Saturday, September 20, 2014

Citizen Tom Paine by Howard Fast

I picked this one up only because I read and enjoyed another of Fast’s works--Spartacus. It’s safe to say I did not enjoy this one nearly as much.

Tom Paine has always been a shadowy figure in the stage light of my historical understanding. Other than the facts that he wrote Common Sense and The Age of Reason, I knew next to nothing about him. And, if I am to believe the blurb on the back cover, a lot of other people were in the same boat with me before Fast published this work in 1943.

Among Howard Fast’s historical fiction, this book--one of America’s all-time bestsellers--occupies a very special place, for it restored to a whole generation of readers the vision of Paine’s revolutionary passion as the authentic roots of our national beginnings.

So what did I learn about him? Well, for one, that his was a mind that seemed out of place in its time. Fast makes this wonderfully clear in the dramatization of Paine’s relationship with Mary, his first wife, whom he met and courted while still living in England, and who died while pregnant with their child.

He thought afterward that if certain things had not been, if certain things had gone otherwise, it might have been different. What she was, she couldn’t help, and knowing that only made it worse for him. Long after, he would think of how he had tried to teach her to read and write, and how after ten or fifteen minutes of struggling with an idea, she would turn on him with childish fury. Sometimes he was sure she hated him, and sometimes, holding her in his arms, he would have a brief moment in which he knew she loved him. She was what she was, beaten into shape by her tiny world, a tribal creature laid over and over with a thousand taboos, Sometimes, probing as gently as he could, uncovering layer after layer, he would be at the point of finding her frightened little soul, and she would burst out at him, “Coo! High and mighty and fine you are, making fun of me again, you with your fine airs!”

This is exactly how the public reacted to Paine during his lifetime and, evidently, how history has treated him ever since. Many of his contemporaries and many of their descendants reacted to his “high and mighty” ideas exactly as Mary did, occasionally intoxicated by them, but much more often frightened and confused.

In fact, the essential portrait that Fast creates is not that of the hero, but of the reclusive writer, scribbling words capable of swaying the passions of man in solitary darkness, but forever incapable of connecting with his audience in person or on any other level. Paine is the quintessential misanthrope, whose written words speak to the hidden misanthrope that lives within us all and that nurtures our delusions of self importance, but over whom we and the society that frames us keeps tight control. Except Paine has no such control. He is all misanthrope. And while we can thrill to the words he places privately in our minds, when we meet him in person and see him for the monster he is.

And in describing this writer--for those of us who also write--we see glimmers of what it means to be a writer, what it takes to do what so few of us can or are willing to do.

He had a little room, a bed, a bolster, chest, coat-rack, and table, two fairly good suits of clothes, ink and paper. That was enough, a man should want no more. He needed a few pennies for candles, something for food, something for drink. During this time he no longer allowed himself to be drunk, yet he saw no reason to do without liquor. Rum helped him; caring little for himself or for what became of him, he was ready to use anything that might make his pen move more easily on the paper. He was writing stuff out of thought and making something out of nothing, and after he had worked steadily for five, six, or seven hours, the little room closed in on him. Rum helped; as he drank, his movements would become slow and painful, but the quill would continue to scratch, which was all that mattered. He had no delusions; what he wrote might never be read by more than a dozen persons, but it was all he could do and what he had to do. Men don’t make new worlds in an afternoon; brick has to be placed on brick, and the process is long and incredibly painful.

This, then, subsumes his role in our nation’s history. As he himself muses late in the narrative:

He sat in the dark and turned over and over in his hands the key that had unlocked the Bastille. Lafayette had given it to him to give to Washington; Washington stood in the clouds, and Lafayette was a leader of France, and he, Paine, in between, was nothing. But in between was the moving impulse of revolution, a force summed up in himself, a passionate preaching that gained neither glory nor distinction, but by the power of the written word moved worlds.

The reference to the Bastille is important, for after the American Revolution, Paine goes back to Europe to see what role he can play in the French one. But he discovers that what worked in America does not work in France. And he gets an initial glimpse of this when he first visits his hometown in England.

Then Thetford, and it shocked him that the old place had not changed, not at all, not a stone moved, the furrows plowed in the tracks of a thousand years of furrows, a crow perched on top a fence where he thought he remembered it perching so long ago. After America, this was entirely out of the world, for America lived by change, tear down the house and build a better one, tear down the barn and build a better one, pave the streets, sewers? Why not? The Romans did it. A higher church and a higher steeple, a bigger town hall.

Indeed, America was unique. In a telling conversation with Benjamin Rush, the physician explicitly describes the circumstance that made America possible, that allowed, for the first time, strength and violence to be used for the cause of the oppressed rather than the oppressors.

“It is true that we have here a nation of armed men who know how to use their arms; we have a Protestant tradition of discussion as opposed to autocracy; we have some notion of the dignity of man; and above all we have land, land enough for everyone.”

It is fascinating to think about how the American Revolution would have gone--or if it would have happened at all--if any one of those circumstances hadn’t been present.

But back to Paine. He has gone back to Europe to help foment the French Revolution, to try and be the people’s muse once again, but he winds up not on their shoulders but in the Bastille, where he finds himself debating the philosophical essence of his work with the other would-be revolutionaries imprisoned there. By way of example, no less than Anacharsis Clootz takes exception to some of the thoughts he expressed in The Age of Reason.

