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Margaret Russett, De Quincey's Romanticism: Canonical Minority and the Forms of Transmission. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-521-57236-3 (hardback). Price: £37.50 (US$59.95).

  • Robert Morrison

…plus d’informations

  • Robert Morrison
    Acadia University

Corps de l’article

In a vicious 1824 article on 'The Humbugs of the Age', William Maginn pilloried Thomas De Quincey as, among other things, 'a sort of hanger-on' with 'the lake school',  [1] and the notion of De Quincey as the disciple or imitator of Wordsworth and Coleridge has often attracted critical attention. In her new book, Margaret Russett extends and theorizes the notion of De Quincey's 'minority', and his various textual and psychological debts to the two older poets. As she notes, 'De Quincey's imbrication in the cult of self-sustaining poetic genius, on one hand, and the context of periodical writing and proto-professional criticism, on the other, situates him at a historical crux whose symptom, minority, is inextricable from our received narratives of greatness' (p. 2). In support of this argument, Russett explores a wide range of contemporary concerns, from the anonymous authorship of the Waverley novels to the Copyright Act of 1842, and she relies extensively on the theories of poststructuralism, or what she calls 'involuted analysis' (p. 7). The result is a book that casts sometimes striking light on the nuances and anxieties of De Quincey's texts, but which at other points distorts or obscures what De Quincey wrote, and why.

The implications of Russett's position are perhaps most succinctly demonstrated when she situates her theoretical approach against the approaches taken in two recent books on De Quincey, John Barrell's The Infection of Thomas De Quincey (1991) and Alina Clej's A Genealogy of the Modern Self: Thomas De Quincey and the Intoxication of Writing (1995). In the first instance, Barrell characterizes the episode in Suspiria de Profundis when De Quincey visits the bedchamber of his dead sister Elizabeth as a grotesque primal scene in which De Quincey blends fantasies of violence, sexuality, and imperialism. Russett, on the other hand, is interested in how in the same scene 'De Quincey articulates the temporality (or Lacanian "structure") of psychoanalysis, thereby both extending and problematizing the autobiographical project' (p. 256). In the second instance, Clej argues that even in De Quincey's most impassioned autobiographical moments, he is a rhetorical construct fashioned out of Miltonic, Wordsworthian, and Coleridgean echoes. But for Russett, De Quincey is a secondary power in the stance of a younger, listening pupil, 'the theorist of reproduction rather than a guilt-ridden "scriptor"' (p. 275). For Clej, De Quincey is the first of the hollow men; for Russett, authenticity and reproduction remain possible, if only through denial and deferral.

Russett's intertextual approach can be illuminating. De Quincey as dark interpreter is gothicized or feminized or victimized by the texts of Wordsworth and Coleridge, a point Russett makes most effectively in her opening discussion of 'We Are Seven.' She also demonstrates how the tropes of Wordsworth's Convention of Cintra pamphlet are reformulated by De Quincey in 'The English Mail-Coach', and how the anxieties of 'Tintern Abbey' underwrite De Quincey's early correspondence with Wordsworth. In her chapter on 'opium, prostitution, and poetry', she examines De Quincey's parallel discourses in economics and aesthetics to argue, cleverly, that for the De Quincey of The Logic of Political Economy , 'beauty is use, use beauty' (p. 157). In the same chapter, Russett notes the homology between financial and aesthetic investment in De Quincey's shrewd decision in '1805 or 1806' to buy up 'all the remaining copies' of Wordsworth's An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches , for the price at the time was negligible, and De Quincey knew the volumes would gain immensely in value once the prestige of Wordsworth's name was established (p. 162). Russett's explorations of the self-reflexivity of magazine production and the construction of magazine identity are similarly engaging. In each instance, the dynamics of intertextuality reveal new perspectives on De Quincey's texts.

On other occasions, however, the intertextual approach is less successful. Jargon often intrudes at the expense of clarity: 'Thus a theoretical crux yields a metacritical figure for the aporia of ideology' (p. 64), or 'while the Deleuzian reading offers an "intensive" De Quincey, a full appropriation must surely devolve into aestheticism - valorizing, as ipso facto "revolutionary", a thematic deconstruction of the subject and a preoccupation with the artifactuality of language' (p. 234). Also, theory and text are not always tightly integrated so that, for example, in her discussion of the death of Catherine Wordsworth, Russett uses the 'Lucy poems' and De Quincey's letters and Reminiscences to argue that De Quincey 'casts the poet of Lyrical Ballads as the pander of his infant daughter', for 'Lucy is to Catherine, as lyric is to narrative, as the abstract love of poetry is to child molestation.' With his 'conscientious confusion of poetics and pedophilia', De Quincey thus 'devolves into a pornographer' (pp. 213, 221). Such conclusions say less about De Quincey than they do about the importance of ensuring that literary theory serves the text, and not the other way round.

