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Julian North, De Quincey Reviewed: Thomas De Quincey's Critical Reception, 1821-1994. Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1997. ISBN: 1-57113-072-1 (hardback) Price: $55.

  • Robert Morrison

…plus d’informations

  • Robert Morrison
    Acadia University

Corps de l’article

'Have you had deep delight in an exquisite paper by the Opium-eater, which my heart trembled through from end to end?', Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote excitedly to a correspondent in March 1845 after having read the first instalment of Thomas De Quincey's 'Suspiria de Profundis.'  [1] Barrett Browning's response, like so many who read De Quincey, was immediate and passionate, though of course not everyone shared her enthusiasm. In De Quincey Reviewed, Julian North charts the crests and troughs of De Quincey's 'critical reception' from the first appearance of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in 1821 until the publication of Josephine McDonagh's De Quincey's Disciplines in 1994. North's book - the latest instalment in the Camden House Literary Criticism in Perspective series - contains a good deal of information usefully summarized, and makes a series of striking connections between apparently very different critical assumptions about De Quincey. The book, however, is occasionally marred by cursoriness and omission.

De Quincey Reviewed is divided into twelve chapters, eleven of which necessarily concern his autobiographical writings, which have always been the centre of critical interest; a final chapter concerns De Quincey himself as critic and scholar. The discussion proceeds chronologically, and surveys nineteenth-century constructions of 'De Quincey as Ruined Genius' and Romantic autobiographer, before considering the reaction to his work by 'Aesthetes and Moralists' in the 1860s and 70s, and the dominant interest in him as 'Prose Stylist' in the 1880s and 90s. North then moves from early twentieth-century representations of De Quincey as 'Degenerate', 'Musician' , and 'Modernist', through the landmark essays of J. Hillis Miller (1963) and Robert Maniquis (1976), and to the deconstructionism of the late 1970s and 80s. The book concludes with the new historicism of the early 1990s, seen most flamboyantly in the 'unashamed sensationalism' (111) of John Barrell's The Infection of Thomas De Quincey.

North's study contains a fascinating series of critical reactions to De Quincey that range from the rapturous to the scornful. When Confessions first appeared, some praised it as 'the most original, if not the most powerful, piece of self-biography extant' (8) while others damned it as 'the autobiography of a lunatic' (12) and 'without any intelligible drift or design' (11). In the 1850s several commentators spoke with awed reverence of the 'impassioned prose' of 'Suspiria' and 'The English Mail-Coach': De Quincey 'is familiar with the colossal scenery of the spiritual world', wrote one critic; 'looks down with clear and steady eye into bottomless starry gulfs; and walks unscathed amid solar systems and burning planets' (29). But for others, of course, this kind of rhetorical flight - in both De Quincey and his admirers - was nothing more than 'word-painting' and represented a series of failed attempts 'to render artistic and set forth in "passionate prose" what is essentially matter of fact' (28). In this century De Quincey as prose stylist has been praised by Virginia Woolf and disparaged by George Saintsbury; praised as critic by John Jordan and condemned by René Wellek; praised as existentialist autobiographer by Miller and condemned as a narrow-minded Tory by McDonagh. What De Quincey achieved, and to what end, has always been hotly contested.

Throughout De Quincey Reviewed North is generous and admirably objective, and does a good job of suggesting how even the finest De Quincey critics have inevitably shaped De Quincey in their own image. 'For David Masson, the scholar and polyhistor', North writes, 'De Quincey is first and foremost a scholar and polyhistor; for Virginia Woolf, De Quincey is an embryonic Virginia Woolf; for J. Hillis Miller, suffering from the disappearance of the author, De Quincey is a writer suffering from the disappearance of God...for the deconstructionists of the late 1970s, De Quincey anticipates the insights of Derrida' (145). North makes a similar point from the opposite direction when he quotes John Carey's review of Barrell's book, in which Carey argues that Barrell has 'invented an incestuous imperialist, De Quincey, to serve as the opposite of himself, a right-thinking intellectual' (111). De Quincey Reviewed also demonstrates the ways in which, from markedly different perspectives, critics have often arrived at strikingly similar conclusions. The purple-patched appreciations of De Quincey in the 1850s are repeated by 'critics of consciousness' in the 1960s like Robert Adams, who observes that De Quincey, in his struggle against the void, 'unleashes a flood of hidden waters...the toppling, jerrybuilt structure of his thought collapses, there is a gush of redemptive emotions from beneath' (81). Deconstructionist readings of De Quincey by critics such as Stephen Spector aim to disrupt the notion of the organic unity of the text but, as North suggests, in assailing the 'totalizing urges' of previous critics, 'Spector demonstrates his own totalizing urge. De Quincey's autobiography is no longer a coherent expression of the authorial voice, but it is now an allegory of deconstruction' (86-7). Finally, the 'politically correct' (62) analyses of the 1990s echo the views of earlier twentieth-century 'degeneracy theorists', for the 'high moral tone' of the new historicists seems 'strangely familiar to anyone who has read the numerous nineteenth- and early twentieth-century accounts of De Quincey's "unhealthy", "abnormal" and "degenerate" mind' (117). In De Quincey criticism, what has gone round has often come round.

