The Lineage of Thomas De Quincey

Portrait of Thomas De Quincey, 1851 (artist unknown).

Whether you know it or not, if you write creatively for a news­paper and let yourself drift through the city in a tide of strangers; if you shudder at the mysteries of reality and the fiendish twists of the imagination; if you feel tempted to yield to the drunkenness of life’s sensations or of artificial paradises (more or less toxic and addictive as they may be), then you are a disciple of Thomas De Quincey. You need not even care for literature that much: listen to Lou Reed’s voice and lyrics in an album like New York, and some of the spirit of Thomas De Quincey will be seeping into you. Lou Reed can invoke the gloom of night over St. Mark’s Place in the seventies, old SoHo streets sunk in darkness like black canyons. But the perilous thrill of excitement in living by night; the aimless wandering of those who search for what’s forbidden or impossible, of those who walk and walk because they have nowhere to lay their head, or to rest their soul: all of this goes back to London streets roamed by De Quincey at the start of the nineteenth century. Greek Street. Oxford Street (his “stony-hearted step-mother”). Streets that in the dark glare of the lamplight saw De Quincey as a teenage runaway.

Youthful rebellion itself may have been his invention: he was the first, at any rate, to turn it into literature. Two centuries before drugs swept into the cities, before the young left behind the protection and captivity of home, or the discipline of school, De Quincey chose at seventeen the life of a fugitive, deserting the status of his class to shiver with cold on the steps of London churches, muffled in rags like the homeless kids, boys and girls, you see today on the sidewalks of New York.

Reading a recent memoir by Patti Smith or Bob Dylan, you find in them echoes of De Quincey: the talented, penniless boy who moves to the big city, to be seduced and sometimes devoured and destroyed by it; who many years later recalls those days and is amazed to have survived, thinking of so many others like him who were left behind. Our genea­logical tree goes back, without doubts, gaps or missing links, to De Quincey. He was the first to envisage the big city as a closed world unto itself, akin to some great mythological monster. Reading his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, we feel it was written just now. We are so much in its influence that our way of looking at cities and telling their story has hardly changed. Now we have cars instead of carriages, electric lights instead of oil and gas lamps, digital screens where there used to be hand-painted signs. But our exaltation and despair, our fear and vertigo at being lost, our dizziness amidst a sea of unknown faces that break against us like waves: It can all be found in De Quincey—as can our search for a single face perhaps in a thousand more, our fascination with strangers we will never see again, whom we would like to follow, to find out where they live, perhaps to unveil their mystery.

Poe was inspired by De Quincey to write the first fictional tale whose protagonist is an anonymous city walker: the man of the crowd. Dickens read De Quincey and Poe, imitating both in passages of his London novels that seem like descents into the abyss. When Poe’s detective Dupin investigates a crime, Paris resembles nothing so much as De Quincey’s London, where he wrote his ghastly newspaper chronicles, mixing a morbid and precise record of reality with the etched-black tones of the mystery fiction he himself was creating. In Paris, Baudelaire will read and translate De Quincey and Poe, developing with their help a sensibility that showed him how to see what so many writers and artists are seldom able truly to grasp: the world that stands before their eyes, with all its crudeness unfiltered by literature, and then the new and radical form of poetry that will arise from it and perpetuate it.

Like De Quincey and Poe, and also like Coleridge, Baudelaire experi­ments with drugs, alcohol, opium, hashish, creating a romanticism of derangement that lasts to this day. Like them, Baudelaire has his photo­graph taken and writes for the newspapers. The new world must be perceived through the medium of those equally novel technologies that are born with it and make it possible. Today we read these writers in collections of literary classics, forgetting that they wrote for commercial mass media; that they took advantage of the latest technical advances, including newspapers and magazines that were financed by advertising and attracted readers with big headlines and lithographic illustrations. De Quincey and Poe wrote chronicles of actual crimes and felt no scruple at other times in passing off their fictions as the truth. The tute­lary masters of modernity are the first we know through photographs. They stare at us from within the frame with a fixity, a devastating presence and immediacy that could only exist after the invention of the camera.

Last fall, in New York bookstores, the works of De Quincey appeared on the new arrivals shelf. Guilty Thing,[1] a biography written by Frances Wilson, invites me to delve once more into a forefather I never stopped reading. The best thing about Wilson is not the fact that she is an admirable biographer, but that from the very first page we can tell she belongs to the fevered lineage of Thomas De Quincey.

Antonio Muñoz Molina

[Translated from the Spanish by Guillermo Bleichmar]
[1] GUILTY THING: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, by Frances Wilson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $30.00.