Synopses & Reviews
Paul Collins travels the globe piecing together the missing body and soul of one of our most enigmatic founding fathers: Thomas Paine.
A typical book about an American founding father doesn't start at a gay piano bar and end in a sewage ditch. But then, Tom Paine isn't your typical founding father. The firebrand Common Sense rebel of 1776, a radical on the run from execution in London, and a senator of revolutionary France, Paine alone claims a key role in the development of three modern democracies. He was a walking revolution in human form the most dangerous man alive. But in death Paine's story turns truly bizarre. Shunned as an infidel by every church, he had to be interred in an open field on a New York farm. Ten years later, a former enemy converting to Paine's cause dug up the bones and carried them back to Britain, where he planned to build a mausoleum in Paine's honor. But he never got around to it. So what happened to the body of this founding father?
Well, it got lost. Paine's missing bones, like saint's relics, have been scattered for two centuries, and their travels are the trail of radical democracy itself. Paul Collins combines wry, present-day travelogue with an odyssey down the forgotten paths of history as he searches for the remains of Tom Paine and finds them hidden in, among other places, a Paris hotel, underneath a London tailor's stool, and inside a roadside statue in New York. Along the way he crosses paths with everyone from Walt Whitman and Charles Darwin to sex reformers and hellfire ministers not to mention a suicidal gunman, a Ferrari dealer, and berserk feral monkeys.
In the end, Collins's search for Paine's body instead finds the soul of democracy for it is the story of how Paine's struggles have lived on through his eccentric and idealistic followers.
"These are the times that try men's... bones? In this quixotic, mischievous and often hilarious work, Collins (Sixpence House) traces the bizarre story of Thomas Paine's remains through nearly two centuries of American and English history. After Paine's death in 1809, the iconoclastic reformer was refused burial in any Christian cemetery and was laid to rest ignominiously on his New York farm with only six people in attendance. Ten years later, a follower exhumed the remains and took them to England, where they were passed about for decades while various individuals harvested this or that relic for their private collections. More than a history of Paine's body, Collins offers an entertaining and compelling investigation of his legacy; Paine's example continued to animate all kinds of reformers throughout the 19th century, from feminists and spiritualists to phrenologists and physicians. Indeed, Paine's artifacts had a kind of Forrest Gump quality, bumping into many of the celebrated causes, writers and agitators of the day. Part travelogue, part memoir and part historical mystery, this book reads like a wry, witty novel and offers a delicious twist at the end." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
“[A] quixotic, mischievous and often hilarious work…Part travelogue, part memoir and part historical mystery, this book reads like a wry, witty novel and offers a delicious twist at the end.”—Publishers Weekly
Paul Collins takes us on a strange odyssey down the forgotten roads of history as he hunts for the bones of Tom Paine—exhumed and then lost, and now scattered around the globe. Crossing the paths of everyone from Walt Whitman and Charles Darwin to sex reformers and feral monkeys, this colorful search for a founding fathers body simultaneously excavates the very soul of democracy.
About the Author
Paul Collins is an assistant professor of English at Portland State University and the author of Sixpence House, The Trouble with Tom, Not Even Wrong, and Banvards Folly. His work has appeared in Smithsonian, the New York Times, and Slate. He edits the Collins Library imprint of McSweeneys Books and appears regularly on NPRs Weekend Edition as the shows resident literary detective.