CITIZEN TOM PAINE
Howard Fast's novel about an immortal American
Citizen Tom Paine, by Howard Fast.
who "scorched a message on the minds of men."
Duell, Sloan & Pearce. $2.75.
"Damned be his fame, and lasting his shame "
Thus runs one line of a horrible bit of doggerel set going against Paine by his enemies in America. It sticks in the mind. Some would still have it that way today's inheritors of the hatred of the people, the lineal descendants of Tom Paine's enemies. The name of Paine means much the same thing to fascists as it did to the organizers of counter-revolution in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. But the works of Tom Paine (the words and the deeds) have survived the innumerable assaults on the man. When Paine spoke, he spoke as a citizen of the world the new world: the voice of the common man was his conscious utterance. And that fact is something which cannot be howled down, for the people do not readily forget the great men who fought in the historic battles for their freedom. They know whom to damn, and whose fame is lasting!
The great merit of Howard Fast's novel, it seems to me, is the sense of the urgency and the reality of the ideas which Paine impressed so indelibly on the political thinking of his contemporaries. In the personality of this one man the great issues of his time became articulate: the clear realization of their meaning seems to advance the mood of the novel to the present. For the vitality of this book does not rest upon what is conventionally conceded to be the chief source of reality in the historical novel an accurately painted backdrop of historical events. In Mr. Fast's novel, the continuity of history is deeply embedded in Paine's searching for the mainsprings of action which would keep the American people on the march for their revolution. Tom Paine's common sense embodied political truths restricted enough to exert a powerful effect as propaganda on the farmers and city workmen, the rank-and-filers of the American Revolution yet broad enough to scorch a message on the minds of men for more than a century later. I think that Howard Fast makes us profoundly aware of the historical impact of the man; and that was imperative. But he has also endeavored to freshen our feeling about Paine as a person, to study the formation of character with the analytical methods of the present. This aspect of his work is bound to arouse controversial discussion.
Among the cabal which has gathered against Paine the chief point of attack has been his character, particularly certain facts about his life which have been magnified and distorted with the object of deflecting attention from his great revolutionary vision and his immortal services to our country. This line of attack began in Paine's own lifetime and reached a climax of personal persecution after the printing of The Age of Reason. "Formerly Satan had been one; now he became two, himself and Tom Paine." From a man so conscious of the ways in which Paine's enemies worked, it would be a queer sort of irony to find him giving them any assistance. But there may be misgivings at the frequency with which we find Paine alone with the brandy bottle in Mr. Fast's novel. With the drinking, slovenliness in dress, carelessness about his person, and an occasional orgy also come into the picture. If there were a failure to understand why Paine lived recklessly, why he did not heed the affronts to his friends which his own negligence of himself sometimes presented, one would feel that it might have been wiser for a writer not to dwell on these things.
But it must be understood that Mr. Fast has undertaken something more than the balancing of the facts of biographical research: this is not merely "fictionalized biography"; on the contrary, everything points to a desire to present imaginatively the full history of Paine's personality. There must be a welding together of contradictions into a character as definite and explicable as a fictional, non-historical creation can become, but, of course, the license for this type of creation carries with it grave responsibilities. In my opinion, Paine's inner conflict, presented here as the outgrowth of the miseries and deprivations of his early life, has been clearly conceived. In solitude Paine had fought against the forces which were dragging him into the oblivion of the gin-ridden slums of London. All the impulses which his terrible past had blindly set in motion, Paine struggled against (he was thirty-seven when he first arrived in America in 1774): out of it all finally came the convictions which he imparted to the world. While the origins of his character and the maturing of his mind are thus partially presented in terms of a subjective struggle and not through the customary direct examination of putative source materials Mr. Fast has certainly provided an insight into character which cannot be rejected on the sole grounds that Paine seems an anguished, disturbed man, so tortured by his memories that he relapsed occasionally into fits of solitary drinking.
At the same time the contrast between the solitary Paine and the man who was the inspired comrade of the weary soldiers of the Revolutionary army the man whose face bore the mark of suffering and the man who could be completely oblivious of himself has been sharpened in a rather mechanical way. Paine's bouts with the bottle are too frequent incidents in the novel; the accounts of his comradeships too few. Too often Mr. Fast tries to turn into the picturesque the traits of Paine that his detractors so grossly enlarged. The danger is that this disproportion may be taken as an influence of the reactionary conspiracy against Paine.
Another problem, partly structural, which the book presents is the handling of Paine's life after he left America in 1787. To that point, Mr. Fast, with ease and dramatic conviction, had been able to work into the clear record of his revolutionary activities the material from his earlier life which strengthened our grasp on his character. But thereafter he is not able to do complete justice to the many events in which Paine participated. His stay in England, the writing of the Rights of Man and the repercussions therefrom, seem unjustly abridged. Relying on scanty allusions and brief flashbacks to important moments of his English experiences, the author rushes headlong through the complex changes in the French Revolution, compressing the history of those days and foreshortening the leading figures until the narrative movement has no relation to that of the earlier story. The focus sharpens on the solitary Paine, the dramatic interest becomes a figure gradually isolated from the world of revolutionary action at which he had once been a center. As a result, the character of Paine suffers from attrition, the way is prepared for the somber, bitter age of the man, and the emotions evoked are pathos or resentment. The world for which he lived, to which he belonged, seems to be withdrawn too rapidly from him; his manifold connections with it seem played down for the sake of the emotional overtones which his tragic old age imply.
Even so, the native greatness of the Thetford staymaker is never clouded by Mr. Fast. I can think of no better demonstration of the necessity and power of fine, clear propaganda in popular struggle than the story of the writing, printing, and circulation of Common Sense. How Paine accepted the responsibility of becoming a professional revolutionary, how his theory matured out of experience, how he learned that men can be made to think and to change history when given the proper instruments of theory the significance of these things, it seems to me, counter-balances the effect of his isolation during the anti-democratic reaction in his last years. That period in his life should not inspire futile pathos, but a burning indignation, a desire to restore him to his rightful historical position.
One more thing I believe may justly be said here: about the novelist. Howard Fast is actually molding a new conception of verisimilitude in historical fiction. He has removed elaborate trappings of scene, restoration of places, large-scale descriptive architecture from his novel; the decoration of his stage is as subdued, as non-distracting as possible. Along with that comes the placing in the foreground of men whose vitality springs from a better understanding of the movement of history. These people reach us in a new way, for, in the way they think, what their ideas make them do, they suggest neither tenuous analogies nor forced comparisons with the present. In historical fiction can come perhaps the clearest proof of the lack of friction between esthetic creation and political understanding. In Citizen Tom Paine, Howard Fast has shown us what great work can be done, and also, by indirectly exposing some of the problems, what greater work lies in the path of himself and other writers.