Thomas Paine has become something of an historical stick figure, like so many other Founding Fathers. But in one of the most unusually constructed...
“The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine”
by Paul Collins
Bloomsbury, 278 pp., $24.95
Thomas Paine has become something of an historical stick figure, like so many other Founding Fathers. But in one of the most unusually constructed biographies ever written, Paul Collins has made Paine flesh again by following his bones, literally.
This is going to require some explanation. Paine (1737-1809) won fame just two years after entering Britain’s American Colonies.
A failure at everything he tried in his native England, Paine entered the restless Colonies across the ocean during 1774, with a letter of introduction from a man he had somehow impressed in England, a man named Benjamin Franklin.
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Less than two years later, the ne’er-do-well, nearly anonymous Paine wrote and managed to publish a pamphlet titled “Common Sense,” in which he advocated full-scale revolution in what became known as the United States, rather than a relatively timid tax revolt against the king of England.
The author of “The Trouble With Tom” will read at 7 p.m. Oct. 27 at Seattle’s University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
For a few years, Paine enjoyed the status of seer and even hero as he contributed mightily to the unshackling of America from England.
But Paine’s radical views and unconventional lifestyle eventually wore thin. He returned to England, where he advocated the end of monarchy. Driven out of England by monarchists, Paine relocated to France, where he actually helped overthrow a monarchy as the 18th century came to a close.
But as a sort of normalcy settled upon the new French republic, Paine again found himself unwelcome. So he crossed the ocean again, settling in New York where he died of old age, his mind still sharp when not made ineffective by too much alcohol.
In “The Trouble With Tom,” Collins fits in all those episodes from Paine’s documented life, but does so in the context of Paine’s bizarre afterlife. The bizarre afterlife began a decade after Paine’s temporal death, when a fiery political writer named William Cobbett dug up his hero’s bones from a New Rochelle, N.Y., cemetery plot, carrying them to England in a quest for a decent burial.
What became of those bones after Cobbett’s own death has never been documented with certainty.
So Collins, a clever freelance writer, decided to trace the whereabouts of those bones to the best of his ability along an old, cold trail of contradictory accounts.
Collins weaves his own travels on the Tom Paine trail into a well-researched, engagingly (sometimes goofily) told biography of sorts. When discussing his travels in the 21st century, Collins comes across as a naïf, as self-deprecating, as a stand-up comedian.
Like successful stand-up comedians, however, Collins has labored hard to sound so natural. His research is prodigious, as revealed in a narrative bibliography that is as well-written as the text it documents.
At times, between the laughs, Collins tries to engage serious questions. For example, he asks why a 46-page pamphlet titled “Common Sense” written well over 200 years ago should resonate today.
“Lots of political writers have written lots of best sellers, and a few have even managed to tear the nation from its moorings,” Collins comments. “Yet we do not still read Rowan Hinton Helper’s ‘Impending Crisis of the South.’ So why this one? What made it special? Why make this one pamphlet the epitaph on his grave?”
Collins puts forth plausible theories about the lasting impact of Paine’s written words, much as Collins puts forth plausible theories about the actual disposition of Paine’s bones.
Most likely nobody will ever know if Collins is correct in his theorizing about Paine’s impact or in his sleuthing about the resting place of Paine’s bones. But when a book is the product of so much original substance and style, the lack of definitive answers seems only a mild irritant, not a sign of failure.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.