Robert Morrison after reading David Morrell's first mystery novel based on nineteenth-century writer Thomas De Quincey, Murder as a Fine Art. David (whose first So19 interview appears here and whose second is forthcoming) mentioned how helpful both Dr. Morrison and De Quincey scholar Grevel Lindop had been as he created the novel. David's novel had gotten me interested in De Quincey as a historical and literary figure. Dr. Morrison's biography of De Quincey, The English Opium Eater, was as riveting as David's fictionalization of the man. Vividly written as well as impeccably researched, the book does justice to the excellence of De Quincey's work, the drama of his life, and the ways both life and work express De Quincey's time as well as foreshadow our own. I highly recommend it, not only for those interested in De Quincey or the nineteenth century but also for anyone fascinated by creative lives generally. Dr. Morrison is a professor of literature at Queen's University in Ontario; information on his many article and book publications can be found here, and his website on De Quincey can be enjoyed here. It is both an honor and a pleasure to talk to Robert Morrison about Thomas De Quincey, the nineteenth century, and Dr. Morrison's upcoming publications. —SF
So19: You have edited, annotated, and written criticism on a variety of writers including Jane Austen, Leigh Hunt and John Polidori. How and why did you first get interested in Thomas De Quincey?
RM: I became interested in De Quincey during my time in the mid-1980s as a graduate student at Oxford University, where I concentrated especially on British literature of the early nineteenth century (usually designated “the Romantic period,” which runs roughly from 1789 to 1834). My tutor at Oxford was Jonathan Wordsworth, who was the great, great, great nephew of the leading Romantic poet William Wordsworth, and a real inspiration to me in all kinds of ways.
In addition to exploring the poetry and the novels of the period, Jonathan was keen that we also read the major Romantic essayists: William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, and Thomas De Quincey. I had to write an essay on each one of these four authors. Jonathan didn’t like my first three attempts, but he thought my final essay on De Quincey showed a little more promise. I decided that I’d better stick with De Quincey!
I guess I would just add that in the mid-1980s De Quincey was not very fashionable and that Jonathan (and in a certain way Jonathan’s great, great, great uncle) thought that he was undervalued. When I first read De Quincey I was just amazed at how good he was, and I agreed with Jonathan that he deserved more serious consideration. In many ways I think I have just tried to take it forward from there, and to seek to understand why De Quincey wrote, how he wrote, for whom he wrote, and so on.
So19: As your biography of De Quincey, The English Opium-Eater, vividly evokes, De Quincey’s childhood and youth were dramatic. Deaths, drugs, rebellion, visions and dreams…dark and powerful stuff!
RM: The great American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who met De Quincey in 1848, called him the “ruler of the Night.” It’s a wonderfully evocative way of thinking about De Quincey, a man who prided himself on his intellectual gifts yet was so often beleaguered by nightmares of all kinds.
As I try to capture in my biography, it is not just that De Quincey lived such an extraordinarily difficult and chaotic life, harassed as he invariably was by addiction, debt, poverty, and distress. It is that he gave us impassioned portraits which convey the full burden of that chaos at the same time as he brought a measure of control to it by writing it all down in some of the most searching and incisive prose of the nineteenth century. In Emerson’s phrase, it is in the end De Quincey who rules the night, rather than the other way round.
So19: I wonder if you would talk a bit about De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which became a sensation upon its anonymous publication. I was struck by your discussion of both how innovative and how modern the work is—how directly it anticipates, for example, the candid modern memoirs of drug addiction we tend to see as a contemporary phenomenon. At the same time, the prevailing understanding of opiates and addiction during De Quincey’s day was so different from our own.
RM: It’s a paradox, isn’t it? De Quincey published his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in the London Magazine for September and October 1821. Social attitudes toward the drug then were very different than they are today, as you point out. Opium in early nineteenth-century Britain was an unremarkable part of daily life, and was used ubiquitously by people of every class and age for self-medication in much the same way as aspirin is used today. It was legal. It was cheaper than ale or spirits. There was no attempt to control its consumption. It could be purchased in a vast range of commercial cure-alls. It was used to treat all manner of minor and major ailments, from ague and cancer to tetanus and tuberculosis.