Yet despite strengths and insights, De Quincey Reviewed does not always explore central issues with sufficient depth. The division of the book into twelve chapters makes sense, but some of these chapters are well under three thousand words, which means the discussion is over almost before it begins. This quickly generates a rhetoric of 'as we have seen' and 'as we shall see' as a means of trying to tie together a series of thin chapters, and it also creates the sense that there is really not that much to say, when in fact a broader and more detailed examination of several different areas would have brought many important aspects of De Quincey's critical reception much closer to the surface. For example, in his consideration of the years 1825-50, North makes no mention of the controversy De Quincey provoked when he published his recollections of Coleridge in Tait's Magazine in 1834-35, and accused his former friend and fellow opium-eater of plagiarism. Harriet Martineau condemned the 'grotesque air' of De Quincey's 'evil-speaking', and Robert Southey urged Hartley Coleridge 'to take a strong cudgel, proceed straight to Edinburgh, and give De Quincey, publicly on the streets there, a sound beating.' At the same time, the issue of Coleridge's plagiarism, and De Quincey's disclosure of it, was discussed at length in the magazines.  [2] Even twenty years later Alaric Watts could write that De Quincey, in his articles on distinguished contemporaries, 'does not appear' to have proceeded 'with either the delicacy or generosity that might have been expected at his hands.'  [3] De Quincey as unscrupulous snitch was a central feature of his critical reception throughout the latter half of his career.

More seriously, North does not consider the ways in which the biographies of Japp (1877; revised 1890), Eaton (1936), Sackville-West (1936) and Lindop (1981) have shaped critical perceptions of De Quincey, and his discussion of recent trends in De Quincey criticism does not take into account a good deal of importance, including the work of Sedgwick (1980), McFarland (1987), Cafarelli (1990), and Black (1991).  [4] Also, while North acknowledges that 'many critics have expressed their dissatisfaction with the standard edition of [De Quincey's] works' (95), edited by David Masson in 1889-90, he does not go on to examine the profound ways in which this edition has shaped De Quincey criticism. Masson left out dozens of essays that critics have only now begun to assimilate into discussions of De Quincey; he repeatedly changed De Quincey's meaning through cuts, alterations, and bowdlerization; and perhaps most significantly, in choosing to reprint the 1856 version of Confessions, Masson followed the editorial conventions of his day, which insisted on the 'author's final version', but in doing so he excluded from the standard edition De Quincey's most successful and influential work, the 1821 Confessions. When in 1856 De Quincey completed his revisions of Confessions, he worried that 'many readers' would prefer it 'in its original fragmentary state to its present full-blown development.'  [5] His worries were fully justified, for the 1821 text is now broadly considered much superior, while the 1856 text was the most readily available in the one hundred years following De Quincey's death. In a survey such as North's, it is not of course possible to be exhaustive, but such factors as contemporary scandal, full-length biographies, the diversity of recent criticism, and the standard edition of the works, seem central to 'a full and detailed guide' (1), and would profitably have been considered as key features of De Quincey's critical reception.

De Quincey Reviewed is handsomely printed and full of useful references, quotations, and connections. And while it is not always detailed or penetrating in its consideration of various aspects of his reception, it is undoubtedly a book that will 'stimulate and orientate those researching De Quincey's work' (1). As a whole, it may perhaps most usefully be seen as a counter to Margaret Russett's recent claims regarding De Quincey's 'minority',  [6] for North demonstrates that De Quincey, in his own right, has long attracted considerable critical notice as madman, rhetorician, degenerate, and visionary.

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