Land of the Nod

In his diary, the teenaged Thomas De Quincey once speculated about his persona. “What shall be my character?” he wrote. “Wild—impetuous—splendidly sublime? Dignified—melancholy—gloomily sublime? Or shrouded in mystery—supernatural—like the ‘ancient mariner’—awfully sublime.” De Quincey’s reputation would turn on option number three, although he never gave up on the other alternatives. What is striking about his adolescent query is its suggestion that the author already had a strong sense of where his future might lead. In the same diary, he ingenuously presaged the dreamy, inward focus on the haunted self that years later would make Confessions of an English Opium Eater a tour de force:

I image myself looking through a glass. . . I see a man in the dim and shadowy perspective and (as it were) in a dream. He passes along in silence, and the hues of sorrow appear on his countenance. Who is he? A man darkly wonderful above the beings of the world; but whether that shadow of him, which you saw, be ye shadow of a man long since passed away or of one yet hid in futurity, I may not tell you.

With the 1821 publication of Confessions, De Quincey hit on a surprisingly robust titular formula for the modern autobiography. For memoirists and bloggers today, the equation remains a salacious go-to with a Mad-Lib logic: take the phrase “Confessions of” and add to it one or more often incongruous descriptors—an economic hit man, an Ivy League bookie, a shopaholic, a chocaholic, (the possessor of) a dangerous mind, or, in a recent Guardian headline, a menopausal nymphomaniac, all of them with a naughty secret to bare and an identity at once to project and to hide behind. The equation is no less effective in fiction titles. In its most immediate literary spawn, it gave a De Quinceyan air to his colleague James Hogg’s Gothic tale of dark doubles, murder, and the special guilt attendant to Presbyterian fanaticism, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

As a writer, De Quincey threw off sparks in far-flung directions, but his memoiristic explorations make up a vast chunk of his reputation: not just the Confessions but the later Autobiographic Sketches and the profoundly affecting account of his sister Elizabeth’s early death in Suspiria de Profundis. Both a product of the age that coined the word autobiography and the genre’s most enthusiastic proponent, he seemed to find the inward journey boundless: When he rewrote the Confessions for new publication in 1856, he expanded a 45,000-word essay into a 90,000-word experiment in memory recovery. A deliriously winding, maddeningly digressive text, it offers a taste of what Baudelaire called De Quincey’s “naturally spiral” way of thinking, in which recollection and reverie are inseparable from dreamlike fantasy. Or literal pipe dreams, like the feverish images of mummies and sphinxes and crocodiles amid the “Nilotic mud” that haunted and astonished De Quincey in his midday torpor. More broadly, what gives the Confessions its beguiling energy are its curious snippets of strange logic and serendipitous encounters, so much like dreams themselves—the mistakenly delivered letter to a certain “Monsieur Monsieur De Quincey,” or the account of the teenage waif who saves him when he is down and out in London, or the appearance of a mysterious turbaned Malayan one day at his cottage door.

Frances Wilson’s smart new biography of De Quincey, Guilty Thing, judiciously narrates the life of a writer who responded to the question “How came you to dream more splendidly than others?” with the answer “He whose talk is of oxen, will probably dream of oxen.” Born in 1785 in Manchester, the bookish son of an errant merchant and a religious mother, De Quincey was an early veteran of everyday gloom. At six, he saw Elizabeth die on her bed on a warm summer day, her still body raked with sunlight as a breeze rustled through the widow, then stood outside her room, listening to the local physicians saw open her head to check for water on the brain. The following summer, he saw his absent father return home to die. He forever associated the heat of the summer with cold death and was as terrified as Pascal by the infinite space he saw in a bright July afternoon sky. Just as he never outgrew his childish frame—he was under five feet tall—he never outgrew these scenes. When he died sixty-eight years after Elizabeth did, the final gesture of the Lilliputian writer was to extend his arms upward and cry out “Sister! Sister!” Opium use wasn’t the only thing that haunted him.

Laurence W. Chaves’s illustration for Thomas De Quincey’s The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1932. Illustrated Editions Company.

