February 2006

Colleen Mondor


The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins

I have long been fascinated by how writers research their books. I am continuously surprised and impressed by how one person will see or read something and have their mind blown in such a way that a book is born, while someone else, only inches away, will miss the whole thing and never share that epiphany.

Andrea Barrett’s essay, “The Sea of Information” from The Kenyon Review (collected in the Best American Essays 2005) is the perfect example of what so many of us might be missing. Barrett writes about the excitement she felt at discovering “the slim gray book stamped ‘Property of the City of New York’ and titled What You Should Know About TUBERCULOSIS” in 1999. It was the words in this handbook, the directives about tuberculosis and its victims that stated things like, “In the first place, tuberculosis is largely a disease of the poor -- of those on or below the poverty line. We must further realize that there are two sorts of poor people -- not only those financially handicapped and so unable to control their environment, but those who are mentally and morally poor, and lack intelligence, will power and self control,” that prompted Barrett’s next book. “It was words like those, the sound of that language -- the officious, pushy, condescending sound of that -- along with the eerie photographs and the remarkable drawing of the Tuberculosis Tree, made me want to write a novel,” she writes in her essay. “The feeling was as sudden, as intense and as irrational as falling in love.”

Paul Collins lives a life just like Andrea Barrett -- he is constantly on the lookout for the next literary discovery, the next idea that will not leave him alone. His latest book, The Trouble With Tom, is about the odd disappearance of one of America’s greatest patriots, the revolutionary writer Thomas Paine. Paine died in poverty and despair, which was bad enough considering he was the man who crossed the Delaware with George Washington and penned the infamous line “These are the times that try man’s souls,” but then after Paine died, his body was disinterred and sent on an odyssey across the Atlantic and in and out of farmyards and living rooms. He didn’t get a monument, not even a permanent gravestone. Bits and pieces of Paine seemed to have ended up everywhere. When Collins first discovered the tail of this story, he knew he had something special.

“Several years ago, when I was still living in Portland,” writes Collins in the book, “I was sitting in the Periodicals Room of the Multnomah Public Library reading the January 25, 1868 issue of Notes and Queries when I came across a letter in it, sent anonymously by the old customer of John Chennell, and titled 'Tom Paine’s Bones.' I read it in stunned disbelief. I’d vaguely heard once about Paine’s body going missing, but -- this? What was he doing in the basement of some corn merchant’s shop in Guildford? What on earth…? It was at that moment that this book began.”

Collins does not follow any strict set of rules when he latches onto a new subject, after his first knee jerk reaction to something, he gives himself some time to figure out just what else he can find out about it. “My books and articles alike almost always start with a ‘What the hell is this?’ reaction to some old book or newspaper, followed by my trying to find more information on it -- and if, in doing so, I discover that nobody’s written a book on the subject I get, a) annoyed by the lack of information, then, b) intrigued by the realization that I can pretty much own the subject now, whereupon, c) I begin scheming to write my book/article/blog entry/what-have-you.” This system often means that a book changes a lot after it has been sold to a publisher, “The Trouble With Tom changed tremendously over time, in part because I kept discovering new people, particularly on the American side.” It also gives Collins a lot of freedom in developing his story. An American named Moncure Conway ends up being a major player in Tom, as he wrote books about Paine and was a logical choice for Collins to research. While reading about Conway, however, Collins found himself becoming immersed in another man’s life -- a fascinating life, and so just as the role of Conway began to expand in his manuscript about Paine, so did the role of another man who never met the great rebel, Richard Carlisle.

Although I certainly found the story of Carlile compelling, (He was a young British publisher and bookseller in the early 1800s who spoke out on the subject of freedom and rights and used the words of Thomas Paine to galvanize the people of London. Carlisle was arrested several times for his convictions but never swayed in his dedication to the revolutionary cause of democracy), it is the path that Collins took to learn about Conway that intrigued me the most. In the book, Collins opens a chapter detailing how he sat one day in the rare-book room at Columbia University. In front of him was an archival container with the name Moncure Conway, and within it was the life of a man long dead, and sadly, long forgotten. He writes:

Imagine, for a moment, that you are dead. Only for a moment please: you will have the opportunity to make it permanent at a later date. Now, imagine the contents of your desk, your bureau, and your closets, as they stand at this exact moment, without your having time to sort them out, imagine those drawers being emptied into fifty or sixty archival boxes and sent to a local library.

Okay. Now a hundred years pass. Nobody looks into your boxes because, I am sorry to say, you are not very interesting to your grandchildren. But eventually, after you have passed from all living memory, someone does open a box. This will be a young man you have never met, and who cannot have met anyone who ever knew you: in other words, a total and utter stranger.

Could he, I wonder, make any sense of who you were?

