Thomas De Quincey, the Opium-Eater

Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) was born in Manchester to a prosperous linen merchant, who died when De Quincey was a child, causing a sense of abandonment that was deepened by the childhood deaths of two beloved sisters. As a boy, he read widely and was considered a brilliant classicist. At seventeen, he ran away from Manchester Grammar School and spent five harrowing months penniless and hungry on the streets of London. At last reconciled with his family, he entered Oxford in 1803 but left five years later without taking his degree and moved to the English Lake District to be near his two literary idols, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In 1813, he became dependent on opium, a drug he experimented with during his days at Oxford, and over the next few years, he slid deeper into debt and addiction. His most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, appeared in 1821 and launched his career as a contributor to the leading magazines of the day. Thereafter he was nicknamed the Opium-Eater. In 1823, he wrote his most famous piece of literary criticism, “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” in which he explored the psychology of violence. Four years later, he published his brilliant exercise in black humour, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” which he followed with a “Second Paper On Murder” in 1839 and a “Postscript” in 1854, inventing the true-crime genre in the latter. De Quincey also wrote terror fiction, including “The Household Wreck” and “The Avenger,” his most disturbing treatment of retribution and racial violence. He spent much of his life battling poverty, debt, and addiction. He died in Edinburgh in 1859 at the age of 74.