Queen Gertrude: But, look, where sadly the poor wretch comes reading.
—Hamlet 2.2.171

It’s hard to know how to categorize the sublime oddity and sublimated genius of Thomas De Quincey. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick quips, “As an essayist and autobiographer, Thomas De Quincey was a great Gothic novelist.” In her superb new biography, Frances Wilson uses pithier labels: “Romantic acolyte, professional doppelgänger, transcendental hack.”

Born, like Keats, in 1785, Thomas De Quincey was the younger son of a Manchester merchant. Though acknowledged as precociously learned by others as well as himself, he dropped out of college in the middle of his final exams. De Quincey never finished anything he set his hand to. Indeed, until he went...


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