Margaret Russett, De Quincey's Romanticism: Cultural Minority and the Forms of Transmission

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
Margaret Russett, De Quincey's Romanticism: Cultural Minority and the Forms of Transmission. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, 25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. xiv + 295pp. $59.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-521-57236-3).

Reviewed by
Paul Youngquist
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.

The trouble starts when De Quincey, at the tender age of fourteen, discovers in Wordsworth the very solace that Wordsworth promises his readers. It's not that the promise itself is hollow; Wordsworth makes it in good faith. But by closely reading De Quincey's earliest correspondence with his idol, Russett suggests that what Wordsworth found in nature, De Quincey found in Wordsworth's writing about nature. He took the sign for the thing, falling headlong into the abyss of writing. De Quincey becomes the first post-structuralist reader of the Wordsworthian sublime. Much as he may want to live in nature's embrace, he succumbs instead to the allure of books, gothicizing Wordsworth's natural piety by the measure of its textuality. The result is a life of citation: "nothing ever happened to De Quincey that he had not read about first" (16). Hence the masochistic character of his relationship with Wordsworth, who becomes a figure for the loss of relationship with his promised presence. Russett follows this textualized family romance through its strangest episode, Wordsworth's attempt to enter the field of contemporary political debate with his pamphlet, The Convention of Cintra (1809). To expedite publication, De Quincey agreed to act as press agent in London, allowing Wordsworth to remain at Grasmere to finish writing it. Russett argues two complementary points: first, that Wordsworth attempted to unite the voice of the people with the language of his pamphlet; and second, that De Quincey's material labor on his behalf revealed the impossibility of the attempt. Where De Quincey meant to correct errors, he multiplied them; where he tried to improve punctuation, he only muddled it, coming ultimately "to personify material resistance to the philosophic mind" and to wreck "history's revenge on idealism" (87). Wordsworth's call for a politics of transcendence was thwarted by the material resistance of writing itself, the typography and proofs and cancellations that it fell to De Quincey to (mis)manage.

Russett's best chapter follows, in which she explores magazine writing as an emergent genre of Romantic minority. Here more than anywhere else Russett addresses the truly material conditions of minor writing, familiar enough to those who know the field, but worth rehearsing anyhow. After all, De Quincey made his name and living writing for Blackwood's, The London, and Tait's. And a slender living it was. Russett describes the de facto contract that bound authors to editors, the resulting proliferation of pseudonymous columns, the minimalist remuneration, on the average, of ten guineas per sheet of sixteen pages. De Quincey's literary labor, even for the fame it initially gained him, is a zero-sum game: long on cultural capital (self-proclaimed "scholar" that he was) and short on either cash or the accouterment of commercial success. There is always, however, the sheer exuberance of writing. The necessity of pseudonymity, enervating the force of the proper name, makes magazine writing a space of artistic possibility, masquerade, deceit. It converts "the loss of the proper" into a "pseudo-dialectic of transgression and discovery" (101). The result is that a kind of literary counter-culture comes to characterize the magazines, a "corporate culture" of minor writing in which fictive "personae work to consolidate subjectivities from the abime of magazine text and intertext" (119). The distance between Grasmere and London, if De Quincey's magazine writing is any index, is about the same as that between Searle and Derrida.

The remainder of Russett's book thematizes De Quincey's minority, first with a fresh turn on The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and finally with a dim take on the later reminiscences of Wordsworth. The former is helpful for its reading of that least read of De Quincey's works, The Logic of Political Economy. Russett focuses upon De Quincey's notion of "affirmative value," in his words "the intrinsic worth of [an] article in your individual estimate for your individual purpose" (140). The ostensible point here is to return consumption to an economics concerned primarily with production, but De Quincey's larger aim is to unify economics and aesthetics. Affirmative value makes aesthetic judgment a mode of economic activity, thereby compromising the autonomy Kant would reserve for such cognition. For De Quincey, "disinterested judgment will always be modeled on market exchange" (150). Russett then turns to the economics of opium consumption with a reading of the Confessions that tracks its betrayals of market exchange in an aestheticized narcosis. For all the promise of his economic speculations, it would appear that De Quincey falls victim to demon opium, and Russett to a rather conventional moralizing against it. Thus the visionary architecture of De Quincey's dreams is only "a vision of grandeur tinged with vulgarity" that "exemplifies luxury taste or commodity fetishism while at the same time suggesting their very opposite: it is not, of course, materially transferable nor available to be bought at any price" (169).

