John Keane | Tom Paine: A Political Life – Reviews
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Tom Paine: A Political Life – Reviews

Gordon S. Wood, New York Review of Books: “it is by far the best, if not the most readable, biography of Paine that we have.”

Terry Eagleton, The Guardian: “It is hard to imagine this magnificent biography ever being superceded. . . . It is a stylish, splendidly erudite work, which celebrates Paine while frankly registering his vice. . . . It is the only book so far to do full justice to this near-mythical figure.”

Sean Wilentz, The New Republic: “Many of the questions that Paine posed remain fresh and challenging two centuries later.”

New Statesman: “Paine possibly did more to change the world than anyone has managed by the pen alone.”

Pauline Maier, The New York Times Book Review:“A good introduction to a complex historical character. . . . Provide[s] an engaging perspective on England, America, and France in the tumultuous years of the late eighteenth century.”

Michael Foot, Evening Standard: “Not only a book of the year, but a book of the decade.”

Publisher’s Weekly: “English-born radical journalist Thomas Paine, who in 1774 immigrated to America, where his pamphlets helped spark the Revolution, was a world citizen who preached the abolition of despotic regimes. A staunch opponent of slavery, Paine (1737-1809) also spoke of Native Americans as his “brothers.” This flesh-and-blood portrait charts a life pulsating with drama, surprises and narrow escapes, while also situating Paine’s intellectual development in the context of his time. Keane, a professor of politics in London, gives us a generous, farsighted foe of hypocrisy and injustice who could also be conceited and dogmatic. In Paris, serving as a member of the National Convention, Paine was imprisoned (1793-94) and nearly guillotined during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. Upon his inglorious return to the U.S. in 1802, he was vilified as an atheist and monster. Paine slipped into depression, poverty and obscurity, but this gripping biography restores his luster and contemporary relevance.”

John Berry,” Library Journal: “We are doubly blessed. On the heels of Jack Fruchtman Jr.’s solid Thomas Paine: Apostle of Freedom (LJ 11/15/94) comes this richly detailed, more disciplined labor of scholarship and love, an exemplar of the rewards of a gargantuan effort at historical research. As Keane corrects all prior Paine biographers, Keane’s bibliographic notes prove how thoroughly he has scoured every scrap of Paine scholarship from the beginning to now. It all enriches the already overloaded life of democracy’s greatest propagandist with intriguing contextual detail that ranges from the simple conditions of life to data on the readership of Paine’s writings. Keane warns against biographies that “tell us more about the biographer,” but his “techniques of modest writing” commit few such excesses and make for entertaining edification. In short, buy it; it’s definitive,

BookList – Gilbert Taylor: “Keane commences in a bracing way by dryly noting a macabre landmark in the English neighborhood of Paine’s birth, a place named Gallows Hill. As symbol for Paines’ antipathy to autocracy, Keane could not have chosen a more potent object than that scaffold. For much of his life, accused as a rebel in America, accused as a seditious libeler in England (for writing “The Rights of Man”), and accused as a counterrevolutionary by the French Committee of Public Safety, Paine stood liable to capital punishment, an end he barely evaded in 1794. Keane concentrates on covering Paine’s involvement with the practical political issues in the three countries of which he was successively a citizen. This activity peaked with his vote against condemning Louis XVI. By distinguishing his biography with the political emphasis–without neglecting the essentials of Paine’s pamphleteering–Keane reveals an infrequently inspected side of the famous polemicist, a man who for all his gifts, as Keane often interjects, was hampered by vain self-importance. He died a pauper; however, libraries that stock this superb account of an extraordinary life will be rich.”

Click here to read comments on Keane’s book andChristopher Hitchens’ Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’: A Biography. This a review by John Barrell, as it appeared in the London Review of Books, 30 November 2006