He was ever in search of a kind of communion with the sublime, however it arrived—splendid, gloomy, or melancholy. What De Quincey celebrated in opium consumption was also what animated his best writing: essays like “The English Mail-Coach,” surely the most delirious ode to the postal service ever penned; the works of criticism such as “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth”; the cunning, often vicious portraits of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Co. that he produced during the pugnacious heyday of Blackwood’s, the London Magazine, and Tait’s. He was obsessed with anything that sharpened the mind and made it crystallize around some shard of incidental detail, whether it was the punch of clarity offered by dope or the heightened drama of the highwayman murderer. It made him a brilliant journalist when he was on his game and a pioneer of profile writing, able to spin substantial accounts from a few knowing nuggets. A famously dilatory author, he nonetheless produced 250 essays that fill twenty-one volumes of his collected writings—no small feat for a figure hobbled by drugs and debt. He “helped shape . . . a new literary genre, called by Walter Bagehot the ‘review-like essay and the essay-like review,’” Wilson writes. “It was in these boundless, self-devouring reviews that he grew his voice.”

Wilson, who navigates De Quincey’s work with a concision that is the polar opposite of her subject’s restless prolixity, observes that there have been plenty of biographies of De Quincey, but her aim in Guilty Thing is to present the first “De Quinceyan biography.” The impact of scholars-turned-biographers like Richard Holmes and Graham Robb is evident in her approach, which attends less to the deep play-by-play of De Quincey’s life than to the obsessions that consumed him—starting, as she does, with the notorious Ratcliff Highway murders allegedly committed by a London seaman, John Williams, in 1811. The infamy of the killing spree established Williams as a kind of celebrity—gothic London’s version of Son of Sam—and it was precisely the sort of sensational subject that De Quincey could milk for every drop. What could make for a better critical essay than reviewing a murder? Publishing “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” in Blackwood’s in 1827, De Quincey honed the archly ironic tone that makes him at times sound strangely like one of us, a style in which enthusiasm and repulsion are inseparably mingled. He never grew exhausted with the Williams bloodbath, and homicide nurtured his imagination in a recurring series of articles on murder, trials, and execution. (No one is more eloquent than on the scaffold, he once observed, because, as in journalism, impending deadlines do wonders for sharpening the faculties.) Remarkably, four decades after the original crime, De Quincey was still revisiting the case. Poe, who read the English author with gusto and plundered him when he could, would partly spoof De Quincey’s obsession in titling an 1843 essay “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences.”

Wilson takes her title from “Intimations of Immortality” by Wordsworth (who lifted the phrase from Hamlet). It is an inspired way of capturing De Quincey’s highly complicated relationship with the poet, the second of the obsessions that frame her biography. De Quincey proudly claimed to be among the first to understand Wordsworth’s greatness after he read Lyrical Ballads as a teenager. Appropriately enough, it was a manuscript version of Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven”—a graveyard-set poem in which a young girl talks about her two dead siblings with a strange man—that first captivated De Quincey. He left school to be closer to the master, eventually becoming Wordsworth’s Lake District tenant. The progression from groupie-like adoration to something resembling familial intimacy was intense. De Quincey doted on Wordsworth’s daughter Catherine (who may have been born with Down syndrome) as if she were his own; his paralyzing grief over her young death led many to gossip that he had fathered the child with Mary Wordsworth.

No less intense was his disillusionment with Wordsworth, who neglected De Quincey, disapproved of his simple wife, Margaret, and fomented a falling out as acrimonious as the poet’s breach with Coleridge. At one point, his indignation reaching a peak, De Quincey took an ax to the rustic moss hut Wordsworth had built by hand and then razed an orchard of ash and apple trees. Wordsworth later returned the compliment to his former acolyte, calling De Quincey “a pest in society, and one of the most worthless of mankind.”

Astonishingly enough, he’d been called worse, especially by the creditors who dogged him throughout the second part of his life (including, amusingly enough, a “cultivated and kind” landlady named Frances Wilson). He hid out in severe debt, enlisting his children to deliver manuscripts to publishers so that his whereabouts wouldn’t be revealed. A contemporary recalled De Quincey’s manuscripts being dropped off at Tait’s “by a daughter who would throw the package into the room and shout ‘There!’ before rushing off.”

De Quincey has slipped in and out of focus in the century and a half since his death. Although he has influenced authors as various as Burroughs and Borges, he’s far less read than even the preposterously little-read William Hazlitt, whose autobiographical experiments, intimacy with the Romantics, and journalistic ambition shadow De Quincey’s own. Yet with the recent publication of a new Works of Thomas De Quincey and scholarly biographies by Grevel Lindop and Robert Morrison, perhaps attention is being redirected in a promising way. Frances Wilson’s book will play no small part in this sublimely pleasant development.


Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.