Russett usually avoids this kind of easy allegorizing. But having succumbed, she makes the most of it, concluding her discussion of the minor De Quincey with an assessment of his Lake Reminiscences that makes him every father's nightmare. Preferring the biographical sketch, a minor magazine idiom, to serious biography, De Quincey trades on personal memories of his life with Wordsworth, not all of which are savory. In regard to Wordsworth's daughter Catherine, a particular favorite of De Quincey's who died at only three, they seem peculiarly incriminating. In his strangely emphatic attachment to the child—Russett calls it an "affair"—De Quincey works out his ambivalence toward Wordsworth in an equation that links minority with deviance: "Lucy is to Catherine as lyric is to narrative, as the abstract love of poetry is to child molestation" (212). Indeed. Little wonder, then, that in Lake Reminiscences "the impassioned biographer devolves into a pornographer" (221). Minor writing betrays the pretensions of idealism, even at the cost of pedophilia.

Extravagances aside, Russett's book is a smart, illuminating examination of the role minor writing plays in the production of the Romantic canon. De Quincey's minority vis-a-vis Wordsworth is no objective measure of relative value but a condition of canon formation, the negative pole of a dialectic that produces Romantic writing, major and minor. Russett calls it "a point in the constellation of authorship"; "neither foil nor mirror, the minor produces majority" (221). Her description of this process is shrewd, observant, and inventive. And if I have reservations, they concern less her argument or analysis, than the assumptions that ground both. Must minor writing arise as an epiphenomenon of dialectic? I am sobered by the possibility that Russett's last salvo hits home, that minority is ultimately "an allegory of our own elaborated practice" (246). Perhaps the dialectic of canon production is as much our own doing as the Romantics'. If so, then Russett's analysis describes less a historical logic than a critical habit, albeit one that has set the terms for Romantic studies for the last twenty years. I'm not contesting the productivity of minor writing; I'm wondering whether dialectic regulates it. If so, then the minor writerz lives under the sentence of negation, since as Russett puts it, "the minor, an author to the second power, objectifies the lack within the imaginary totality of the 'creative' or 'primary' work" (226). To my mind that's a baleful fate, but a false one, wholly contradicted by the tip of the old hipster who first turned me on to De Quincey. There's a whole culture out there that knows De Quincey without reference to Wordsworth or Romantic writing. At least some of his work lives apart from the institutional conditions of transmission that Russett describes. I'm willing to accept that for the academy dialectic regulates the production of minor writing. But not for everyone, everywhere. There are all kinds of cultural capital, some of them little known to literary criticism. That Russett suspects as much seems the point of a strange and pallid debate she conducts at the beginning and end of her book with Deleuze and Guattari, whose sense of "minor literature" seems tailor-made for a writer like De Quincey. Russett rejects it, however, apparently out of fears of aestheticism, that bugaboo of political criticism. The possibility that minor writing can rupture the language of majority, reterritorialize it, "reach a continuum of intensities that are valuable only in themselves," seems to me political in the extreme, about as far as you can get from Kant's aesthetic contemplation.[1] But such a fractious minority would indeed be irreducible to dialectic and might just cast the likes of De Quincey out ahead of a major writer like Wordsworth. But no. Russett's analysis does little to disturb the canon except to show how it operates, apparently forever. For my money De Quincey's writing goes further, into "a world of pure intensities where all forms come undone" (13), as my old friend knew and as a passage such as the following from the Confessions might suggest: "And so often did this hideous reptile haunt my dreams that many times the very same dream was broken up in the very same way: I heard gentle voices speaking to me (I hear everything when I am sleeping), and instantly I awoke: it was broad noon, and my children were standing, hand in hand, at my bedside, come to show me their colored shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for going out." To what intensities does De Quincey awaken? To what intensities might we?


1 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 13.

Volume and Issue: 

Authored by (Secondary): 

Parent Resource: