This paper reexamines De Quincey’s imperial imagination through emerging network theories of Empire. In the wake of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000), binary constructs of imperial power based on the metropole and colony have increasingly been called into question. Historians of the British Empire have produced “new imperial histories” that take into account the decentralized ways in which imperial power is maintained and distributed. De Quincey’s writings embody and anticipate postmodern understandings of imperial power, amalgamating into a “palimpsest of empire” that resonates strongly with the present-day globalized moment.
This reconfiguring of De Quincey’s representations of imperial power proposes De Quincey’s metaphor of the palimpsest as a trope for understanding the new complexity of Empire. The palimpsest appears in Suspira de Profundis (1845) as a metaphor of human consciousness: a multilayered vellum on which all past markings survive indefinitely, even as the past is constantly put under erasure by the present. The accumulated markings give rise to the essential order and totality of consciousness, suggesting a structural and imaginative analogue between the palimpsest of consciousness and its externalization as the totality of imperial networks. Reexamining texts such as Suspira de Profundis and “The English Mail-Coach” (1849) reveals the possibilities of the palimpsest in articulating a multimodal and multilayered concept of Empire that not only applies to De Quincey’s imagination but also may be symptomatic of Romantic-era imperial writing in general.
KEYWORDS: Thomas De Quincey, palimpsest, empire, imperialism