Big Poppy

The English Opium Eater
A Biography of Thomas De Quincey
Robert Morrison
Weidenfeld & Nicholson, $37.99, 462 pp.

Some writers tower over their age while others merge with it. Wordsworth and Coleridge stand like beacons over the early nineteenth century, while a writer like Thomas De Quincey remains part of the landscape. Robert Morrison’s engaging biography of De Quincey does not try to undo this natural state of affairs by inflating its subject’s importance. At the same time, there is something powerfully unique about De Quincey that cries out for analysis. Since his death in 1859 his admirers have included Hawthorne, Poe, Woolf, and a host of other writers up to the present. They have mainly admired his writing, though he remains most famous as a drug addict.

De Quincey was born in 1785 in Manchester, England. His father was a cultured and successful linen merchant, and his mother, who lived to the age of ninety-seven, was a devoted follower of the evangelist Hannah More. The father’s literary tastes and the mother’s piety made an odd mixture in the son, who achieved dizzying heights of self-cultivation while never losing a simple Christian faith. He had a natural gift for languages, and as a teenager was fluent in Latin and Greek. These and other gifts seemed to point to a scholarly career, yet an extreme emotional waywardness kept thwarting him. He traced this inner sense of dislocation to the death of his favorite sister, Elizabeth, when they were children. When she died, he wrote, “A vault seemed to open in the zenith of the far blue sky, a shaft which ran up for ever...

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About the Author

Peter Schwendener has written for the American Scholar, the New Criterion, and other publications.