Published in 1821 (anonymously, for fear of unpleasant recriminations), this tale of excess and addiction from Thomas De Quincey (1785 – 1859) is quite the startling tale. For anyone who’s grown up in the post-’60s era, and is into popular culture (or counterculture – whatever), you’ll be used to tales of rock stars such as Jim Morrison, Grace Slick, Pete Townshend, and the Beatles experimenting with mind-bending narcotics.
It’s nothing new – folks have been dabbling with opium for thousands of years. There have even been wars fought over the stuff, but back ages ago Mr. De Quincey was pretty Hell bent on pursuing mind altering experiences. The results were revelatory for the era and shocked society, so it’s no wonder he published it anonymously to avoid being thrown in jail, or whatnot.
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
After being published and meeting with success, De Quincey revealed his identity and the work went under his name. He even revised the book three decades after its initial publication and, by Jove, this text was foisted upon a young Mr. Wapojif at university in Nottingham back in 2003.
It’s split into two parts and takes a good old gander at De Quincey’s decent into drug addiction and how it got him booted out of Guns N’ Roses, or whatever band he was in, before getting his life back on track. In reality, this isn’t some bombastic tale of privilege leading to excess – De Quincey’s difficult childhood, which involved periods of homelessness spent in London circa 1800, led to depression and fueled his later experiences.
The use of language here takes on different turns, in part remaining conversational or witty, whilst other times it’s rather nightmarish. At only 80 pages, it’s a short account, but it’s told with terrific verve and foreshadowed the likes of Kerouac, Bukowski, and Hunter S. Thompson in flat out tales of narcotics intake. It’s also, however, a reminder of the way language once was, with De Quincey relating his awful tale in English from a bygone era.
"I saw that I must die if I continued the opium: I determined, therefore, if that should be required, to die in throwing it off."
It is, consequently, credited with kickstarting the literary trope of the troubled writer recording his (as it is usually a man) woes – as mentioned with the names above, Kerouac particularly went all out with it in the disturbing and poignant Big Sur. The success of De Quincey’s book certainly helped future writers find an outlet for their issues.
As a short, sharp warning about staying off opium, though, this is probably the one to read. It was, presumably, its generation’s Trainspotting and, by Jove, it makes for intriguing reading in an era when excesses are commonplace.
First trying opium in 1804, the writer likely took it for a number of medical conditions it’s been suggested he suffered from. By all accounts, he didn’t kick the habit during his life and, in many respects, his intake fueled his literary career considerably, opening his mind to where he wanted his prose to go.
Romantic era poetry during the 18th century was particularly influenced by poets taking opium, so De Quincey wasn’t the first to try his hand at inspiration through drugs. He was, however, one of the first to record the results on his wellbeing for posterity. Don’t do drugs, kids. They’re bad.