Thomas De Quincey

Julian North

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Thomas De Quincey

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Thomas De Quincey (b. 1785–d. 1859), autobiographer and essayist, is best known for Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821, 1856), the foundational modern account of drug addiction. His prolific output for the periodical press also included memorable reminiscences of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and their circle; his essays on “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts”; and quirkily brilliant excursions into literary criticism, philosophy, history, and many other subjects. De Quincey grew up in Greenhays near Manchester, England. He recalled his childhood in his later, autobiographical writings, focusing especially on the trauma he experienced on the death of his sister Elizabeth. At the age of seventeen, he ran away from Manchester Grammar School and spent some months wandering in Wales and on the streets of London, where he befriended a prostitute, “Ann of Oxford Street.” He recounted these adventures in the Confessions, where he described how his experiences as a young runaway returned to haunt him in his opium dreams. De Quincey first took opium as a cure for toothache in 1804, and then found in it, for a while, a source of positive pleasure. This did not last, however, and he became a lifelong addict, swinging between states of relative well-being, debilitating dependency, and painful efforts at withdrawal. Despite his intellectual precocity, he left Oxford University, in 1808, without completing his degree. He moved to the Lake District to be near Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose poetry he worshipped, but whose personalities he came to resent. He married Margaret Simpson, a farmer’s daughter, started a family, and edited the Westmorland Gazette for a year. In 1821 he went to London to write the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Its publication brought him instant fame, and he launched himself as a professional writer for the magazines. Having spent several years moving between Edinburgh and the Lakes, he settled permanently in Edinburgh with his family in 1830. Here, often in poverty and hounded by his creditors, he stayed for the rest of his life, patching together a precarious living as a writer for the periodical press. De Quincey was admired in 19th-century Britain, France, and America as the prophet of opium, and as a prose stylist in both grand and comic veins. His reputation declined in the first half of the 20th century, but rose again starting in the 1960s, with renewed interest in his contributions to drug literature, autobiography, and British and European Romanticism.

Article.  13916 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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