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When research goes pop

Dr. Robert Morrison

At the intersection of academic research and popular culture comes the resurrection of a long dead opium eater.

The opium eater in question is the 19th century English essayist Thomas De Quincey, known for his autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey also happens to be Queen’s professor Robert Morrison’s academic raison d’être and the subject of novelist David Morrell’s two latest books.

Dr. Morrell, an emeritus professor of English at the University of Iowa, turns back the clock to Victorian England in his book Murder as a Fine Art (2013) to write about De Quincey as the suspect in a gruesome murder case. In his newest book, Inspector of the Dead (2015), Morrell follows De Quincey as he races to halt an assassination attempt on Queen Victoria.

The timing was perfect as when Dr. Morrell was beginning research for his De Quincey-inspired novel, Dr. Morrison was releasing his biography of De Quincey, The English Opium-Eater.

After Dr. Morrison offered his research expertise to Dr. Morrell to ensure the historical accuracy of the novels, both of Dr. Morrell’s books were co-dedicated to Dr. Morrison. Now, the burgeoning interest in De Quincey as a result of the novels means Dr. Morrison’s research, his biography and a new edition of De Quincey’s finest essays forthcoming with Oxford University Press, are reaching an ever-widening audience.  

“The relationship between my scholarship and David’s fiction is a very good example of the ways in which academic research can reach out to and eventually shape popular culture,” says Dr. Morrison, a professor in the Department of English. “Research in the humanities matters because it deepens our understanding of the past, and often triggers imaginative and fictive engagements that inform the present and future. Society, for example, has been struggling for a long time with the issue of addiction. From different angles, David and I try to reveal the history and impact of that struggle.”

While the two have never actually met in person, emails back and forth for the last four years have kept their academic affiliation a prime example of how scholarly research can aid in the development of pop culture, and how pop culture frequently capitalizes on information and insights brought forward by scholarly research in the Humanities.

“When I was researching for these novels I had access to a variety of materials, but nothing compares to the kind of information Robert was able to provide me with,” says Dr. Morrell, whose debut novel First Blood saw the introduction of the action hero John Rambo. “To me, Rob comes across as the kind of professor that every student should want to spend hours with.”

Both Dr. Morrison and Dr. Morrell are big proponents when it comes to the importance of an education in the humanities or liberal arts.

“A humanities or liberal arts education is something of an education in cultural survival. We’re teaching an open, creative and vital approach to culture so that we’re not sleepwalking through life but instead engaging with the world around us and moving forward,” says Dr. Morrell.

Inspector of the Dead will be released on March 24, 2015. For more information on Robert Morrison’s research, please follow this link.