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).[Notice]

  • Robert Morrison

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  • Robert Morrison
    Acadia University

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', 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 …

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