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The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey: A Life of Thomas De Quincey [Hardcover]

Robert Morrison
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Book Description

26 Nov 2009

Author of the famous and semi-scandalous CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER, Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) has long lacked a fully fledged biography. His friendships with leading poets and men of letters in the Romantic and Victorian periods - including William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle - have long placed him at the centre of 19th-century literary studies. De Quincey also stands at the meeting point in the culture wars between Edinburgh and London; between high art and popular taste; and between the devotees of the Romantic imagination and those of hack journalism. He was a man who engaged with nearly every facet of literary culture, including the roles played by publishers, booksellers and journalists in literary production, dissemination and evaluation. His writing was a tremendous influence on Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, William Burroughs and Peter Ackroyd.

De Quincey is a fascinating (and topical) figure for other reasons too: a self-mythologizing autobiographer whose attitudes to drug-induced creativity and addiction strike highly resonant chords for a contemporary readership. Robert Morrison's biography passionately argues for the critical importance and enduring value of this neglected essayist, critic and biographer.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: W&N (26 Nov 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0297852795
  • ISBN-13: 978-0297852797
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 816,929 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Robert Morrison's biography is astute and revealing, quarrying new sources. (JOHN CAREY SUNDAY TIMES 22.11.09)

I knew that I was on to a good thing with this book before the page numbers were even out of roman numerals... This was a lively life, and this is a lively Life... (SAM LEITH THE SPECTATOR - 5.12.09)

Morrison writes... with a combination of perspicacity and generous puzzlement... Thanks to Morrison... the life is clearer than it has ever been. (JAMES PURDON THE OBSERVER - 6.12.09)

"Robert Morrison's biography is impressive, the first biography of De Quincey in almost thirty years, and the first to use all his published and unpublished works." (TOM PAULIN THE LITERARY REVIEW - December 09)

an astute and revealing life (OUR CHOICE OF THE BEST RECENT BOOKS THE SUNDAY TIMES - 13.12.09)

The time was ripe for a new biography and Morrison has done his man proud. This is an exceptionally well-balanced account. (JONATHAN BATE - BOOK OF THE WEEK THE SUNDAY TELEGRAPH - 13.12.09)

"Far more than the other great essayists who were his contemporaries, De Quincey speaks to us directly about our divisions, our addictions, our losses, our selves." It's a large claim but one that is borne out by this fine survey of a remarkable life. (JOHN SUTHERLAND THE FINANCIAL TIMES - 23.12.09)

As Robert Morrison demonstrates in this engaging new biography, there was more to De Quincey than the addled fanatic who became addicted to laudanum (TREVOR ROYLE SUNDAY HERALD (SCOTLAND) 27.12.09)

Morrison provides a compelling survey of De Quincey's work as a biographer, satirist, economist, political commentator, translator, linguist and classicist. I cannot think of a more evocative introduction to the life and times of this remarkable writer. (DUNCAN WU THE INDEPENDENT - 08.01.10 BOOK OF THE WEEK)

a book which is full of insight and careful reasoning... Morrison does a superb job of literary detection going through a life of lies, procrastination and deceit, and teasing out whatever truth there is to be had. (JAD ADAMS THE GUARDIAN 09.01.10)

Morrison has travelled heroically through a huge corpus of forgotten works and has made the most of unprecendented access to the private papers... Inside the rebel, this eye-opening biography reveals, was an aspirant to the establishment. (MICHAEL KERRIGAN THE SCOTSMAN - 16.01.10)

Morrison makes no judgements about his subject's overwhelming irresponsibility, but tells it all with clarity and dispassion. The English-Opium Eater enhances our understanding of De Quincey's profigate and cross-grained nature. (PATRICIA CRAIG THE IRISH TIMES - 30.01.10)

This biography is well-paced and gripping... an excellent account of an essayist who "extended the range and possibilities of English prose." (GRAEME VOYER THE WINNIPEG FREE PRESS - 30.01.10)

At his best, De Quincey was an essayist hardly without peer. In this insightful, intelligent and sympathetic biography, Morrison wisely stands back and lets his subject speak, inserting himself now and again to indulge his own considerable talent for story. (MERILYN SIMONDS THE KINGSTON WHIG STANDARD - 06.02.10)

In this well-placed and astute biography, Morrison... traces the sources of De Quincey's lifelong unhappiness, the seed of his "addictive personality" (PHILIP MARCHAND THE NATIONAL POST - 13.02.10)

The time was ripe for a new biography and Morrison... has done his man proud. This is an exceptionally well-balanced account. (JONATHAN BATE THE OTTAWA CITIZEN - 14.01.10)

The English Opium-Eater is one of "four fine new books.. finding firm footing on the national literary landscape." (STEPHEN CLARE HALIFAX CHRONICLE HERALD - 28.02.10)

