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"Fictional Biography" and Thomas Paine

THE book world is exuberant these days over what it is pleased to hail as a new form of literary composition: "fictional biography".


Fictional biography, like fictional history, is nothing new. It is ages older than Methuselah's beard, and dates from the time when the first inventive cave-man gave an imaginary account of another cave-man's life. Pithecanthropus erectus probably knew something about it, though he couldn't write. Lying is as old as Man.


History, as commonly understood, is the truthful presentation of past events In the life of a nation or a people; biography is the truthful account of an individual's life. Neither can be "fictionalized" without a distortion of facts or a pollution of the record. One might as well try to justify the writing of "fictional" biology, or "fictional" geology as "fictional" biography.


Yet fictional biography is popular today, and is furnishing a lucrative return for those who have "creative imagination" No demand is made for veracity of statement, nor is the author concerned as to whether or not his portrait is true. In writing fictional biography you can exaggerate, distort, twist, suppress, and falsify the record as much as you wish. What does it matter if the man whose life you write was really as you describe or did the things you say! It is enough that you are contributing to literature by showing your inventive faculty for making statements which aren't so.


Fictional biography, therefore, gives one the literary license to vilify a man under the guise of writing fiction. We find this, to a remarkable degree, in Howard Fast's widely publicized "Citizen Tom Paine", wherein the hero of the story is presented as a bedraggled and brandy-besotted scamp who had to be given baths by his soap-using associates, and whose general character was that of a glorified roustabout crashing high places. It is a picture that not even Oldys and Cheetham of unsavory memory would have recognized as Paine's.


Fictional history, in the writing of which the ancient Jews excelled, reached its classical peak and all-time perfection in the Bible. Here were recounted all the make-believe events and airy concoctions of an ignorant and semi-barbaric tribe. Things that never happened and could not have happened under the laws of nature were related as solemn truths. Fictional biography was common among the Jews, though, in its more glamorous form, developed later, with Catholic authors vying with one another in writing their "Lives" of the saints. This was a specialized branch of lying, built up through centuries of practice and an art in itself.


It was the procedure among Catholics, in writing their "Lives" of the saints, to take a bum and make a "saint" of him. Modern fictional biographers have somewhat reversed the process, by taking those who were neither "saints" nor "sinners" and making bums out of them. Paine, in Fast's book, is the kind of individual you wouldn't care to sit beside in a train, much less invite to your table or introduce to your wife. He was filthy in his habits, coarse of tongue, dirty in his attire, and habitually drunk. It is the kind of portrait a man would draw of another whom he wished to revile. Fast, in his "fictionalized" version of Paine, has succeeded in making of him what he was not: a drunkard.


If a non-Jewish author were to write a "fictional" biography of a distinguished Jewish personage (Israel Zangwill, for example) and make a dirty sot of him, as Fast does of the freethinker, Thomas Paine, you would hear no end of blubbering by the children of Israel over his "Anti-Semitic" viciousness. A hue and cry would be raised that Mr. Zangwill had been foully besmeared by "anti-Semitic" bigotry. But it is quite all right, and strictly within Kosher ethics, for one who proclaims himself a Jew, to libel Thomas Paine. Literary license is then permissible, and no objection is raised that the author is "anti-Goy" or writing with "Semitic" bias.


From a literary point of view, Fast's book has all the crudity of a prison hair-cut. It is shorn of those artistic qualities that make a book endure. Whatever distinction it has is achieved by exaggeration and distortion. Its redundancies, at times, are amusing Paine. is described as one who "was not tall nor short, but of medium height" -as if one who was neither "tall nor short" could be other than "medium". His big, "meaty" hands and his "twisted", eyes (Paine had remarkably fine eyes) are dwelt on with tiresome reiteration, as if the author were not quite sure he had said so before. Language is imputed to Paine that is totally out of tone with the tenor of his life. And he had "the powerful, sloping shoulders of a workman who had put in long hours at a bench" --as if working at "a bench" would strengthen one's shoulders. Paine, according to Mr. Fast, was a corset maker, and if sitting at a bench and making corsets develops one's shoulder muscles, our Army should know about it.


Reviewers who have gushed over Fast's book are the usual run of literary back-scratchers, who puff each other's books as a matter of expediency, and who couldn't, offhand, give you a decent account of Paine's life if called on to do so. Their ignorance of the man is shown by their acclaiming Fast's book, and their fanfare of praise is the kind of.stuff that can be run off five minutes before breakfast, without a semblance of research or an honest attempt to understand the subject. If any of them had studied Paine's writings, or Conway's magnificent "Life", or the cross-sectional material dealing with Paine, or examined the records and correspondence of responsible persons who knew Paine intimately in life, they would gag over the mess of "fictional" swill that Fast dishes out.


