Penn State University, University Park
Before there was Wordsworth, before the bright and dying Keats, before even Blake came pugnaciously along, for me there was De Quincey. I learned of him early from a guy who was some years my senior. He was a diabetic and had an easy way with needles, poking himself with enviable nonchalance. He looked gnarled and limber—like a stick that just won’t snap, no matter how hard you bend it. He gave me two tips that made college a little more interesting than it would have been otherwise. First, drink the best wine you can afford. That usually kept me from the party crowd, the Thunderbird, and a fair amount of foolishness. Second, read De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. He even lent me his own old copy (the first one’s always free). To say it made an impression would be putting it mildly. I read it night after night, a little at a time, not knowing exactly what I was reading, but transfixed. Here was a very strange way of writing: clear and oblique, concrete and complicated, logical and florid. It was a trip. And it got me to thinking that there might be more to literature than Truth and Beauty, then the apparent prerequisites of Great Writing. De Quincey bothered me, put a little glitch into the literature system that my major was wiring up. I’d like to believe that thanks to him, and to that old hipster who first tipped me off, I acquired a feel for other literary oddballs: Blake, Carroll, Burroughs, Dick, to name a few. At any rate, De Quincey remains for me something other than literature, perhaps other to it, at least as it’s institutionally construed.
My experience of De Quincey differs from the one Margaret Russett describes in De Quincey’s Romanticism: Cultural Minority and the Forms of Transmission. For her De Quincey is the creature—and the creator—of a literary canon that reproduces a constitutive difference between majors and minors. He’s a triple-A essayist to Wordsworth’s big-league lyricism, a self-styled second-stringer whose claim to literary fame results directly from his “minority.” As Russett understands it, that status reveals much about the production and cultural function of canonical Romantic writing. Unlike the wholly marginal writer, whose recovery proves that she didn’t see much play in the production of that canon, the minor writer remains part of the show, “never ‘forgotten’ and in no danger of becoming so” (6). He occupies the “negative pole” of a dialectic of production that scripts Romantic writing as either “major” or “minor” and evaluates accordingly. So to be minor, as in De Quincey’s case, is at least to be not major; minority arises in the image of a greatness it negatively defines.
Such is the force of this dialectic of production that it comes to characterize the whole cultural project of canon formation. Russett’s real interest is less in De Quincey per se than in “the production of signature Romantic themes, motifs, and rhetorical effects at the contested and undecidably distorting site of transmission” (8). Minority is thus not so much a literary fact as a cultural function—Russett’s “transmission”—that authorizes certain themes, motifs, and effects over others. As such it arises out of neither reading nor interpretation but rather the material conditions of its “institutional locus” (9). Drawing extensively upon the work of Pierre Bourdieu and John Guillory, Russett shows how such conditions make the Romantic canon possible. Its members owe their authority to “the transformed materiality of the institutional habitus: that is, the rarefied literacy, or ‘sociolect,’ that registers the traces of social stratification” (9). Literary reputation mimics material interest, which is why Russett directs attention away from the ostensible achievement of canonical Romantic writing and toward its circulation as cultural capital. The minor writer best exemplifies this effect precisely because his reputation remains qualified. He’s in the canon, but only just, betraying the ideological force of the dialectic that produces it. Hence the urgency of what Russett calls her “largest abstract claim: that the Romantic cult of solitary genius misrecognizes what is in fact a corporate mode of production that the minor’s ‘genius for instrumentality’ both underwrites and unveils” (10). Thanks to his closer proximity to the material conditions of Romantic writing, the minor writer proves its cultural capital to consist mostly of bad bills. A major leaguer like Wordsworth may get the bigger signing bonus, but it falls to De Quincey to cash it in.
And by Russett’s account he frequently finds himself short-changed. The bulk of De Quincey’s Romanticism examines the various ways that De Quincey’s minority supplements and troubles the idealism that colors much Romantic writing, even his own. Russett’s “method” is appropriately varied. She approaches De Quincey’s writing by multiple paths, some of them little traveled, living up to her claim that the “book is about reading Wordsworth, repeating Coleridge, writing for magazines, and competing for popularity at least as much as it is about interpreting De Quincey” (8). And it’s a good thing too; interpreting De Quincey has become something of a growth industry lately. Russett’s is the fifth book-length monograph on the Opium Eater to appear since John Barrell’s psychopathology of empire, The Infection of Thomas De Quincey (Yale University Press, 1991). What sets Russett’s study apart from those others is its concentrated attention to what I’d call the economic unconscious of Romantic writing. While in some cases that unconscious is material and in others affective, Russett shows consistently how it configures De Quincey’s minority to troubling ends.