Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

De Quincey, Malthus and the Anachronism-Effect

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

De Quincey, Malthus and the Anachronism-Effect

Article excerpt

READERS HAVE LONG BEEN PERPLEXED BY THE QUESTION OF DE QUINCEY'S place in literary history. A writer whose works traverse five decades, from some juvenilia and an early diary written in 1803, to his death in 1859, he is most often taken to be a minor, late Romantic, out of step with the times, an ineffectual dreamer, whose preoccupations and voice betray an allegiance with the older generation of Lakeland writers. (1) Alina Clej, on the other hand, pushes him the other way, and across the Channel: for her, De Quincey is a pre-emptive modernist, a precursor to a European tradition of avant gardistes. (2) He is rarely read, or indeed taught, as a Victorian writer, despite the fact that his work overlaps with the major writers of the Victorian canon. (3) Moreover, unlike other writers of such longevity, little critical attention has been paid to stages in his own development. His erratic publishing tactics, his notorious habits of revision and recycling, have thwarted attempts to identify changes across the body of work, and even the most historicist of his critics tends to respond by reading him synchronically, as though all his writings are of the same moment. (4) We have accrued little sense of 'late' or 'early' De Quincey. It is as though De Quincey is always late, or belated, and sometimes even early.

Grevel Lindop's fine new edition, which organizes the works on chronological principles, provides much scope for revisiting these questions and understanding the writer's specific relation to his times. As the works are laid out in terms of publication dates, and where unpublished, composition dates, we can now read across De Quincey's works, from early to late, see patterns of repetition and revision, the clustering of thematic interests, and plot the work against a broad historical framework. The sheer expanse of his disciplinary interests is eclectic: from astronomy to ancient history, from religion to economics, from poetry to parliamentary politics. But striking too is his modishness, his marked responsiveness to the latest ideas and intellectual trends, evident especially because many of his essays take the form of reviews of recently published works. The new edition allows us to see De Quincey's works as an idiosyncratic, but nonetheless capacious record of the intellectual preoccupations of mid-nineteenth-century Britain.

It is the inclusion of his political writings in the new edition, however, that locks the work emphatically into narratives of social and political history of his time. Many of these writings are reprinted here for the first time, since De Quincey's nineteenth-century editors deemed them, paradoxically, too ephemeral for republication. For modern readers the political writings are problematic for another reason: it is the shrill voice of political reaction that they reveal that disconcerts us, reverberating uneasily beside the received view of De Quincey as the gentle dreamer. As recently as 2000, Daniel Sanjiv Roberts has proposed the downplaying of the later political writings, as unrepresentative of the "real" De Quincey. (5) The new edition, however, invites us to return to these questions and ask again just who, where and above all when is the "real" De Quincey.

These questions are particularly complicated because there seems to be something about De Quincey's own work that resolutely defies location in particular historical moments. By this I mean not the quality of transcendence that he makes the center of his own literary theoretical disquisition, the Wordsworthian "Literature of Power" adumbrated in his essays on literary criticism. (6) Rather I mean the peculiar way in which his works seem to slip backwards or forwards in time; not out of time, but out of synch with time. Paradoxically Grevel Lindop identifies this as the characteristic feature of his work--as though the authentic voice of De Quincey is the voice of the anachronist.

In this essay, I wish to pursue the question of the anachronism-effect in De Quincey's work. …

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