The Lineage of Thomas De Quincey

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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.