Quincey. Which, as Borges might ask, is the reality? Even more mirror-like, De Quincey became famous as a writer for producing essays about his own life, including his attempts to suck up to greatness—most notably the poet Wordsworth. If we don't think De Quincey was some kind of great, it's not worth writing or reading this exhaustive biography: Little people don't get biographies any more than they get an obituary in the New York Times. So yes: This is a written "life" of someone whose writing life was writing about his life. We get the Borges thing.

The problem with biography, as Virginia Woolf pointed out in criticizing Lytton Strachey's biography of Queen Victoria, is that we don't actually know what other people thought or why they did it, unless they tell us. Usually they don't, and that leaves the biographer in something of a bind. In fiction, we can invent. In biography, a red flag goes up as soon as we say "it seemed to him that" or "she felt that." How does the later biographer know?

Wilson does this a fair amount; it's difficult to imagine a biography being readable without it. And this one is quite readable, lurching from literary celebrity to sensational murder to illegitimate children, all the while circling around desire for fame and a brain addled by opium. The author has mined the letters of the letter-writing-addicted Romantics as well as several earlier biographers of De Quincey to create a plausible narrative. This is made easier because De Quincey is hardly a household name for anyone but former college English majors, a dying breed. When you make a statement about what Queen Victoria felt on a given day, you lay yourself open to immediate objections. If it's about a colorful but minor writer, we shrug and turn the page.

All biographies are haunted by this question: Why do we care? Why does the author? Some contemporary biographers, notably Janet Malcolm, have meditated on the fact that the writer has a subjective response to her subject, either attraction, repulsion, or, more usually, both. Objectivity is impossible, and the result is more about the writer than the written about. Things get really complex when the written about is a writer who writes about writers and his own relationship to them.

But let's exit Borges' hall of literary mirrors. What else is this book? On a literary historical level, it’s a reminder that the common view of the Romantic era fails to do justice to the sleaziness, the penury, the human misery and backbiting of that time. This is the Romanticism not of Wordsworth's serene anthology pieces such as "Tintern Abbey" or even Coleridge's odd but for us hardly spooky "Rime of the Ancient Mariner"—the Romanticism of nature worship and eyes fixed on the Sublime. Instead, it is the world of what scholar Mario Praz called the "Romantic Agony," best known to us Americans in Edgar Allan Poe's world of murders, returns from the dead, substance abuse (for Poe, alcohol; for De Quincey, opium), debt, and unsuitable romantic partners (for Poe, little girls; for De Quincey, his housemaid, whom he married and fathered eight children with). The amazing thing is that, unlike Poe and most other self-destructive Romantics, De Quincey survived. He lurched along from crisis to crisis, essay to essay, living long enough to have a daguerreotype photo taken—the only Romantic author with an actual photograph, Wilson notes—before dying at age 74.

Longevity counts for a lot, even if you’re basically a serial failure: you have more time to squeeze out trenchant fragments, and sooner or later somebody may notice. Wilson credits De Quincey with being the father of "addiction literature," like the memoirs of alcoholism and drug abuse that become best sellers in our day. His "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" is held to be the basis for Berlioz’s Symphone Fantastique, that colorful orchestral work about an opium dream that includes a witches’ Sabbath and careening ride to the scaffold. Besides Poe, Baudelaire, and Borges if we believe him (Borges’s stories are as intellectual as De Quincey’s agonized memoirs are passionate), De Quincey's heirs include the bad boys of twentieth-century literature like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. In short, all the outsider literature of the last two centuries: made by people who did just what their parents didn’t want them to do, and paid the price, but at least had their say.

De Quincey definitely had his say. His collected works, almost all of them journalistic entries squeezed out between debt crises or opium dreams, run to dozens of volumes. Essays that former English majors will remember include "On the Knocking at the Gate in 'Macbeth'" and "The English Mail Coach." He also wrote several memoirs remembering and excoriating the more celebrated Romantics he had once befriended—Wordsworth, after all, became poet laureate.

But the point of a "Life" is to capture the man rather than the works, to which Wilson devotes blessedly few analytical pages. What emerges from this biography, even if today's reader has only a passing knowledge of what De Quincey wrote? Certainly it is a window to another world where poetry (poetry!) could make Lord Byron the toast of Europe, and where writers influenced the programmatic Romantic music that now fills the repertory of symphony orchestras.

Romanticism, lest we forget, was intrinsically an art centered on words. It was with words in the last movement of his Ninth Symphony that Beethoven bridged the gap between the Classicism of ancien regime music paid for by princes and the new world of Romanticism, produced for the rising bourgeoisie who bought tickets for concerts. Before the Romantics Schubert and Schumann, there were, to be sure, songs set to poems. But prior to the Romantics, they were "concert arias," frigid and predictable. (Mozart's arias are exceptions: the Countess’s "Dove Sono" in The Marriage of Figaro, for example.) Compare these to Schubert's "Erlkoenig" or "Gretchen am Spinnrade," dripping with emotion. Suddenly symphonies too were programmatic like Berlioz's opium dreams, or at least expressive of vast longing, like the symphonies of Tchaikovsky. Rationality was out, emotion was in: That was the wave that led from Classical to Romantic.

What makes De Quincey accessible to us is that he seems almost as often to be riding this wave as controlling it, attempting to harness the vast rush of feelings and chemical-induced reveries during a time of transition. The "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" begins more coherently than it ends; the reader has the sense before it is over that the content has taken over the form and that he is watching the author unravel.

Amy Weinberg? Janis Joplin? Michael Jackson? There is a long list of people who fascinate because of the very process of their self-destruction. De Quincey's was a life led between form and chaos, where the life seems to mirror the work.

Maybe he's our contemporary after all.

Published under: Book reviews