“What is this nonsense you write, Paine, about the creation being the Bible of God?”

“A simple fact which I believe.”

“Which you believe!” Clootz snorted, stopping the march and turning on Paine, arms akimbo. “You repudiate organized religion and substitute mystical rationalization! My friend, Paine, you shock me. With you I spend some of my last precious hours. On every hand people in the streets turn to stare at us and whisper to each other, There are Paine and Clootz on their way to the guillotine. These good soldiers, these two agents of what calls itself the Republic of France, will go home to their soup and their wives with the news that they marched the last march with the two greatest minds of the eighteenth century. And you rationalize about the creation being the Bible of God. What creation?”

“Of course, it happened!” Paine snapped. “Atheism, the great creed of chance! Like a game of cards, everything just fell together until it fitted nicely!”

“And why not? Where is reason, but in our minds? Where is godliness, but in the people? Where is mercy, but in the masses? A thing becomes reasonable because we make it reasonable, and we are not reaching toward God, but toward goodness, a formulation of the people, a concept of small, suffering men--”

M. Merson interrupted, “Please, please, citizens, we are on our way to the Luxembourg jail. I pray you not to argue, for it is unseemly in men going our way.” And they continued on their way, Clootz roaring his theories at the top of his lungs.

Clootz may be an extreme example, but he still reveals something of the fundamental disconnect that Paine experiences throughout his life--which continues after he survives the Bastille, by the way. Revolutions, large and small, are the children of Paine’s words, but their grandparents, the ideas in Paine's head that give birth to his words, don't seem like relatives at all. The words work because they speak directly to a broad cross-section of man, and most can find long-sought-after sustenance within them.

But when Paine tries to explain the wellspring that gives birth to his words, it is a wellspring that only he and few others care to share. Paine does not believe in the Christian God, but he does believe in a God that endows His creation with “certain inalienable rights.” Clootz does not believe in God at all, thinking that reason springs solely from the mind of man, and so when Paine walks his conception of liberty back to a non-Christian God, he alienates both the Christians and the atheists. His views, when expressed as close to their essential essence as possible, are almost entirely his and his alone.

At one point in the narrative, Fast has Paine describe someone as being like Christ--he knew not the evil from the good, but only the weak from the strong. From where I sit, that is perhaps the best description of Paine himself, and why he is almost always misunderstood.

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Something else happened to me when I read this book. It became apparent when I stumbled across passages like this:

It was there, hot and terrible; they were rebels. This idea that they had conceived, that they should be free men with the right to live their lives in their own way, this tenuous, dream-like idea of liberty that men of good will had played with for thousands of years had suddenly come to it brutish head on a village green in Lexington. The farmers growled and didn’t lay down their arms; instead one of them fired, and in the moment of stillness after the roar of the big musket had echoed and re-echoed, a redcoat clutched at his tunic, knelt, and then rolled over on the ground.

There was a time when such a passage would have moved me. When my heart would have swelled at the idea, so pleasantly phrased, of man fighting for his liberty against oppression.

But no longer. Now, when I find a writer who is trying to stir me in this way, my mind quickly goes to the ugly and inevitable truth, which, in this case, Fast is complex enough to present in the very next paragraph.

After that, there was no order, no memory even. The redcoat files fired a volley; the farmers fired their guns singly, by twos and threes. The women screamed and came running from their houses. Children began to cry and dogs barked madly. Then the firing died away and there was no sound except the moans of the wounded and the shrill pleading of the women.

Fighting against oppression is important, but shouldn’t we weigh the consequences of such fights outside the passion of the moment and the stirrings that demagogues (or novelists) may wish to inspire within us?

What, in the end, is the most important? Liberty? Or dignity? Fast shows us what Paine may have thought in this fictionalized dialogue with Thomas Jefferson.

“Poverty is a degree of things,” Jefferson said. “I have seen people here in America whose poverty was complete and absolute, yet they retained--”

“Dignity,” Paine said.


“Then that’s all we live for,” Paine reflected. “If there’s any meaning in human life, then it’s there, in the dignity of a human being.”

“I think so.”

“I never realized that before; I began to feel it here, but I didn’t know until I spoke of it tonight. It’s true enough; all through ten thousand years men have been corrupted by having their dignity taken from them. When my wife died and the neighbors poured in to look at her poor, tired body, the little, evil thrill of it the only excitement in their lives, each bringing a scrap of food for admission, I could think, God help me, only how comical it was. If we were made in the image of God, how rotten that image has become!”

My evolving perspective tends to agree. Perfect liberty is a bit of a pipe dream, anyway. Give me a good deal of liberty, yes, but more pressingly, give me the dignity I need to be and become what I wish to be. Preserving that, I suppose, requires a little bit of government among men, and therefore, a little bit of the ideal of liberty that is supposed to make my heart swell must be sacrificed.

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But why didn’t I like this as much as I liked Spartacus? If you’ve read this far, I’ve probably left you with the impression that I got a good deal out of Citizen Tom Paine. And I guess I have, but a lot more turned me off.

I think Fast would have been better served to have focused on only a portion of Paine’s life and not try to tell the whole story from beginning to end. Like most real people, the life of Thomas Paine is not a compelling story. There are some compelling episodes, but there are also long stretches of tedium and boredom, which Fast has to move into biography in order to make them serve as the glue between the fictionalized episodes. When doing so, the prose seems rushed and the relevance forced.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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