Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Thomas De Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Thomas De Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions

Article excerpt

THOMAS DE QUINCEY: NEW THEORETICAL AND CRITICAL DIRECTIONS. Edited by Robert Morrison and Daniel Sanjiv Roberts. New York: Routledge, 2008. Pp. 249. ISBN 978 0 415 39963 0. £22.50.

De Quincey's critical fortunes are booming, witnessed by at least ten book-length studies of his writing since the 1980s, among them a 2000 study by Daniel Sanjiv Roberts and a new biography by Robert Morrison, who have now co-edited this excellent volume. De Quincey is also benefiting from criticism's ever-expanding account of the Romantic public sphere and its information networks, a growth industry capped by the recent publication of Works of Thomas De Quincey. Presenting the full range of the author's output, almost entirely in magazines and periodicals, Works exemplifies its subject as an eminent purveyor of the scope and power of 'publicity' in Romantic and post-Romantic British writing. Works makes clear that De Quincey's thought, more archive than encyclopaedia, signifies a knowledge economy struggling to discipline, and thus keep up with, its own explosion. As the editors of Thomas De Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions note, De Quincey has moved 'from a position of peripheral and eccentric significance to Romantic literature' to become 'deeply embedded in our notions of Romanticism, and increasingly of Victorianism', a writer 'imbricat[ed] in Romantic-period cultures of imperialism, gender, sexuality, race, religion, language and medical theory, and aesthetics'. Morrison and Roberts thus leave contributors to schematise their own versions of De Quincey, but make clear that 'while the editors of Works were digging in the archive, in the more rarefied atmosphere above them, other developments were taking place', as 'the linguistical [sic] and rhetorical excesses of deconstruction' were succeeded by the 'more grounded theories of New Historicism and Cultural Materialism'. That word 'grounded' is rather ironic, given the fact that De Quincey, politically xenophobic and defensive as well as intellectually and aesthetically brilliant, was also stoned for much of his life. But it is the case that a more historically nuanced view of De Quincey allows us to apprehend a writer who often responds hysterically to his own 'sober' times, at the same time that he 'hystericizes' this sobriety by reflecting its own excesses and unseemly habits.

The lightning rod here is politics. As Morrison puts it in his essay, we need to challenge some of the ways in which De Quincey's 'fossilized conservatism' has 'overshadowed his fascination with criminality, insurrection, and illicitness'. The author's 'delighted confidence in his own Englishness', argues Morrison, 'is frequently undermined by sympathies that disrupt the [...] ideologies he is ostensibly bent on affirming', his 'racial and aristocratic' Toryism oddly (dis) simulated by a 'wide-ranging series of liberal commitments and radical sympathies'. If Works makes clear that it is now possible to read De Quincey's corpus beyond his still-most-famous text, this volume, concerned to trace a De Quincey decidedly undecided about his political and aesthetic inclinations, demonstrates that it is impossible not to read his texts through an ambivalent confessional persona who is always writing the (auto)biography of an age never quite at one with itself.

The essays follow a rough chronology from the 1821 Confessions to its 1856 revision for Selections Grave and Gay - the British collection of his writings that De Quincey oversaw to the end of his life and that cemented the High Romantic's reputation as a High Victorian. The figure of De Quincey as 'slippery political commentator' frames the volume's opening three essays. Daniel Roberts' essay traces De Quincey's global politics to the biblical Orient of the 1780-81 Protestant's Family Bible. According to Roberts, this 'Orientalized Bible' reflects an earlier 'Indomania', as distinct from a later 'Indophobia' that turned orientalist knowledge into orientalising power: the 'muscular evangelical form of missionary intervention in the colonies' and the 'utilitarian forms of imperialism in governance and education'. …

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