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Supping on Horrors

Thomas De Quincey’s bad habits

Discussed in this essay:

Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, by Frances Wilson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 416 pages. $28.

“Secret, selfish, suicidal debauchery.” This summary — from an early reviewer of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822) — wasn’t wholly true. The secret was already out. Thomas De Quincey had become a sensation overnight; “no book,” another contemporary proclaimed, “has ever so energetically depicted the pleasures and pains of opium.” In 1981, William Burroughs concurred, stating that “no other author since has given such a completely analytical description of what it is like to be a junky.” De Quincey had inaugurated the addiction memoir before the term “drug addiction” had even been coined. The penniless writer had completed the book fast, seeking to avoid debtors’ prison. He was holed up in the former rooms of John Scott, the recently murdered editor of The London Magazine, and when the Confessions appeared there, he was spurred to project a work entitled “Confessions of a Murderer.” Like many of his plans, this one eventually went awry, but a few years later he would publish “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827); that essay, along with two follow-ups, had an influence that continues to be felt in crime fiction and in the distinctly modern predilection for the dandyish killer. Alfred Hitchcock paid tribute to the “delightful essay,” adding that murder should always “be treated delicately” and “brought into the home where it rightly belongs.” De Quincey is so domesticated a part of our collective consciousness that we’ve forgotten he’s there. The last sentence of Guilty Thing, Frances Wilson’s absorbing new biography, certainly rings true: “We are all De Quinceyan now.”

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teaches English at Keble College, Oxford. He is writing a book about Wordsworth.

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