Thomas de Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions

Thomas de Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions

Thomas de Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions

Thomas de Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions

Synopsis

The ongoing critical fascination with Thomas De Quincey and the burgeoning recognition of the centrality of his writings to the Romantic age and beyond necessitates a critical examination of De Quincey. In this spirit, ten of the top De Quincey scholars in the world have come together in this volume to engage directly with the immense amount of new information to be published on De Quincey in the past two decades. The book features wide-ranging and incisive assessments of De Quincey as essayist, addict, economist, subversive, biographer, autobiographer, aesthete, innovator, hedonist, and much else.

Excerpt

‘I have […] always intended of course that poems should form the cornerstones of my fame’, wrote the seventeen-year-old Thomas De Quincey (DQW, I: 38). As it turned out, he wrote very little poetry, but he did achieve fame, and in several instances infamy. An essayist with the magazine press for nearly forty years, De Quincey wrote on a broad range of topics, from politics, science, philosophy, economics, and history to aesthetics, drugs, famous contemporaries, murder, and himself. When, near the end of his life, he brought his writings together in a fourteen-volume edition of Selections Grave and Gay (1853–60), critical opinion was sharply divided. Naysayers such as the British Quarterly declared that De Quincey had written ‘not one great work, not a single essay, discussion, or treatise, or tale, on which a lasting literary reputation can be built’ (Anon. 1863: 14). More than a century later, he was still being dismissed as a ‘Manchester journalist whose enormous output contains, among much flatulent and pretentiously overwritten stuff, just a few essays thanks to which he deserves his small niche in the gallery of the minor English romantics’ (Hemmings 1982: 157). But there have always been enthusiasts. The Eclectic Review was convinced that De Quincey had produced ‘the most valuable and most enduring […] papers, which had originally appeared in a periodical form, to be found in the entire world of literature’ (Anon. 1854: 399). This view too has long had staunch support. De Quincey brought to ‘the art of prose autobiography something entirely new, and his influence has been felt by every self-conscious English writer, whether of reminiscences or of autobiographical novels, ever since’ (Hayter 1971: 24). In the last thirty years, De Quincey’s status has risen dramatically as a result of several groundbreaking monographs and a new collected edition of his writings. In the 1980s the battle lines were sharply drawn between those who believed that ‘the best contemporary critics of De Quincey’ retained the ‘more traditional forms of appreciation and analysis’ and those who viewed him as an ‘aesthete’ and a ‘pure stylist’ who lent himself ‘to deconstructive readings’ (Thron 1985: 3; Leighton 1992: 164). In the 1990s the upsurge of historicist criticism ‘produced yet another […] De Quincey […] this one more sensitive to the social and political context . . .

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