Drugs and Words

Quincey1 Laura Marsh reviews Robert Morrison's The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, in TNR:

Robert Morrison’s biography somewhat daringly, then, takes its title from De Quincey’s most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. While he draws on De Quincey’s reminiscences and self-analysis, Morrison also shows what De Quincey’s life looked like from the outside. In an opening vignette, we meet not the introspective sybarite of the Confessions but a down-at-heel, elderly magazine writer, who has walked eight miles to hand in his copy. Indeed, De Quincey’s tendency to bring hardship upon himself (and others) permeates the rest of the book. Born in 1785 into a wealthy family with aristocratic pretensions (hence the ‘De’), he ran away from Manchester Grammar School at 16, choosing to live alone and penniless in London. He began to dissipate his inheritance long before he was legally entitled to it by living determinedly beyond his means. He was, for most of his life, pursued by creditors, whom he eluded with gusto, although he was imprisoned for debt once and publicly humiliated on several occasions. His long-suffering daughter Florence described leaving the debtors’ sanctuary where they spent seven years as “one of the most lively foretastes of Paradise I have had in my life.”

By tracing De Quincey’s public persona as “The Opium Eater” through to old age, Morrison avoids reducing his subject to The Man Who Wrote The Confessions. Soon after he was identified as the author of the hugely successful (and originally anonymous) memoir, which was one of his first published works, he was able to trade on “the magic prefix ‘by the Opium Eater.’” It was the name under which he published his Gothic novel Klosterheim: or the Masque, the signature on many of his London Magazine articles, and the name used against him in gossip columns.