De Quincey's Romanticism contains some factual errors. Russett states that Blackwood's Magazine was 'edited by [De Quincey's] friend John Wilson' (p. 92), yet throughout its early years Blackwood's was edited by its owner William Blackwood, a circumstance that repeatedly shaped De Quincey's career with the magazine. Russett quotes Crabb Robinson's initial impression of the Confessions as 'a fragment of autobiography in imitation of Coleridge's diseased egotism' (p. 165). But Robinson actually wrote, not 'in imitation ', but 'in emulation of Coleridge's diseased egotism', an interesting misquotation given Russett's insistence on De Quincey's 'minority.'  [2] Russett asserts that De Quincey's 'Postscript On Sir John Moore's Letters' is his 'first known publication' (p. 265), but De Quincey had already appeared in print nine years earlier, when two of his Latin translations were entered in a competition run by a London periodical called the Monthly Preceptor or Juvenile Library . De Quincey was awarded third prize (Leigh Hunt won first prize) and later recollected how the publication of his verses attracted enough notice that it 'gained for me a public distinction' and 'for the first time in my life, I found myself somewhat in the situation of a "lion ".'  [3]

In her chapter on 'the magazinist as minor author', Russett somewhat underestimates the stature of the periodical press. She contends, for example, that writing for the magazines was 'less lucrative than the creations of the book-market poet' (p. 96). But in 1823 Hazlitt pointed out that 'the only authors who, as a class, are not starving, are periodical essayists', and Lee Erickson has recently established that 'by 1830 almost all publishers refused to publish poetry', and that the periodical press became the most dominant publishing format in the first half of the nineteenth century because it was the most dependably profitable one.  [4] Writing for the periodicals in the 1820s was also more prestigious than Russett suggests. Less than a year after the Confessions appeared, P. G. Patmore noted in the London that magazines 'have changed their place in the system of literature' and soared 'aloft into higher spheres', for 'the liberality of publishers...has made it not unworthy [for] the very highest names in English literature to contribute.' George Trevelyan recalled the sensation caused by Macaulay's 1825 essay on 'Milton', which appeared in the Edinburgh Review . 'Like Lord Byron, he awoke one morning and found himself famous.'  [5] In the 1820s, publishing poetry slipped into a secondary position, behind the growing wealth and prestige of the periodical press.

Russett sometimes misrepresents De Quincey's relationship with Wordsworth. She states that, following De Quincey's ill-fated supervision of the Cintra pamphlet, he 'never again presumed to collaborate on a project of Wordsworth's' (pp. 87-8). Yet in early 1815 Wordsworth sent De Quincey the proofs of the 'Preface' to his forthcoming edition of Poems , and was anxious to take De Quincey's advice on the wording of different passages. 'Mr. D. Q.', Wordsworth assured Daniel Stuart at this time, 'is a remarkably able man.'  [6] Similarly, in 1818 Wordsworth worked with De Quincey on a pamphlet entitled Close Comments Upon a Straggling Speech , and later that same year the two appear to have collaborated on at least two other political essays in defence of their shared version of Toryism.  [7] In 1827 Wordsworth commented that 'whatever [De Quincey] writes is worth reading' and, in 1842, when checking a glossary of local names for A Guide through the District of the Lakes , Wordsworth wrote to John Hudson that he was still of the opinion 'that it is very desirable they should be looked over by Mr de Quincey', who 'is likely to be competent greatly to improve the Glossary.'  [8] In her discussion of Wordsworth's response to De Quincey's Lake Reminiscences , Russett concludes that, 'in De Quincey, Wordsworth saw the degradation of his ideal posterity into its "erroneous and perverse" actuality' (p. 221). Yet for all Wordsworth's undoubted displeasure with De Quincey's work on Cintra, and with his Tait's Reminiscences , the relationship between the two writers was often a good deal closer and more constructive than Russett implies. De Quincey may have been only an interpreter, but he was an interpreter that Wordsworth himself often listened to. Indeed, Russett herself somewhat unexpectedly calls the minor De Quincey a 'great criti[c]' (p. 242), and suggests both that De Quincey's 1803 fan letter to Wordsworth may have shaped the Dream of the Arab in Book Five of the 1805 Prelude (196-97), and that his Tait's Reminiscences may have prompted Wordsworth to revise the Arab Dream for the 1850 Prelude (p. 206).

Russett's book is the eighth full-length study of De Quincey to appear since 1990, and there have been book chapters and several articles as well. In addition, there are at least two more monographs on the way, and new editions of De Quincey's Letters and Collected Works . Such critical interest perhaps belies the notion of De Quincey as a minor writer. Yet, as De Quincey's Romanticism demonstrates, De Quincey's texts are repeatedly inscribed and indebted to the language of Wordsworth and Coleridge, and his literary identity is deeply bound up in theirs. Russett's study is not always convincing, but she makes several new links between the three writers, and underlines the ways in which De Quincey's achievement both emphasizes and unveils the canonical centrality of the two poets.

Romantic Circles Review

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