Nastiest? Oh, most definitely. This is the great gift and insight of Frances Wilson’s new Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey—that De Quincey, while not as grandly antagonistic as his contemporary and fellow journalist William Hazlitt (“Have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough”), embodied in his elfin way a more modern, because it was more marginal and alienated, strain of meanness. He was kind of a stalker. He was kind of a troll. In 1816 his friend Charles Lloyd, recently escaped from a mental asylum and believing himself to be “the Author of all Evil,” told De Quincey sadly, “I know also who you are: you are nobody, a nonentity, you have no being.” But De Quincey was also kind of a genius, so let’s start there.
If you know one thing about Thomas De Quincey, you know that he wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. First published in 1821, when De Quincey was 36, Confessions is a sinuous, trippy exhibition of psychological self-profiling, with a style that looks backwards into the 17th-century glooms of Sir Thomas Browne and forward into the floating junkie panoramas of William S. Burroughs. It was an immediate sensation. (“Powerful and magnificent in the extreme,” raved The United States Literary Gazette.) De Quincey had combined the popular tale of a teenage boy—himself—running away from school and home and sinking into vagrancy on the low-life streets of London with an entirely new genre, the chemical memoir: “I took it:— and in an hour, oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me!” This is the weirdo music of early De Quincey—power chords of druggy bombast with a counter-whine of irony.
Opium was no mystery, no smoky god, to De Quincey’s 19th-century English readers. As Wilson puts it, “The whole country was marinated in opium, which was taken for anything from upset stomachs to sore heads.” De Quincey himself first made its acquaintance when he dosed himself with laudanum drops to palliate “excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face.” The artistic shimmy of Confessions was to use this commonplace act of domestic self-medication as the trigger for an interior epic, for the jumbo Romantic visions and bottomless apprehensions and analyses that would blossom in the author’s skull when he was high: “I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night … a vast march—of infinite cavalcades filing off—and the tread of innumerable armies … the weight of twenty Atlantics was upon me.” (Somewhere in all that reverb you can hear Lou Reed singing “Heroin,” sailing the darkened seas on his “great big clipper ship.”)
Confessions appeared in The London Magazine in September and October 1821, amid a journalistic atmosphere that was, to put it mildly, adversarial. De Quincey had previously been aligned with another journal, Blackwood’s, with which The London was in a vicious feud. Somehow he had managed to switch to The London without its staff knowing that, behind the scenes, he had been a gleeful Blackwood’s partisan, egging on its scribes to further insults against The London’s editor, John Scott: “I do so loathe the vile whining canting hypocrisy of the fellow,” he wrote to one. “Lampoon him in songs—in prose … Lash him into lunacy.” By the time De Quincey got to The London, Scott was not lashed but dead—shot in the abdomen during a duel with a Blackwood’s man. So here is our author, an equivocal figure indeed: We see him in the foreground, with his Grub Street rancors and his bottles of medicine; but behind his eyes, we know, are the abysms, the ecstasies, the endless fallings-away.