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The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/De Quincey's Autobiographic Sketches

DE QUINCEY'S AUTOBIOGRAPHIC SKETCHES. What is commonly called ‘The Autobiography’ of Thomas DeQuincey is more accurately entitled ‘Autobiographic Sketches.’ This latter title suggests the mode of composition. DeQuincey did not deliberately plan and forthwith compose his autobiography. Rather he began by contributing reminiscent articles to periodicals, a practice which he continued until he had written and published about 30. In 1853, he collected these articles, revised, enlarged and polished them with his customary diligence, and gave them to the public under the title ‘Autobiographic Sketches.’ The reader must not suppose that all of De Quincey's autobiographical work is contained in these collected articles; the ‘Sketches’ must be supplemented by a large amount of other reminiscent composition, particularly by the ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater,’ by ‘The English Mail Coach,’ and by that noteworthy series of papers included under the general title, ‘Suspiria de Profundis.’ In truth, all of these compositions might, with entire propriety, be included under the title ‘Autobiographic Sketches.’ As a matter of fact, the autobiography of DeQuincey, more than that of almost any other man, is fragmentary — a succession of sketches loosely connected and widely scattered. DeQuincey lived from early childhood in a dream-world; the record of his successive dreams constitutes the true inner autobiography of the man. He might have written an objective account of the outward events of his life and thus have attained a brevity and a form such as David Hume attained in his autobiographic sketch. Fortunately, DeQuincey did not do this, and, in consequence, we may know his spirit as we may know the spirit of only a few men. Apart from their value as a revelation of De Quincey's soul, the ‘Autobiographic Sketches’ are remarkable from a purely literary point of view. To be sure, they exhibit both the defects and the virtues of DeQuincey's style. At one time, we are carried rapidly on by the swift flow of the author's “impassioned prose”; at another, we are becalmed by sluggish, almost uninteresting narrative. In general, however, the style is of high quality and the narrative compelling. Few readers can ever forget DeQuincey's account of his visit “about an hour after high noon” to the chamber where his little sister lay dead; of the Sunday mornings when he went with his family to a “church having all things ancient and venerable, and the proportions majestic”; of his stay at “Oxford, ancient mother, hoary with ancestral honors.” The appeal of the whole series is strong, and it is the experience of most readers that they return to these ‘Sketches’ frequently to commune with the strange elfin spirit of DeQuincey; to pass under the spell of the “organ music” of his rhetoric; to feel something of that “mighty and essential solitude” which, in the words of the author, “stretches out a sceptre of fascination” for us all.