Like most other habitués, De Quincey ingested the drug in the form of laudanum, a tincture prepared by dissolving opium in alcohol. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, opium has been better known in the form of one of its chief derivatives: heroin. De Quincey was unquestionably what we would call an “opium addict,” but in the terminology of his day he had an “opium habit,” for medical professionals did not begin to develop modern ideas of drug “addiction” until the second half of the nineteenth century.
Yet despite far-reaching shifts in medical, cultural, and political attitudes toward opium over the past two hundred years, De Quincey’s Confessions presents a portrait of the addict as a young man that is deeply congruent with modern experiences of addiction. Confessions is one of those works that caused a sensation when it first appeared, and yet in many ways seems even more relevant and important now. For centuries, opium was understood almost exclusively in medical terms, as a vitally important tranquillizer and painkiller. De Quincey changed all that, not simply by inventing what we would call “recreational drug taking,” but by mapping in the other two key narratives of modern drug experience: the inevitable decline and collapse of the addict, and, even more seriously, his or her degrading and often futile attempts to “kick the habit.” These narratives of course sound ominously familiar today, but all three were established by De Quincey nearly two centuries ago.
So19: De Quincey’s other best known work, "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," is both startling and seminal. [Editor's Note: Dr. Morrison has edited and introduced a collection of all De Quincey's versions of this material, which is published under the title On Murder.] Perhaps you could speak about its content and influence?
RM: De Quincey published three essays with the title “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” and all three—to a greater or lesser extent—concern John Williams and the infamous Ratcliffe Highway Murders of 1811, the most notorious killing spree in nineteenth-century Britain before the Ripper murders three quarters of a century later.
The first essay appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1827, and is a brilliant exercise in satire and black humor. In it De Quincey establishes the idea of an artistic murder: “Everything in this world has two handles,” he argues. “Murder, for instance, may be laid hold of by its moral handle…and that, I confess, is its weak side; or it may also be treated aesthetically…that is, in relation to good taste.”
The second essay, published in Blackwood’s in 1839, similarly champions aesthetics over ethics. Standards must not be allowed to slip, De Quincey’s narrator declares: “For if once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begin upon this downward path, you never know where you are to stop.”
In the third and final essay of 1854, however, De Quincey changes direction almost entirely. Horror, not satire, is now his objective, and he presents his most detailed and blood-soaked account of the Ratcliffe Highway atrocities, where seven people were murdered in two different incidents separated only by twelve days and a few streets in London’s East End.
De Quincey’s essay “is simply terrible in its power,” wrote one contemporary reviewer, “and for long after we read it, every night brought a renewal of the most real shuddering, the palsying dread, and the nightmare impotence with which its first perusal cursed us.” The three essays, strikingly modern in their approach, assault conventional standards of morality, and regard the spectacle of murder with both cynicism and fascination. What is more, they have inspired a long line of writers on detection, aesthetics, murder, and “true crime,” beginning with major nineteenth-century practitioners such as Edgar Allan Poe, Wilkie Collins, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Arthur Conan Doyle.
So19: De Quincey seems surprisingly little known today given the depth, range and significance of his work. (Interestingly, he wasn’t taught at all during either my undergraduate work in English or my graduate work in memoir writing.) Why do you think he is overlooked or under-appreciated?
RM: I think there are a variety of reasons for this. Literary studies—and course syllabi—are still routinely divided into the “Big Three”: poetry, fiction, and drama. De Quincey, however, is an essayist, and this has often meant that he has been left a little to one side. We still don’t quite know what to do with a prose writer who does not produce novels or short stories. We end up with a category such as “non-fiction prose writer”, which sounds dreadful and vastly undersells the appeal of someone like De Quincey.
Then there are the drugs. De Quincey is best-known as an addict, and this has sometimes undermined the study of him as a serious literary figure, though of course plenty of artists well before and long after him have had similar problems. He was just far more celebratory about it all!
And finally, De Quincey kept company with several illustrious figures from his own age—including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—and their immense intellectual and cultural achievements have sometimes thrown his into the shade. In this respect, I always think of George Harrison. He is a really important figure in his own right. But when you put him beside Lennon and McCartney, it is a lot harder to see him clearly. The same has been true of De Quincey when he is set alongside his more famous friends.
