Quill & Quire
Robert Morrison’s The English Opium Eater, the first major biography of Thomas de Quincey (1785–1859) in more than 25 years, draws on previously unknown letters from de Quincey’s daughters and his 21-volume collected works published in 2000–03. Clearly, such material is a scholar’s paradise, and Morrison, a Queen’s National Scholar in the English department at Queen’s University, has crafted a thoroughly compelling and eminently readable portrait of de Quincey underscored by serious scholarly work.
Morrison avoids the trap of celebrating de Quincey’s life as an opium addict. That life, as captured in de Quincey’s autobiographical 1821 volume Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, has come to form the archetype for every drug-addled, visionary artist of the last century and a half. Morrison doesn’t ignore the material, but he contextualizes it within an account of a life characterized by melancholy, ill health, debt, bad decisions, sexual compulsion, parental estrangement, and, perhaps most significantly, the lingering effect of his sister’s death when de Quincey was very young.
The portrait of de Quincey that emerges is at once sympathetic and realistic. Morrison is to be credited for engaging with the writer’s enigmatic life and refusing to take anything at face value, emphasizing the “often stark difference between the highly crafted accounts of his experience that he produced for public consumption, and the heated outbursts of anger and disgust that he confided to his private letters and diaries.” His account of de Quincey’s fraught friendship with William Wordsworth, for example, details de Quincey’s manipulative and carefully crafted overture to the poet in a letter in which obsequiousness is balanced with half-truths and appeals to what he perceived as Wordsworth’s sensibilities.
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 materials), 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 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 is...so 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