Levi Stahl at Open Letters Monthly:
The vast majority of writers leave no lasting posthumous trace. They die, and their work, successful as it may have been in its time, simply fades away. A lucky few—the Dickenses, Trollopes, Woolfs— end up firmly ensconced in the culture, their major works widely read, their minor ones remaining in print, and even their ephemera published. Then there’s the middle ground: the writers who are known for one or two pieces drawn from a vast body of work that is otherwise almost wholly forgotten.
Such a one is Thomas De Quincey, whose phantasmagoric memoir Confessions of an English Opium Eater has been handed from poets to trippers in an unbroken skein since the it was first published in 1822. De Quincey wrote many hundreds of thousands of words in addition toConfessions—the complete edition of his works prepared by a US publisher in his later years ran to twenty-two volumes—but it’s not inappropriate that Confessions is what he’s remembered by: opium was his regrettable lodestar, rivaled only, perhaps, by Wordsworth. But whereas he soured on Wordsworth and moved beyond him, opium kept him in its grip for a lifetime.
“Opium was the making of De Quincey,” writes Frances Wilson in Guilty Thing, her absorbing new biography.