"Tom Paine's body lies a-mouldering in the grave" - or at least it did until William Cobbett dug it up and shipped it from New York to London. If you didn't know the weird story of how the creator of modern republicanism came to be disinterred by the author of Rural Rides, Paul Collins's The Trouble with Tom contains the funniest retelling available. Nor does Collins stop there.
Over years, he doggedly traced the bizarre journey of Paine's bones around the Home Counties (Guildford, Worplesdon, Bromley), London (Stepney Green, Lincoln's Inn Fields, Mornington Crescent), and finally back to America. I won't give away the ending, but one of the strangest things about the peripatetic body parts is their tendency to gravitate, as if by homing instinct, to the places they inhabited during their original owner's lifetime.
Along the way, Collins addresses the essential questions of human life - contraception, human waste disposal, the fight for political freedom - while introducing us to the unusual people who were sucked into the cultural vortex that whisked the pamphleteer's remains on their merry way.
They include Richard Carlile, radical agitator and advocate of birth control; E B Foote, dietician, sex educationalist, and promoter of the earth closet ("rather like relieving oneself into a really nice piano"); John Hunter, founding father of modern medicine, who kept lions and tigers in his garden and injected himself with venereal pus "just to see what would happen"; and the last of the Muggletonians. Not to mention Whitman, Emerson, Poe, Franklin, Thomas Edison, Charles Darwin, William Wilberforce, and the disinterred remains of John Milton and Sir Thomas Browne, all of whom make guest appearances.
This book is the chronicle of a literary pilgrimage that went severely off the rails without its author realising it. A book that begins in a gay bar in New York and nearly ends up in a sewage ditch clearly has some explaining to do, and Collins is a disarmingly informative witness on his own behalf.
Besides having a sharp eye for the intellectually offbeam, he has an agreeable knack for the aphorism: "When a man is rabidly for one cause, and then is just as rabidly for another cause, it is not because he loves the causes: it is because he loves the rabies"; "It is a truth universally acknowledged that Everything Is Funnier With Monkeys". Both of these specimens underline Collins's preoccupation with the physical by-products of Paineite republicanism - a subject which, to the best of my knowledge, no one has yet addressed.
There is a serious subtext to all this: Paine was one of those responsible for "writing the thoughts of a nation into birth", and it can be no accident that over the years his remains sought out the company of feminists, vegetarians, pacifists and utopians.
Their travels, as Collins observes, "are those of democracy itself". All right, some of these people were quacks, others false prophets, but among them were freethinkers, political visionaries, and guardians of the republican flame. And Paine remains through his writings an inspiration to those who since publication of Common Sense (1776), The Rights of Man (1791-2) and The Age of Reason (1794-5) have defied arbitrary power in the form of bishops, kings and dictators.
If you wanted to pick holes, you might observe that Collins has missed a trick by overlooking the fact that so many of the people he encounters were Unitarians, which must signify something. And he has sent his volume into the world without an index, which it badly needs. Otherwise, The Trouble with Tom manages both to entertain and to restore a knowledge of our radical heritage, not just through the story of Paine's afterlife, but in its lively account of such all-but-forgotten figures as Richard Carlile - a man whose bravery in the face of a brutally repressive Tory government ought to have earned him recognition as a champion of free speech and the political rights that we now take for granted.
Duncan Wu is professor of English at Oxford UniversityReuse content