So19: You have two publications related to De Quincey forthcoming from Oxford University Press, a collected letters and what I think you’ve called a “greatest hits.” Can you tell us about them?
RM: Oxford University Press recently launched a new series called The 21st-Century Oxford Authors, the aim of which is to produce “freshly conceived, authoritative, and readable editions” of major British writers. I have just finished editing the De Quincey volume, which I do think of as a kind of “Greatest Hits” album. It brings together all of the Confessions and On Murder material, together with De Quincey’s finest work in autobiography, biography, and literary criticism, in one handsome and convenient place. It has been an immense pleasure putting it together, and I hope it will give readers a powerful sense of De Quincey’s range and relevance.
There have been several editions of De Quincey’s letters, but they have all been selections. My second project with Oxford University Press is to produce (along with a very fine De Quincey scholar, Barry Symonds) the first complete edition of The Letters of Thomas De Quincey. It’s a very exciting project because there is so much material that is virtually unknown, and that we’ll be editing and publishing for the first time.
So19: Iconic thriller writer, literature PhD and extremely nice guy David Morrell, who kindly gave Society Nineteen an interview last year, is now writing mysteries with De Quincey at their heart. (Murder as a Fine Art appeared in 2013; Inspector of the Dead is forthcoming in March 2015.) I know the two of you became acquainted during the course of his research. What was your dialogue like? I can only imagine it would be fascinating to see the process through which De Quincey and his era were transmuted into fiction—especially by such able hands.
RM: First, David is an extremely nice guy and it has been a joy for me to correspond with him over the past few years, and to learn so much from him about writing and publishing. He’s done, moreover, what every English professor dreams of doing, which is leaving it all behind and becoming a best-selling author!
David first contacted me when he had a complete draft of Murder as a Fine Art. After we had exchanged a few emails, he asked me if I would read it. I was a little skeptical at first, as several writers have tried to fictionalize De Quincey and their attempts have not been—in my view—very successful. David kindly sent the manuscript and, after lecturing one day (on De Quincey as it happened!), I took it to my favorite pub and started to read.
I have to say that I was hooked in a moment and read well over half the novel at that first sitting. In addition to the superb plotting and pace, and the wonderful evocation of Victorian London, what struck me in particular was how skillfully David took the materials of De Quincey’s life and wove them into his narrative.
Since then David and I have had a great deal to talk about. As he worked on his second (excellent) De Quincey novel, Inspector of the Dead, we regularly exchanged emails as he asked me about various details in De Quincey’s work and life, and when I read Inspector I had the pleasure of seeing how some of that information had become part of the fabric of the novel.
In many instances David and I are coming at De Quincey from fairly different angles, but that is what for me has made the relationship so profitable and exciting. Ultimately, I would say we both have the same basic goal, which is to bring De Quincey alive for the modern reader. Of course both Murder and Inspector stand wonderfully well on their own. But the more you learn about De Quincey, I think the more there is to enjoy. In both novels there is a sophistication and range at work that is remarkable.
So19: When will the new De Quincey collections appear, and what’s next for you in terms of books or other projects?
RM: The 21st-Century Oxford Authors edition will appear toward the end of 2015. The Letters will take a little longer. I don’t think the edition will appear until 2020 or perhaps even a little beyond. It’s a big project.
As for my other interests, right now I am changing direction a little and writing a book on the British Regency, which as you know extends from 1811 to 1820. I have always been fascinated by this decade. Jane Austen published all six of her novels during the Regency. Walter Scott launched his staggeringly successful series of Waverley novels. Lord Byron produced poetry that made him the most famous man in Europe. J. M. W. Turner and John Constable exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy. The Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. George Stephenson constructed the first effective steam locomotive. And so on. Amazing! In terms of vitality, diversity, and innovation, I think it is one of the most remarkable decades in all of British history.
My book is called Revolution: Regency Britain and the Making of the Modern World, and I am delighted to say that it will be published by Norton. I am looking very forward to plunging into the writing of it in the coming months.