Those who read "citizen Tom Paine", will get the impression, if they haven't read anything else about Paine, that he was filthy in his habits, dirty and slovenly in his attire, arrogant of tongue, and an habitual sot. We have not met anything to equal it since Cheetham's "Life.'' And Cheetham, you will recall, was the convicted libeler of Paine.


Paine may not have been a fop, but contemporary testimony shows that he was a man of clean and temperate habits, of plain and simple tastes who merited the esteem which discriminating men bestowed upon him. He was anything but a souse and probably tasted less liquor during his entire life than Washington drank in one month. It may reasonably be assumed that he: brushed his coat quite as often as Franklin did his, and, in his year-and-a-half stay at the home of James Monroe, our ambassador to France, followed the practice of washing his face.


In "Citizen Tom Paine", you will find the following:
"A little more ragged than usual ... He had been drunk for four days. . .Paine was ashamed of his dirty clothes ... Paine began to brag ... Paine was drunk for two days ... Drunk and howling foul songs, he was found by Blake, the poet ... Blake took him home, gave him a bath . . . Paine got drunk... He was drunk again, day after day after day ... He wanted the Negro maid, trembling on the auction block; he wanted to take her in his arms and tell her that it would be all right ... He drank himself into insensibility for ten days, he had only enough control of himself to crawl down to the tavern for more brandy ... God only knows what he [Jefferson] saw in the graceless staymaker, whose hands always had dirt under their nails."


There is no need of asking Mr. Fast where he got his material about Paine; he got it out of his own imagination, which seems to revel in the kind of muck that one picks out of the sewer with a mud-hook. The book, if intended as biographical portrayal, is commercial hog-wash.


Since a jacket aids in the sale of a book, an artist is not required to read the work he is commissioned to illustrate; it is enough that he makes the jacket attractive. This is the case in "Citizen Tom Paine"


The jacket of the book has a full-length pictureof Paine, brilliantly colored, showing him immaculately attired. Take a good look at it: it is the last you will see of Paine in the habiliments of a gentleman. The filth, you'll find, is all between the covers.


Paine was introduced to Franklin in London, in 1774, and, following a cordial friendship, received from him a letter of recommendation to a friend in America. According to Fast, Paine, a total stranger to Franklin, broke in on the American philosopher much the worse for drink ("his whiskers were a week on his face and he needed washing"), and, in an insolent manner, demanded a letter of Franklin.


What kind of a man does Mr. Fast think Dr. Franklin was, who would write a letter of recommendation for a dirty and brandy-besotted bum whom he had never laid eyes on before, and whom no honorable man would wish on his friends ?


"Citizen Tom Paine" is said to be scheduled for the movies. What Hollywood will do with a picture version of the book is anybody's guess. But if you do not see Paine reeling across the screen, or "canned" under a table with a bottle of brandy in one hand while trying to write the "Age of Reason", with the other, it will not be Mr. Fast's fault. He is giving Paine wide "publicity'', and thinks that this in itself entitles him to public gratitude. When criticised by scholars for picturing Paine as the chronically-unwashed patron saint of booze, he admonished them with the remark:
"Here I'm making their hero known to hundreds of thousands, and all they do is find fault."


Amazing, isn't it, the way these admirers of Paine display their ingratitude? Isn't there some one among our readers who will show his appreciation of Mr. Fast by sending him a bouquet of Orange blossoms?


Paine, the freethinker, has been vilified before and will be vilified again, but we will stake our guess that his works will be read and his memory honored in the higher councils of men long after Fast's diatribe is forgotten, and when Fast himself has become a memory as vague as the discredited Parson Weems. As for "Citizen Tom Paine", it is headed for the literary scrap heap, along with similar hooks which live for a season and die with the Autumn leaves.


In spite of Mr. Fast, veteran freethinkers, looking back to the days when the memory of Thomas Paine' was a kick-around for every Christian pulpit, are observing with satisfaction the unmistakable signs of a widening recognition of his public services. Paine belongs essentially to the freethinkers. It was they who defended his memory when smearing the author of "The Age of Reason" was considered an act of piety; who preserved it when theological rats were spreading their plague of lies and defamation. Ingersoll's magnificent "Vindication" and Conway's monumental "Life" are the works of freethinkers.


Paine's vindication, however, will not be complete until every "patriotic" admirer of Paine, glorifying his political pamphlets, rises to an appreciation of his greatest triumph, "The Age of Reason". There are "Paine" societies today which flourish entirely on the prestige of his patriotic reputation, but which avoid any reference to his attack on Christianity and the Bible. Until these half-way Paineites get more gristle in their backbones, there will be plenty of work for the freethinkers to do.


Meanwhile, leaving Fast's book aside, things move forward, except in Philadelphia, where park commissioners have refused to allow the erection of a statue to Paine.


If there were such a thing as "turning over" in one's grave, that good Philadelphian, Ben Franklin, would split his coffin lid open in an effort to get out and strangle the geese.

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