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).
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.