Study Guide

Thomas De Quincey

Thomas De Quincey Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Thomas De Quincey (dih KWIHN-see), a close associate of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, was near the center of the Romantic movement in England. Like the other Romantics, he placed great emphasis on feeling. He was a master of the curious and obscure in literature and was a creator of a poetic prose that, in its range of diction and display of surprising fancy, is the equal of any writing of his time. It is prose written by an isolated man, a man in whom dream and vigor are not antithetical.

De Quincey was the fifth child in a family of eight children. His busy and stern parents soon alienated De Quincey, who was a sensitive and quiet child much in need of understanding. The boy’s only comfort within his own family was an unusually close devotion to one of his sisters, whose untimely death left him alone, disturbed, and morose.

Since both of De Quincey’s parents were well-educated and interested in scholarship, he at least did not lack for opportunity of study. A brilliant if somewhat unbalanced boy, he could read, write, and speak Greek “as though it were his native tongue” by the age of fifteen. Dissatisfied with the restrictions of his home and by his own shortcomings, De Quincey fled his home at the age of seventeen. For almost a year, he hid in London, where he led a frugal and difficult life of study and introspection. There, he performed his deep reading of English poets, a reading characteristic of all the Romantics. This period he later called an “impassioned parenthesis of my life.” After reconciliation with his family, he was allowed to enter Oxford University in 1803. There, he quickly won the reputation of brilliant scholar and conversationalist, but in 1808 he left without taking a degree.

When De Quincey was about twenty he began to experience severe pain. Some say it was a stomach...

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Thomas De Quincey Bibliography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Barrell, John. The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991.

Baxter, Edmund. De Quincey’s Art of Autobiography. Savage, Md.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1990. Covering all the major themes of Thomas De Quincey’s prose work, this new study argues the case for acknowledging “the Opium Eater” as a conscious artist, not the “flawed” writer often portrayed in previous critical studies.

Burwick, Frederick. Thomas De Quincey: Knowledge and Power. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Examines what De Quincy called “psychological criticism,” a mode of studying how “literature of power” arouses ideas and images dormant in the subconscious.

Clej, Alina. A Genealogy of the Self: Thomas De Quincey and the Intoxication of Writing. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. A psychological study of De Quincey and his works.

McDonagh, Josephine. De Quincey’s Disciplines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Taking a theoretical, new historicist stance, this examination of De Quincey’s less frequently scrutinized works recontextualizes De Quincey as a true interdisciplinarian, aspiring to participation in the major intellectual project of his time: the formation of new fields of knowledge, and the attempt to unify these into an organic whole.

Morrison, Robert and Daniel S. Roberts, eds. Thomas De Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions. New York: Routledge, 2007. Broken into eleven easy-to-read chapters, this collection of essays expounds on De Quincey’s views of the Orient, politics, and philosophy. Includes ten illustrations, an index, and a thorough bibliography.

North, Julian. De Quincey Reviewed: Thomas De Quincey’s Critical Reception, 1821-1994. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1997. Collects critical responses to De Quincey’s works from contemporary reviewers through modern scholarship.

Schneider, Matthew. Original Ambivalence: Autobiography and Violence in Thomas De Quincey. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Analyzes the lines between reality and imagination in De Quincey’s work.