Revolutionaries are great to have around when a party is young, and wary guests need charismatic, cunning conversationalists to convince them they're in the right place. But when it's well after midnight and any reasonable person wants to go to bed, it's not so much fun to be cornered by some drunken prophet. Like revolutionaries before and since, Thomas Paine learned what happens to idea men once their ideas have been heard. After helping spark a successful American revolution with his bestselling pamphlet Common Sense, Paine outraged his Puritan patrons with the anti-religion tome The Age Of Reason, and his humanist arguments in The Rights Of Man made him unwelcome in "bloody terror"-era France as well. He died a vilified man, such that a devout fan who had Paine's bones disinterred from their pauper's grave couldn't find anyone willing to help him rebury them properly.
Essayist/historian Paul Collins tours the myriad places where Paine's remains have been reported to have been scattered in The Trouble With Tom, a book that doubles as a limited history of 19th-century American reform movements. In following the path of Paine's corpse, Collins encounters abolitionists, phrenologists, suffragettes, and sex educators, as well as an obscure historical figure who could be Collins' own stand-in. Disillusioned Christian minister Moncure Conway followed the Paine saga himself throughout the 1800s, along the way befriending Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman, and Mark Twain. Conway witnessed and wrote about wave after wave of progressive social movements in America and Europe, while maintaining a kind of wide-eyed fascination similar to Collins'.
Meanwhile, Collins fumbles through some unnecessary Paul Harvey-worthy cliffhangers. ("And that man's name was… John Brown.") But he also brings his engaging prose style to bear on two beguiling notions. The first has to do with how radicals continually push their ideas forward until they push beyond where society at large wants to go. The second notion is more personal, summed up in a chapter called "Forgetting," where Collins uses an all-but-forgotten 1976 historical discovery as an excuse to consider how much of our own lives we forget. Much of The Trouble With Tom is an exercise in remembrance, as Collins walks the streets where history was made, wondering—though he already has the answer—why we so readily dismiss the people who made the world we know.