Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Trouble With Tom by Paul Collins

Most biographies start with their subject's birth, but not The Trouble With Tom. Paul Collins isn't out to tell the story of Thomas Paine's life, but of the posthumous adventures of his body (and works), so Paine kicks off in the middle of the first chapter.

Tom Paine was an unpopular atheist and an embarrassing relic of the extremes of revolution by the time he died on New York's Burrows Street in 1809, so there was no chance of his being buried in consecrated ground in or near New York City. After being mourned by a mere six people, Paine was laid to rest in the corner of a field he had owned in New Rochelle, marked by a stone that the locals immediately started to break apart. Within a decade, the few remnants of Paine's headstone were mortared into a nearby wall -- and his body was dug up and spirited away to England, supposedly to be reburied as part of a grand monument.

The Thomas Paine monument never came to be, and Collins tracks the dispersal of Paine's mortal remains from that point, as a lock of hair goes here, a skull there, and some random bones elsewhere. Collins's focus is on the people rather than the mementos, so The Trouble With Tom never gets grisly; he's more interested in the afterlife of Paine's ideas than with his moldering bones. And the people who come to possess pieces of Paine did so because they cared about his ideas -- most of them were his followers, though a few wanted a token to show that their aristocratic ideas had triumphed over the democratic rabble-rouser.

Collins traveled to all of the locations associated with Paine's posthumous adventures, finding a gay bar here and a chip shop there, digging up a few new facts a hundred and fifty years later but mostly just seeing them for himself. He's also read a ridiculous number of books about Paine -- his "Further Reading" section at the end is nearly forty pages long -- and has informed opinions about them.

The Trouble With Tom is the kind of nonfiction book the world needs more of: detailed and authoritative in its facts, clear and engrossing in its style, uniquely particular in its subject. Let's see fewer biographies of the same old dead people, and fewer dull explications of the same old topics, but many more books as sprightly and informed as The Trouble With Tom.

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