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Andrew Macdonald on Citizen Tom Paine
in Howard Fast: A Critical Companion (1996)


Among Fast's best novels, Citizen Tom Paine is a startlingly original portrait of the great rabble-rouser and revolutionary who energized the Revolution with his pamphlets. Tom Paine, published when the author was only twenty-nine, has a central position in Fast's canon. Taught to generations of high school students for its dramatic evocation of colonial history, it is often the best remembered and perhaps the most respected of all the varied works produced by this prolific author. It has shaped several generations of Americans' view of the American Revolution, the intellectual fervor and passionately independent and democratic spirit of the period, and the role of the common man. Certainly Tom Paine was regarded as a serious book simply because of the political and social importance of its central character. Although Paine's role in the Revolution had long been recognized, there had been few biographies of the stay-maker-turned-revolutionary, and none that captured the popular imagination. The conventional heroes of the Revolution – Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Revere – had been written about again and again, in both popular and scholarly venues; here was a new and interesting figure, somewhat disreputable but certainly central in importance, whose life was dramatized as few of the lives of the other central players in the birth of the nation had been.

Tom Paine also probably profited from the time in which it came out, a time ripe for a hero depicted as a common man. The terrible years of the Great Depression were over, replaced by a life-and-death struggle for the survival of democracy, of the cultures in which ordinary folk had primacy. European fascism heaped contempt on nations that celebrated the alleged mediocrity of the common man, the "decadent" democratic countries that were satisfied with mass culture and the "lowest common denominator." In 1944, even American aristocrats saw the wisdom of embracing working-class values, for it was the industrial might of that class that would be the key to defeating Hitler and fascism. As a statement of the philosophy of that working class, Tom Paine was a book for its time. Fast's timing was impeccable.

If we look for something of the contemporaneous war in Tom Paine (it was written while Fast was working for the War Information Office and the Voice of America), we will see little in colonial Philadelphia or even in the struggles of Washington's army that serve as direct parallels. In Tom Paine himself, however, there is much that captures the personality and spirit of a still-youthful America, a country that, like Paine, continually seemed to lose its ideals in the midst of messy indulgences, a country rough, inelegant, sometimes confused, but ultimately far more solid and reliable than any of its European progenitors. As Fast's biography shows, he saw his own rough-and-tumble upbringing as a strength as much as a liability, and the equation between Fast, Paine, and colonial America holds firm in a number of ways: rude (in the older sense of unpolished, but sometimes in the modern sense as well), pointed toward some ever-evolving ideals, full of promise.