The New York Times Book Review
Sunday, April 25, 1943
page 1, 18
The First Public Reading of the Declaration of Independence.
From "The Book of the American Spirit" (Harper).
TOM PAINE, PROPHET OF LIBERTY
|CITIZEN TOM PAINE. By Howard Fast.
341 pp. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce. $2.75.
By ELMER RICE
IN moments of crisis, a nation rediscovers its past. The dusty record of yesterday's failures and triumphs offers solace for today's defeats and hope for tomorrow's victories. Viewed in the light of the past, the grim present is seen, in its true proportions, as a stepping-stone to the future. Old battle cries and forgotten slogans are revivified and imbued with new meanings. Tales of ancient heroism and of remote struggles for cherished liberties are retold, with patriotic pride, and become a source of national inspiration. Most of all, the histories and legends of the great figures of the past the physical and spiritual ancestors of the living generation of men are redeemed from obscurity and exhibited in a luminous aura that magnifies their stature and glosses over their palpable blemishes. (The Russians, for example, in their fine, battle-born patriotic zeal, have lately discovered heroic virtues in such unlikely figures as Peter the Great and Ivan the Terrible.)
To the ever-increasing number of books that deal with the events and the personages of our own brief American past, Howard Fast has made an interesting and valuable addition with his fictionized biography of Thomas Paine. In "Citizen Tom Paine" he has succeeded, to a laudable degree, not only in sketching a vivid portrait of one of the most extraordinary figures of the eighteenth century, but in projecting it against the stormy background of the times in which he lived and played a part, whose importance has been far too little recognized.
For Paine has been greatly neglected and greatly misunderstood. He has been the victim both of a conspiracy of silence and of a campaign of calumny. His writings which literally sold by the million in the America and the England of his day, and which still reveal a startling freshness and contemporaneity, are available only in scattered editions. The one authoritative biography Moncure Daniel Conway's "Life of Thomas Paine" from which almost everything written about Paine in the last fifty years derives, was published in 1890 and has long been out of print. The cautious electors of the Hall of Fame have, again and again, passed Paine over for less eminent but more respectable candidates.
The reasons for Paine's comparative obscurity are not far to seek. In his own day he was universally read, and even worshiped. Such diverse figures as Washington, Edmund Burke, Robespierre and Napoleon extolled him for his contributions to the cause of liberty. His friends in America included besides Washington Jefferson, Franklin and Monroe; in England, Romney, William Blake, Wordsworth and (for a time!) Burke; in France, Lafayette, Danton and Condorcet. The roster of his enemies was equally brilliant and contained the names of John Adams, John Jay, Pitt, Marat and a host of others.
But the very qualities that made him a dynamic figure in hours of stress-forthrightness, courage, passionate idealism, incorruptibility tended, in easier times, to make him a source of embarrassment and annoyance even to his friends. For his fervent belief in democracy, in the brotherhood of man, in a federation of the world, was incapable of mitigation or of opportunistic adaptation to circumstances. More than any other one man, he crystallized the latent desire of the colonists for independence and a clean break with England. More than any other one man, he, helped by his writings, in the dark years of defeat and discouragement, to keep the revolutionary flame ablaze.
He was undoubtedly the greatest pamphleteer of his time. The very titles of his works "Common Sense," "The Crisis," "The Rights of Man," "The Age of Reason" have about them an honest and provocative directness that appeals to the eye and to the mind. An untutored man, whose stylistic gaucheries made the judicious grieve, Paine wrote with a forcefulness, vividness and clarity that engaged the attention and stirred the emotions of the generality of mankind.
But when the Revolution had been won Paine fell into disfavor with the less active but more solidly realistic burghers who moved in to reap the benefits. He had the bad taste to continue his attacks upon privilege, upon economic injustice, upon slavery; and since his touchiness, rough manners and untidy habits laid him open to irrelevant but effective personal attacks, his apologists had a hard time of it.
Paine's life was so kaleidoscopic, so packed with incident and so melodramatic that it almost defies dramatization. It would be impossible to produce within the covers of a 300-page novel a complete and coherent account of a life that spanned three-quarters of a century and that for thirty years was lived in the thick of the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the abortive British Revolution, which later achieved fruition in the constitutional reforms of the nineteenth century. Mr. Fast has wisely refrained from attempting the impossible.
Two-thirds of "Citizen Tom Paine" deals with the period between Paine's first arrival in America as an obscure immigrant and his departure for Europe to exploit the. iron bridge he had invented a period of about fifteen years. The last twenty years of his life are merely sketched in. Nor is Mr. Fast's method one of straightaway narration. He tells his story by means of a series of quick and vivid impressions, with frequent changes of locale and sudden flash-backs to Paine's early life in short, a kind of montage. And though one might take exception, now and then, to a certain lushness in the writing, there emerges from the book, as a whole, a clearly delineated portrait of Paine seen against a brightly colored backdrop of the America of the Revolution, which, like our America of today, had not only its quota of heroes, statesmen and idealists, but an abundance of appeasers, isolationists, fifth columnists, profiteers and defenders of special privilege.
It is doubtful if Paine was quite the swashbuckling, devil-may-care roisterer that Mr. Fast depicts. As a matter of fact, Paine never wholly lost the impress of his Quaker upbringing, and except for his unfortunate addiction to drink, he was a good deal the ascetic almost too earnest, too humorless, too preoccupied with moral and ethical conflicts. But Mr. 'Fast is writing fiction and he can readily be forgiven a little license, since we are indebted to him for a timely and readable reincarnation of a forgotten man.