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One person most clearly united the early and late antebellum critics—
the popular English essayist and autobiographer Thomas De Quincey. Like
John Foster, De Quincey published numerous periodical essays on biogra-
phies and autobiographies. The appearance of American editions of De
Quincey’s Confessions and Autobiographic Sketches in the early 1850s
sparked a lively round of critical debate about the nature of autobiogra-
phies. De Quincey recognized that he was unconventional in his approach
to life histories and used his preface to the Sketches to explain it. He argued
that Confessions was a mode of “impassioned prose ranging under no
precedents.” Sketches was, on the other hand, an amusing “real story,
thoughtfully and faithfully related, moving through a succession” of varied
scenes.21 De Quincey devoted much of his preface to explaining the reve-
lation of the most intimate personal details of his life. On this point he chal-
lenged the critics, arguing that “much more than amusement ought to settle
upon any narrative of a life that is really confidential.” Yet “vast numbers of
people, though liberated from all reasonable motives to self-restraint, can-
not
be confidential—have it not in their power to lay aside reserve.” Be-
lieving that the “single force of absolute frankness” in an autobiography
produced a work of “deep, solemn, and sometimes even of a thrilling inter-
est,” De Quincey adopted the rule of “perfect sincerity: saying everywhere
nothing but the truth; and in any case forbearing to say the whole truth only
through consideration for others.”22

Critics reacted with ambivalence to De Quincey’s autobiographical
writings. Under the lingering influence of John Foster, they castigated De
Quincey for reveling in “low excitement” and representing “in high favor
personages who, in real life, would be scouted from all decent society”:
opium addicts, drunkards, tramps, criminals, and the like. From the time De
Quincey's Confessions first appeared in 1821, the pubic rebelled against
the critics and avidly read it. By 1852, when a new edition of the work ap-
peared, the critics' railing against De Quincey had softened. The collection
and republication in the 1850s of his widely scattered essays and longer
works in a multivolume set caused critics to reconsider their original judg-
ments and to develop less moralistic theories of autobiographies than those
propounded earlier by Foster.23

21. Thomas De Quincey, Autobiographic Sketches, [22 or 23] vols. (Edinburgh, 1853), 12: x,
xviii.

22. Ibid., xi-xii.

23. North American Review, 74: 425-26 (April 1852).

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