THE PAST can mean very different things to different people. To some it means actions which happened so long ago or men who died so long ago that they no longer matter to the living. To others, according to their characters, the past can mean either immortal examples which must be followed by later generations or else cold dead rules against which men must struggle in order to keep thoroughly alive. To still others the past is merely a comfortable closed universe into which they can escape from the troubling present. But those for whom the past has most meaning, and best use, view mankind's past much as they view their own personal experience: that is, as a record partly of mistakes to be avoided and partly of wise and good decisions to be remembered on similar occasions. The memory of any single man is short compared with the history of men through time. The man who knows history has in effect a longer memory than the man who knows none, and he is better able to bring a rich experience to bear upon the difficulties of the present and the uncertainties of the future.
Howard Fast, who has already made a half-dozen great events or personages out of the American past seem as fresh and real as contemporary actions or men, has done this by seeing and feeling them as still alive in the present. The story of the unconquerable Cheyenne which he told in The Last Frontier in 1941 might have been about millions of men who in that year were held in wretched subjection. This was "a story to hearten all grieving exiles, all languishing victims of alien tyrants, all imaginative, sympathetic men and women who have had to revalue freedom in the dread prospect of losing it. Against incomparable odds an incalculable heroism once rose up, and led to an unpredictable triumph." So with the story of George Washington and his soldiers in the valorous campaign about which Fast told in The Unvanquished in 1942. Writing so soon after Pearl Harbor, he could not know what the outcome of that war would be, nor did he feel disposed to argue about the ideals involved. Instead he chose to retell an old American story about another time when Americans facing defeat after defeat nevertheless kept their faith and gradually gathered the strength they needed for final victory. The theme was familiar to everybody: how Washington retreated across New Jersey, then turned and crossed the Delaware to triumph at Trenton. But never before had any novelist told the story with such insight into the very hearts of Washington and the men he led.
The story told in Citizen Tom Paine, published in 1943, is not so familiar. Paine was the subject of fierce controversies in his own lifetime, and he has never ceased to be a controversial figure. If, after rousing all America with his Common Sense, and then steadily encouraging it with his American Crisis papers, he had settled down after the Revolution to live on the fame he had won, he might have been happy and prosperous. But a man so much devoted to first principles could not be satisfied with second thoughts. Paine returned to his native England to proclaim, in The Rights of Man, the rights of all subjects and citizens under all forms of government; and then went on to France, where he further proclaimed, in The Age of Reason, the rights of men under the bondage of unreasonable, persecuting religions. This third crusade brought upon him a storm of animosity which obscured the memory of his earlier services, even in America, for something like a hundred years. Even now his fame suffers from the conflict between traditional resentments, held dimly but stubbornly against him, and an intemperate partisanship which can find no fault in any of his aims or methods or any excuse for judging him reasonably, as other great men are judged. Paine himself thought and wrote in black and white, and he has been seen by posterity in those same contrasting colors.
Howard Fast avoids the contrast by seeing Paine as flesh and blood, which are neither black nor white. Citizen Tom Paine is a story, not an argument. It does not hesitate to show in Paine the unattractive element of self-pity, or to hint at his habit of sniffing conspiracies where nothing so definite existed. Some of the incidents and characters in the novel do not come from history, so far as can be known. But there is in this novel more essential history than any historian has made known in connection with Paine. To collect all the provable historical facts in the career of a hero is not enough to bring him to life. That calls for the art of rounding such materials into human form, the art of making that form breathe and move: in short, the art of creation. Fast has, along with an intimate knowledge of the daily life of Paine's age, also an intimate sympathy with Paine's passion for uncomplicated reason and uncompromising action. A passion like that is always sure to encounter obstacles, in the prudence or self-interest or angry inertia of men in general. Paine's story is the history of the long war of his passion against those obstacles. In his own day the obstacles seemed to overwhelm him, and too many men then and later thought of his hard fate as a just punishment: as if he had been some presumptuous David challenging a justified Goliath. Perhaps it was easier to think that in the Nineteenth Century than it is in the Twentieth. In 1943 it was close to impossible for generous minds to hold such opinions. And Howard Fast, telling Paine's story again, made it glow with the light of that fire in man which men have to hope will never die.
CARL VAN DOREN