Monday, February 11, 2013

Tom Paine. A Political Life by John Keane.

By good fortune, I happened to read Tom Paine. A Political Life for my first blog review. The book was such a well-written and unbiased popular history about this revolutionist, that I did not appear as the bitter curmudgeon I am, right out of the gate. In terms of readability, the book was enjoyable, and flowed easily. The story of Paine’s life is eventful throughout, so an author doesn’t need to struggle to keep our attention or embellish the facts to make a popular history exciting. 

John Keane further helps the progress of the book by keeping the details of Paine’s youth mercifully short. A curious reader will want to know the formative events of a subject’s life, but nattering details like how an individual felt when his uncle broke his toy are only of interest to the obsessively psychologically disposed reader. Keane avoids this, recognizing that most readers have picked-up the book because of Paine’s accomplishments and reputation in his maturity. He gives us the important childhood demographics and events, then moves on to the activity of Paine’s adult life.

A pitfall common to biographers is the tendency to fall in love with one’s subject and write a hagiography. Keane does an excellent job of presenting Paine as a real and flawed human being. Arrogance appears to be Paine’s chief personal flaw. Keane cites numerous observations of Paine by contemporaries: “Most who recorded their encounters were appalled by his habit of angling conversations in directions where he hoped to shine (Keane, p. 311). A more dramatic example of Paine’s arrogance is reported by a friend and political ally, Irish republican Theobald Wolfe Tone. Speaking about the death of Edmund Burke’s only son, Tone discusses “the shattered state of [Burke’s] mind.” 

“Paine immediately said that it was the Rights of Man which had broken his heart, and that the death of his son gave him occasion to develop the chagrin which had preyed upon him ever since the appearance of that work.” (Keane, p. 437). 
Of course, there are slow points in the book. Even the most exciting life has periods of calm that are unremarkable, and a good biographer is not writing simply to entertain the reader, but to chronicle their subject's life. You'll probably want to staple your thumb to relieve the tedium of pages 240-282. During this time Paine is whining to Congress to be reimbursed financially for his part in the Revolution, and attempting unsuccessfully to sell his idea for an iron bridge. There is little a writer can do to jazz-up this period, but ignoring it would leave the record of Paine's life incomplete.

Because Keane is attempting to present an unbiased account of Paine’s life, he occasionally allows his subject’s biased perspectives and historical inaccuracies to go unchallenged. For example, Paine refers to the “dechristianization program” of Robespierre’s government as “atheism,” (Keane, p.394). But Robespierre, like the French Catholic monarchs before him, was attempting to establish a state religion to justify his rule. Robespierre’s religious weapon was Deism. Since Paine was himself a Deist, he cannot see that his religion and the state rituals created by Robespierre, not atheism, are the driving force for persecution in this case. But this is a much disputed area in historical biography: Is it helpful to apply an outsider interpretation to evaluate a subject’s views and actions, or should a writer simply depict the story of one’s life unvarnished by a later perspective? Keane is frequently critical of Paine’s beliefs and behaviors, and is struggling with a balance between presentation and critique. On the whole, Keane writes an admirable work on the life and ideas of Thomas Paine. He does a truly exceptional job of placing Paine’s main writings in their historical context and presenting what was occurring in the life of the author when he was writing these works. Tom Paine. A Political Life is a commendable contribution to the study of history.

Keane, John. Tom Paine. A Political Life. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1995.

For a review of Thomas Paine's biblical criticism, see: