A Life of Thomas De Quincey
National Book Critics Circle Award, Biographers International Organization Plutarch Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist
New York Times Book Review, Times Literary Supplement and The Guardian Best Books of 2016
Thomas De Quincey was an obsessive. He was obsessed with Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose Lyrical Ballads provided the script to his life, and by the idea of sudden death. Running away from school to pursue the two poets, De Quincey insinuated himself into their world. Basing his sensibility on Wordsworth’s and his character on Coleridge’s, he forged a triangle of unusual psychological complexity.
Aged twenty-four, De Quincey replaced Wordsworth as the tenant of Dove Cottage, the poet’s former residence in Grasmere. In this idyllic spot he followed the reports of the notorious Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, when two families, including a baby, were butchered in their own homes. In his opium-soaked imagination the murderer became a poet while the poet became a murderer. Embedded in On Murder as One of the Fine Arts, De Quincey’s brilliant series of essays, Frances Wilson finds the startling story of his relationships with Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Opium was the making of De Quincey, allowing him to dissolve self-conflict, eliminate self-recrimination, and divest himself of guilt. Opium also allowed him to write, and under the pseudonym “The Opium-Eater” De Quincey emerged as the strangest and most original journalist of his age. His influence has been considerable. Poe became his double; Dostoevsky went into exile with Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in his pocket; and Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Alfred Hitchcock, and Vladimir Nabokov were all De Quincey devotees.
There have been other biographies of Thomas De Quincey, but Guilty Thing is the first to be animated by the spirit of De Quincey himself. Following the growth of his obsessions from seed to full flowering and tracing the ways they intertwined, Frances Wilson finds the master key to De Quincey’s vast Piranesian mind. Unraveling a tale of hero worship and revenge, Guilty Thing brings the last of the Romantics roaring back to life and firmly establishes Wilson as one of our foremost contemporary biographers.
Wilson (How to Survive the Titanic: or, The Sinking of J. Bruce Ismay) will enthrall readers with this mesmerizing and agile biography of English writer Thomas De Quincey, "the last of the Romantics." De Quincey (1785 1859) is best known for the autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which kicked off his literary career and arguably gave birth to the genre of literature devoted to addiction and recovery. Wilson makes a good case that opium, which De Quincey began taking at 19, was the making of him, freeing him from his "torments" and allowing him unfettered access to his inner life. Wilson captures De Quincey's riches-to-rags story, complex personality ("at core were his addictions. Opium was one and debt another"), and obsession with the poet William Wordsworth, whose writing he revered, but whom he grew to loathe personally. Wilson also reveals that, for all of De Quincey's classical learning, he was a "born journalist" with a taste for sensationalism, as well as a talented biographer responsible for some of the best portraits of Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. In an impressively researched biography as dazzling as its subject, Wilson highlights De Quincey's influence on Edgar Allan Poe, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Baudelaire, and many others, amply demonstrating his lasting influence.