De Quincey Essays

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A native of Manchester, De Quincey was 6 years old when his 9-year-old sister died, and his father died soon afterward.

In 1796, De Quincey's mother changed the family's name from "Quincey" to "De Quincey" because it sounded more aristocratic, suggesting that young Thomas came by his flair for self-drama honestly.

First published without a byline in London Magazine, Confessions came along when English journalism was especially hungry for copy.

Boosted by improvements in printing technology, the periodical trade was booming, with essayists such as Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt enjoying a steady pipeline for their work.

Along with such lucid arguments, however, De Quincey indulges in stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that read like William Blake by way of William S. Wilson argues for De Quincey's continuing relevance, mentioning that, in addition to Burroughs, he paved the way for such diverse writers as Virginia Woolf and Jorge Luis Borges.

One does see hints of De Quincey in Woolf's essays; his telescoping from eye-level detail to cosmic speculation sometimes rhymes thematically with Woolf's "Street Haunting" and "The Death of the Moth." But De Quincey's work presents a model to be refined, not directly emulated.She notes De Quincey's deft use of flattery to secure a first meeting with Lamb, during which Lamb soon discovered that his ostensible admirer's professed interest was strictly tactical.De Quincey wanted to use Lamb to meet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.In beautifully rendered compositions such as "New Year's Eve" and "A Bachelor's Complaint of the Behaviour of Married People," the bittersweet loneliness of Lamb and his quietly heroic resilience come through.But what often seems missing from De Quincey, despite his promise of candor, is a sense of true intimacy with his audience.Milligan notes that De Quincey took massive daily doses of laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol, "and found it impossible to stop doing so until his death at 74, a ripe old age in the mid-nineteenth century." Lots of other literary figures of the century, in varying degrees, were getting high on opium, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Wilkie Collins, John Keats, Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Charles Dickens.But De Quincey's Confessions helped bring opium use out in the open—and as Milligan noted, the modifier "English" before "Opium-Eater" signaled that a drug widely regarded as a vice of the Orient had been domesticated for British consumption.Remarking on the placement of a small screen to divide different classes of passengers from each other, he invites us to consider how we can render unpleasantness invisible simply by choosing not to look at it.He also plays with our notions of hierarchy by arguing that a coach's outside seats, which are cheaper, are actually better than the socially coveted ones inside the carriage.Even so, the De Quincey scholar Barry Milligan has described Confessions as "one of those books almost everyone has heard of but very few have read." Milligan suggests that De Quincey is little known today because he worked primarily as an essayist, a form not as celebrated now as the novel.Perhaps a more obvious explanation is that Thomas De Quincey was not a likable man, and his writing often isn't very likable, either.


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