Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The English Opium Eater and Others

Here's the beginning of a longish review I wrote of Robert Morrison's The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey (by Robert Morrison) and Susan Wolfson's Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action.  It appears in the latest issue of Essays in Criticism:

The Romantics were famous inventors of themselves: a hosier's son could become a prophet dreaming up his own mythology and marrying Heaven to Hell; a club-footed boy from Aberdeenshire could turn himself into the mad, bad heart-throb of Europe; and the provincial son of an obscure lawyer could proclaim himself the universal ‘man speaking to men’ in a new kind of poetry. None of this invention, of course, was ex nihilo, and in different ways two new studies, Robert Morrison's The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey and Susan J. Wolfson's Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action, trace the manner in which Romantics wove their identities out of the cultural strands around them.For the young Thomas De Quincey, out to invent himself, almost any social milieu would do so long as it wasn't the one he knew growing up in the house of a bullying older brother and a mother whose friendship with the Evangelical writer Hannah More drove her ever deeper into an austere and censorious piety. De Quincey's father, who died when De Quincey was quite young, had been a prosperous merchant in Manchester, but the worlds that attracted De Quincey lay both above and below a merchant's station. He was taken up as a protégé by Lady Carbery, who sought to turn the talkative lad into a proper country gentleman who could ride and shoot with the best of them. The diminutive De Quincey didn't excel in gentlemanly acts of physical prowess, but he did enjoy the idea of aristocracy: the ‘De’ was something his mother tacked on to the family name one season at Bath, an affectation of Norman lineage the son kept long after the mother abandoned it. He kept, too, an aristocratic disdain for mercantile Manchester. ‘In this place trade is the religion, and money is the god’, De Quincey wrote in a letter to his mother, ‘Every object I see reminds me of those occupations which run counter to the bent of my own nature … I cannot stir out of doors but I am nosed by a factory, a cotton-bag, a cotton-dealer, or something else allied to that most detestable commerce’. His escape from the mercantile world took him to London, where he pioneered the role that would be played so well by such luminaries as Poe and Baudelaire: the drug-addled, convention-flaunting literary bohemian. He became a kind of low-rent flâneur, falling in with dodgy characters and taking up with prostitutes. De Quincey claimed that one of these, a timid girl of 15 he calls ‘Ann of Oxford Street’, saved his life. He writes that he wanted to save her too, but missed a crucial rendezvous and lost track of her for ever. Morrison makes a good case that we may doubt the veracity of the whole episode. Indeed, Ann seems very much an amalgam of Mary Magdalene and the female vagrants from the pages of Lyrical Ballads: it is probable that De Quincey not only invented a bohemian role for himself, but created his own supporting cast.London life also led De Quincey deep into the arms of that deadliest species of false friend, the moneylender. It was a fatal moment...

The rest of the article is available here.