"This isn't a debunking biography, just a properly sceptical one, and it's clear that Morrison's enthusiasm for the man and his writings does not obscure his judgement. De Quincey was one of the strangest geniuses of the Romantic period and that, of course, is saying something... Morrison...makes makes this maddening, self-deceiving and slippery man so fascinating and ultimately loveable". (SUZI FEAY THE TABLET - 04.03.10)

"The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey rich in research that the readers can profitably ingest it at a relaxing rate" (GEORGE FETHERLING TORONTO GLOBE AND MAIL - 27. 03. 10)

"a thoroughly compelling and eminently readable portrait of De Quincey underscored by serious scholarly work.... A 400-page biography of a 19th-century writer and drug addict might seem daunting (especially when one considers the additional 50 pages of scholarly end material), but The English Opium-Eater is nothing of the sort.. It is not only scholarly but thought-provoking; thorough, but also scintillating, and a genuine pleasure to read." (ROBERT J. WEIRSEMA - April 2010 BOOK OF EXCEPTIONAL MERIT, QUILL AND QUIRE)

gripping new biography... Morrison's book offers one of the fullest and most vivid accounts of the bohemian life of the Opium-Eater. (GREGORY DART TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT - 09.04.10)

Morrison argues convincingly that De Quincey's addiction can be seen to serve a purpose... Morrison's biography is the first to draw on the 21-volume edition of De Quincey's works that emerged in 2000-3.... full of insight (LONDON REVIEW OF BOOKS - 13.05.10)

Book Description

Definitive life of the author of CONFESSIONS OF AN ENGLISH OPIUM-EATER, journalist, political commentator and biographer

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars worthy but a little dull 9 April 2010
We know the outline of De Quincey's life quite closely already, and this biography doesn't offer a great advance on Grevel Lindop's, although it certainly does have more circumstantial detail. Lindop's is still the more pleasurable to read, and perhaps the more "literary" of the two, but this is a good solid chronology of a nineteenth-century life: the family and the meetings and the friends and the letters and the money troubles.

Having said that, it's a bit pedestrian. There's a richness and sublimity missing. There's little sense of De Quincey as a writer (other than as a hack with a career, which is certainly important) and no sense of the fabulous prose style (influences? Sir Thomas Browne? Donne perhaps? more obscure figures like Glanvill? - nothing). In fact there's no real attempt to get inside De Quincey's mind or writing - the two now effectively the same for us - e.g. his horrified fascination with Asia (other than to tick him off for his "chilling" faith in the British Empire) or what e.g. Egyptian gods meant to him. Consider a characteristically magnificent passage: "I ran into pagodas, and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed... I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris; I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at." That could have been written by a different man to the man in this book, related only by having the same name.

It is good that Morrisson notes the importance of money - or lack of it - in De Quincey's life, with an appendix table on the purchasing power of the pound. This book is really a 3.5, which I can't give - 3 alone might seem a dig, which I don't intend - but I'll leave it at 3 to balance the existing 5 (which, with no disrespect to the author - the opposite in fact - was probably given out of enthusiasm for the subject).
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7 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The English Opium Eater 15 Dec 2009
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Through sheer love for his subject and scrupulous research, Robert Morrison has captured and distilled the living essence of this consummate essayist, philosopher and commentator on the human condition, comprehensively illuminating and supplementing our understanding of his life and writings whilst concurrently preserving the enigma and vision of the man himself. This is a biography to be taken in large doses by all De Quincey addicts!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.8 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A read that shouldn't be overlooked for literary biography collections 14 Jan 2011
By Midwest Book Review - Published on
The truly great writers are far from perfect people. "The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey" follows the literary career of one of England's most famous writers and tries to understand his life and how it affected his writing. It also discusses his serious opium addiction which warped his writing even more, as he battled an addiction he was simply fascinated by. A fascinating read that will prove very hard to put down, "The English Opium-Eater" is a read that shouldn't be overlooked for literary biography collections focusing on nineteenth century England.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Good read 26 July 2012
By Michael Chesser - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is an enjoyable read, and a good account on Thomas de Quincey's life. There is, however, much difference between becoming familiar with the facts of de Quincey's life on the one hand, and on the other the experience of reading de Quincey. De Quincey's writing is a revelation, English language at its most beautiful and expressive.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intrigued by this guy. 2 Aug 2013
By Karen K - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Blame David Morrell for peeking my interest in this English author. His new novel featuring De Quincey as a character did it.
5.0 out of 5 stars Writer who influenced many others; a life spent in struggle 10 Dec 2013
By Love to read! - Published on
Verified Purchase
This is a fascinating book; an introduction to an author I had never heard of. It is amazing how many other authors he influenced; his life was a miserable wreck in my opinion, but he was an excellent writer.
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