When Drug Culture Went Highbrow

Robert Morrison credits Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater:

De Quincey invented recreational drug-taking, not because he was the first to swallow opiates for non-medical reasons (he was hardly that), but because he was the first to commemorate his drug experience in a compelling narrative that was consciously aimed at — and consumed by — a broad commercial audience. Further, in knitting together intellectualism, unconventionality, drugs, and the city, De Quincey mapped in the counter-cultural figure of the bohemian. He was also the first flâneur, high and anonymous, graceful and detached, strolling through crowded urban sprawls trying to decipher the spectacles, faces, and memories that reside there. Most strikingly, as the self-proclaimed “Pope” of “the true church on the subject of opium,” he initiated the tradition of the literature of intoxication with his portrait of the addict as a young man. De Quincey is the first modern artist, at once prophet and exile, riven by a drug that both inspired and eviscerated him.

Some accused De Quincey of encouraging drug abuse. His response:

Teach opium-eating! – Did I teach wine drinking? Did I reveal the mystery of sleeping? Did I inaugurate the infirmity of laughter? . . . My faith is – that no man is likely to adopt opium or to lay it aside in consequence of anything he may read in a book.