It is an irresistible moment for Collins, an exploration into the life of someone that has been dead even to history for ages and ages. Even though Conway (and Carlisle for that matter) was a vibrant, significant, important individual during his life, he somehow got passed by in the flurry of all the lives that followed. (Not so much unlike Thomas Paine himself.) Collins used these “lost men,” both Carlisle and Conway, to connect his book, to serve as focal points for both sides of the Atlantic as men who were influenced by the life of Paine, and dedicated to furthering his work. But with Conway in particular, Collins hit the mother-load while on the research trail.

“I knew [from a WORLDCAT search] that they had many boxes of his stuff at Columbia and I think Columbia’s catalog listing mentioned very briefly what was in each box. But beyond that, I didn’t know what I’d find. I figured it was a safe bet that I’d find something interesting there, but until I actually pawed through the boxes I hadn’t a clue what they’d contain. The fact that they were so oddly domestic -- the pictures off his walls, some door plates, etc -- it just struck me in a strange way, sitting in this quiet room of scholars tapping away on laptops, what a strange place it was for these ordinary household items to wind up. Almost as soon as I had that thought I knew I wanted to write about it, to make it a setting for a section on the nature of historical research, but it probably wasn’t until later that I decided exactly how to integrate it into the book.”

For the record, Moncure Conway saved an 1873 Punch cartoon about a school board dispute, an engraving of the Harvard campus in 1850 and a daguerreotype labeled “Inglewood, Our House.” He also had a photograph of human hair, a color photograph of “brown hair with a few gray strands.” Underneath the photo was a note, signed by Conway, which stated “this bit of Paine’s hair was exhibited at the Thomas Paine exposition in South Place Chapel, London, 1893, by Mr. Edward Smith, biographer of Cobbett -- who carried Paine’s body from New Rochelle [NY] to England in 1819.”

Conway had saved a photo of Paine’s hair, and sitting in a library over 180 years later, Collins had found the photo again; he had found another clue on the trail of Thomas Paine’s body.

The whole book reads like this, and from one forgotten or obscure historical figure to the next, Collins tracks Paine and the men and women who were influenced by him. He finds the spiritualist George Lippard, Phrenologist Orson Fowler, and briefly and tantalizingly, Margaret Fuller, revolutionary and author of Women in the Nineteenth Century who would have most certainly changed the world if she had not died so young or so suddenly with her husband and newborn child in the wreck of the Elizabeth in 1893. (“If only” is something that is said a lot when reading The Trouble With Tom.)

They are all just names though to those of us who could not find them in the basic history books, the easy history books, but for Collins they are opportunities to explore, invitations to read and research and write about those who came before us and the amazing things they all accomplished.

Ultimately there is no easy answer as to where Thomas Paine’s bones ended up. Collins does meet Josie McNeil, who lives in Tivoli, New York and whose family discovered an apparent tombstone for Paine while digging a sewage ditch in 1976. They were certain the lost gravesite had been discovered but as Collins finds (and several journalists reported in 1976), it was probably a stone raised in the late 1800s as a monument to Paine and certainly not a marker for his bones. The country wasn’t so interested in knowing the truth about it during the bicentennial though they wanted to believe the McNeils had discovered a founding father. It is perhaps because of this that the “grave” was never exhumed. It is there, after all, as long as we all believe it to be -- as long as we so desperately want it to be.

What began as a search for a body, a look into the history of a man and his influence upon those who followed him, became in many ways a book about how we learn about history and how we forget it. Collins spends a lot of his time (like Barrett) looking in places that the rest of ignore, that we have no time for. Who can imagine reading old treatises about tuberculoses or issues of Notes and Queries when the Entertainment Weekly has just arrived in the mail with all of its promise about the upcoming Oscar race? Who could resist that lure for countless days in libraries and cellars, and the boxes of the dead? And who could imagine that a box would reveal so much?

But as Collins reminds us in Tom we need to spend more time thinking all that we forget, all that we lose everyday. “We forget all the time,” he writes. “We forget very nearly every single impression that passes through our minds. What we ate for our lunch, who our roommate was ten years ago; what we paid for a soda in 1982: what we just came from the living room to the kitchen for. It is constant and vital, and we only notice it if everyday useful things go missing. Every moment gets thrown out like so much garbage -- which, in a sense, is what the past is.”

We forget, we forget, we forget, because how could we possibly stay sane if all we did was remember? But still, it seems a shame to forget so many people, so many deeds; so many impressive accomplishments. It seems a shame not to even know where one of the men who changed American history -- who made American history -- is buried. It seems wrong when we bicker so hard today over what makes a good American to neglect this one, one of the first great Americans. And perhaps that is why I am so glad that Paul Collins was sitting in that Portland library several years ago and made his quiet discovery.

The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins
Bloomsbury 2005
ISBN 1582345023
278 pages