Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Paine of Being Thomas

If his new book The Troubles with Tom is any indication, Paul Collins would make one hell of a tour guide. Part travel narrative, part popular (but well researched) history, Collins takes us on an odd, entertaining and informative tour of gay bars, empty lots, office buildings and farms for one goal: to track down the body of Thomas Paine.

Although often considered one of the founding fathers of the United States, Paine is probably one of the ones most overlooked in history class. While most people are aware of his pamphlet Common Sense it's rare to find other mentions of him. Collins's new book attempts to show Paine's influence by way of his death. Or, to be more specific, by way of his dead body.

Despite the extreme popularity of Common Sense and other writings, as well as his close associations with important men like Ben Franklin, Paine was often looked down upon for being a provocateur and a rebel constantly searching for cause. When he died in 1809, no church would bury him in their cemetery, leaving his remains to be interred on his own farm. Shortly thereafter, he was dug up by William Cobbett, an Englishman and revolutionary in his own right, to be buried beneath a monument to be built somewhere in London. But the monument never came together and Paine's remains were passed around for the next several decades, sometimes through inheritance and other times to pay off debts. But the people over the next century who were influenced by his writings and spirit sought his remains and sought to give him a proper burial. Some names, like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Thomas Edison, will be familiar. Others like Dr. E.B. Foote, an early author of self-help and healthy living books, will not be but provide interesting color for the times. Paine's influence reached a wide array of movements: vegetarianism, the age of Enlightenment, Phrenology, and the Thirteen Club (a unique club with the sole function of mocking every superstition under the sun). Collins does a fabulous job in tying all these disparate threads together and leading them all back to Paine's influence.

The travel narrative comes into play as Collins searches for clues to Paine's missing remains. These sections, vibrant, funny and easy to read, not only showcase the unusual turns research can deliver but also bring some levity and a unique sense of pacing to a history book. Highly readable and filled with enough unusual facts and witty anecdotes to entertain people who don’t normally read history, this book is a subtle reminder that history surrounds us and influences us every day of our lives. We just need to take the time to open our eyes, look and learn.


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