In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Thomas De Quincey

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Letters
  • Bibliographies
  • Collected Editions
  • Selected Editions
  • Critical Reception
  • As Biographer
  • As Critic and Literary Theorist
  • Magazine Context and Reading Public
  • Gender
  • Politics
  • Gothic
  • William Wordsworth
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge
  • French and German Connections

British and Irish Literature Thomas De Quincey
Julian North
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0015


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.

General Overviews

The essays and monographs included here all comment on a good range of De Quincey’s writing, and they attempt, in one way or another, to draw together his diverse output. Miller 1963 is still essential reading for students of De Quincey. Miller sees the whole of De Quincey’s work as an autobiographical expression of lost connection with God, and an attempt to overcome that loss. Miller’s essay radiates from his reading of De Quincey’s narrative, in Suspiria de Profundis, of the death of his sister Elizabeth. Miller was not the first critic to find this the primal scene of De Quincey’s life and work, but he set a trend in late-20th-century criticism. Maniquis 1976 also focuses on this scene and De Quincey’s quest for self-substantiation, but historicizes this quest, finding in it both a public and a private struggle against disorder and discontinuity. Like Miller 1963, Baxter 1990 sees the totality of De Quincey’s writings as an autobiography, but shows less interest in them as expressions of consciousness than as texts conditioned by the exigencies of the press. Barrell 1991 follows Miller and Maniquis in using the death of Elizabeth as a starting point for a discussion of the work as a whole, but, in this contentious and influential book, Barrell reads the scene, and its reverberations in the rest of De Quincey’s writing, in the context of psychoanalytic and postcolonial theory, finding the young De Quincey’s guilt endlessly reiterated and recast in violent Oriental fantasies. Like Barrell 1991, Rzepka 1995 is a critical “psychobiography” of De Quincey, this time centered on the conflict between the text as a commodity and the rhetorical sublime. McDonagh 1994 and Russett 1997 also stress his context within an emergent culture of literary professionalism, which was in many ways in conflict with the cult of Romantic genius. McDonagh focuses on De Quincey as a crucial figure in the history of 19th-century literary disciplinarity, while Russett addresses De Quincey’s part in the formation of the English Romantic literary canon. The essays collected in Morrison and Roberts 2008 tend to take detailed, historicized approaches to the work, opening up new contexts for our reading of De Quincey and showing how the new collected edition (Lindop 2000–2003, cited under Collected Editions) has encouraged a recognition of the full range and diversity of his writing.

  • Barrell, John. The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

    A provocative reading of De Quincey’s writing as driven by guilt at the death of his sister, issuing in imperialist fantasies of violence. An entertaining and stimulating introduction for students at all levels.

  • Baxter, Edmund. De Quincey’s Art of Autobiography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1990.

    An invigoratingly polemical defense of De Quincey as an essentially autobiographical writer after what, Baxter argues, had been years of critical neglect and misunderstanding. Chapters on Confessions; autobiographical essays; biographical sketches of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Sir William Hamilton; fiction; “The English Mail-Coach”; political works; and the “Logic of Political Economy.”

  • Maniquis, Robert. “Lonely Empires: Personal and Public Visions of Thomas De Quincey.” In Mid-Nineteenth Century Writers: Eliot, De Quincey, Emerson. Edited by Eric Rothstein and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, 47–127. Literary Monographs 8. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

    Like Miller (see Miller 1963) and others, but this time within a historicized context, Maniquis takes the scene of Elizabeth’s death as the starting point for an analysis of De Quincey’s divided self and his quest to reconstitute a sense of wholeness. Bravura readings of Confessions, Suspiria, and “The English Mail-Coach.”

  • McDonagh, Josephine. De Quincey’s Disciplines. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198112853.001.0001

    Drawing on Foucault, situates De Quincey’s work in the context of the eruption of new fields of knowledge at the time. Important for moving away from the focus on the confessional, autobiographical aspect of his writing to his political commentaries, translations, essays, and his treatise on political economy.

  • Miller, J. Hillis. The Disappearance of God: Five Nineteenth-Century Writers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1963.

    Influenced by Georges Poulet and the Geneva school, Miller reconstitutes the consciousness of De Quincey as a writer for whom God has “disappeared.” The totality of his writing is an attempt “to recover immanence in a world of transcendence” (p. 15). A seminal and hugely insightful essay.

  • Morrison, Robert, and Daniel Sanjiv Roberts, eds. Thomas De Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions. London: Routledge, 2008.

    The essays, by leading De Quincey scholars, take a variety of critical and theoretical approaches and cover a broad spectrum of the writing. Themes include evangelical imperialism, opium, radicalism, gender and sexuality, bibliomania, and the sublime. Some attention is drawn to De Quincey’s Victorian contexts.

  • Russett, Margaret. De Quincey’s Romanticism: Canonical Minority and the Forms of Transmission. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511582974

    Discusses De Quincey as a “minor” writer in the context of the formation of the English Romantic canon, and, more specifically, in relation to Wordsworth, Coleridge, Hazlitt, and Lamb. Detailed readings of the “Logic of Political Economy,” Confessions, and “Lake Reminiscences,” among other works. Russett’s prose style is challenging. Graduate audience.

  • Rzepka, Charles J. Sacramental Commodities: Gift, Text, and the Sublime in De Quincey. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995.

    Ranges widely in De Quincey’s work, but with the Confessions at its heart. Reads De Quincey’s autobiography in the context of the development of the rhetorical sublime as a response to the commodification of the text as a material object. A discursive “psychobiography,” full of suggestive insights. Graduate level.

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