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Seductively Dangerous

Without Thomas De Quincey there would have been no James Frey.

Book review, Dec. 10, 2010

William Hazlitt (1778-1830) once observed that the arts don't make progress the way that the sciences do. Instead, they tend to deteriorate. If you want the best science, Hazlitt said, you want the latest science; but for the best of any art form, you should go for its early days. His example was epic poetry, which has been all downhill since Homer, but the rule will work for almost any creative endeavor: Has anybody ever written better detective novels since Hammett or Chandler? Better science fiction since Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke? For that matter, when you're looking for the best of literary journalism, the place to go isn't Bookslut or McSweeney's, but Hazlitt himself, and his contemporary and rival Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859), who is the subject of Robert Morrison's superb biography "The English Opium Eater."

Hazlitt and De Quincey wrote for the magazines and literary journals that flourished in England early in the 19th century. They were the archetypal hacks, in that they'd write anything that would pay. But they also managed to invent, inadvertently and through sheer expedience, almost every form of modern magazine feature writing. Hazlitt wrote art criticism, theater reviews, book reviews and political commentary. He wrote a brilliantly vivid account of a boxing match that appears to be the first instance in English of long-form sports journalism. He wrote acidly witty portraits of his famous acquaintances and originated the snarky celebrity profile. Middle-aged and with a family, he fell in love with his landlord's teenage daughter, and he took for granted that he should write a book about it – "Liber Amoris" – the "book of love" that could be the model for all those bloggers who overshare about their sex lives.

De Quincey, seven years younger, seems to have thought of himself as the classier alternative to Hazlitt. Though born into the Manchester merchant class, De Quincey was the haughty aristocrat where Hazlitt was a lifelong radical. In contrast to Hazlitt's championing of the fashionably new, De Quincey – who was reputed to be fluent in Latin and ancient Greek by age 15, and left Oxford without obtaining a degree, seemingly out of boredom?was a classical scholar.

But De Quincey's actual journalistic output was, even more than Hazlitt's, a wild gallimaufry. He covered the latest theology and political science; he translated German ghost stories; he wrote hysterically racist editorials in favor of British imperialism and weirdly comic essays about celebrated murder cases. Once, urgently in need of cash – De Quincey and his wife, Margaret, had eight children – he spent a few weeks churning out a magazine piece about his opium habit, and the result was his classic "Confessions of an English Opium Eater" – the archetype for the heavily romanticized drug-addiction memoir. That's a tough burden for anybody to carry through posterity: Without De Quincey, there would have been no James Frey.

But if De Quincey and Hazlitt can somehow be forgiven for inventing so many forms of cultural blight, what else can be said about either man's work today? Hazlitt remains supremely readable; his prose is unfailingly genial, unpretentious and witty. He is one of those invaluable writers like Edmund Wilson or Janet Flanner who are worth reading on any subject at all, no matter how unpromising, just for the pleasure of their company. (The curious reader should seek out the excellent best-of Hazlitt collection "The Fight and Other Writings.")

De Quincey is an iffier case. His writing isn't offhandedly entertaining, like Hazlitt's: It's massive, rolling and grand. "Impassioned prose," he called it, and at his best – such as his visionary accounts of his opium dreams in the "Confessions" – he produced some of the most bizarrely magnificent passages in the English language. "The sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens," he writes of one dream, "faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean."

But his non-impassioned mode is a steep fall-off; the complex, involuted sentences spool out endlessly and listlessly, like rivers dying away in the Sahara. Few writers are as tortuously uneven – but then, as Mr. Morrison makes clear in "The English Opium Eater," it was really a freak that De Quincey wrote anything good at all.

This is the first biography of the writer in decades; it immediately supersedes the last, Grevel Lindop's "The Opium-Eater" (evidently it's tougher than you might think to come up with fresh titles for De Quincey biographies), and in fact I can't imagine anybody ever needing to do the job again. Mr. Morrison gives us an admirably lucid tour through the long, chaotic shambles of De Quincey's life. The book is also the bleakest account of the journalistic profession I've ever read, but that's not Mr. Morrison's fault. De Quincey was a born journalist, but of a peculiar, exasperating (and instantly recognizable) kind: the one who can only turn out publishable copy as a desperate last resort. "The English Opium Eater" is a relentless catalog of the contracts De Quincey ignored, the deadlines he blew off, the loans and advances he cadged and never repaid, the tantrums he threw when his copy was edited, the masterpieces he promised but never got around to writing, and the torrent of hackwork he churned out as the debtor's prison beckoned.

Looming over it all is opium. Mr. Morrison tells the story of De Quincey's lifelong addiction without moralizing, but he makes plain the horrifying cost, not only to De Quincey but also to his family, his friends, his colleagues and his employers. Like any addict, De Quincey was consumed with self-pity but was only intermittently aware of the trail of ruin he was leaving behind him – "When it came to being difficult," Mr. Morrison observes, "De Quincey did not play favorites." He did make occasional attempts to quit and often proclaimed that he had succeeded, but he always relapsed, and by the end the habit had engulfed him. In one of the last pieces of writing he finished before his death, a revision and expansion of the "Confessions," he cut out all his laments over the destructive effects of opium and replaced them with radiant praise.

It's a sinister farewell, and yet the tantalizing issue remains: What would De Quincey's work have amounted to without opium? Hazlitt once observed, maliciously but not inaccurately, that De Quincey only wrote well "whilst the opium was trickling from his mouth." Everything else of De Quincey's is forgotten, but the opium-driven "impassioned prose" remains. It inspired Berlioz to compose the Symphonie Fantastique and Poe to write "The Masque of the Red Death." Dickens's weird late novels are heavily indebted to De Quincey's opium-fueled writing; William Burroughs's work – and for that matter, the whole of H.P. Lovecraft – is unthinkable without it. De Quincey has even turned up recently as the presiding muse for the dreamlike horror films of Dario Argento.

If someone were to put together a comprehensive collection of the impassioned prose (Mr. Morrison would be the ideal man to do it), the result might prove that De Quincey wasn't just one of the first and best of the literary journalists but the most corruptingly influential, the most seductively dangerous of them all.

This article appeared Dec. 10, 2010, in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal in print, and online at WSJ.com.

Lee reviewed: The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey by Robert Morrison (Pegasus, 462 pages, $35)