“You don’t choose your fandom. It chooses you.”
–old sf/media fan proverb
Welcome to my online Thomas Paine fanzine. I finally decided to call it that because … that’s what it is.
For the better part of the last twenty-five years, I have lived equally in two communities of thought and cultural practice: academia and science fiction/media fandom. Those distinct but often complementary modes of viewing the world have shaped the way I react to and think about almost everything. When I say “academia,” I mean that I fell just short of completing a Ph.D. dissertation on history and literature when my graduation clock expired in 2014. When I say “fandom” I mean that for about ten years I wrote for, edited, typeset, and created the visual design for a fanzine devoted to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I also wrote and read fan-fiction on the original Star Trek, Blake’s Seven, Doctor Who, and a few other series. I attended conventions; I created and occasionally showed and sold fan art.
I entered both organized fandom and graduate school around 1990, while in my mid-20s. But in fact, my entire life could easily be described as a succession of fandoms that were also academic interests, whether the twelve-year-old me was writing Lassie fiction and devouring factual books about dogs, or the eighteen-year-old me was sketching pictures of Lady and the Tramp when not reading up on the history of the Disney Studio. Not coincidentally, my interest in the American Revolution and the Founding era was initially sparked at age eleven by the film version of the musical 1776 (the Hamilton of its day), which I have since revisited many times.
Fans and academics have a lot in common. They share the stereotype of being – supposedly – so focused on their narrow interests that they become disconnected from “reality” (whatever that is). Fans and scholars engage in a lot of the same activities: they study and collect, they document and catalogue, they analyze and obsess. They argue about what counts as legitimate knowledge (which they both refer to as “canon”). Within each community, the archivists sometimes berate the theorizers and interpretors (and vice-versa); the generalists and the specialists get on each other’s nerves. There is a shared tendency to intellectual feuding and splintering into ideological camps. These days, fans and academics often cross over into each other’s spaces, and even borrow and share terminology. (See pretty much anything written by Henry Jenkins, media scholar and self-described “aca-fan.”)
When I came up with the idea for this website a few years ago — even before putting up a Thomas Paine link page on my personal writing site back in 2012 – I was torn between my own fannish and scholarly tendencies. Originally I had envisioned a research hub or clearing house for information, a way for readers to link to all sorts of Paine resources. Following my fannish instincts, I even created a graphic (i.e. created some celebratory fan-art) to help me visualize such a site.
The shape and intention of this blog has changed many times since. I debated “feature” articles for a general audience versus more academic posts versus a full online course with a syllabus. At one point I also considered a podcast (which may still become an occasional feature of this blog, if I can pull together the time and equipment to do that). I wanted to consider Thomas Paine as part of the larger cast of American Founders – one reason for choosing this particular domain name.
Yet the website remained unbuilt — because after creating that initial graphic, I left the “fannish” part of my own creative process — the part that loves, enthuses, celebrates, tells stories and makes pictures — off to the side in my efforts to fit a certain preconceived notion of proper scholarship.
The lightbulb went off once I finally realized that this blog was not the same project as my unfinished dissertation. Or rather, it was (sort of) — but it was also something else. I wanted to do more than simply inform readers about a historical figure. I wanted my blog to be something more, or at least different, than an academic reference tool. It needed to reflect my love and enthusiasm for Paine, the Enlightenment, and the American Revolution – and also my love and enthusiasm for story.
Story, after all, is how most people think about, relay, and remember the past, whether the immediate personal past (“ … a weird thing happened on my way into the office this morning …”) or the larger, quasi- or sometimes wholly mythic national past (“Listen my children and you shall hear/of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …”) No matter how sophisticated we get, as individuals or as a culture, we still make sense of our world by telling and hearing stories.
This is where my two theoretical worlds come together. I realized that I wanted this blog to be, in effect, an online fanzine with an academic slant and a grounding in research. For many years now, I have joked to sci-fi loving friends that the eighteenth century has become my “new fandom.” I now realize that the statement was not entirely in jest. When I initially fell in love with the writings of Paine, beginning with The Age of Reason, my enthusiasm expressed itself spontaneously in poetry and imaginative efforts to build a Paine-esque fictional character. I made graphics emblazoned with quotes (some of which you will find here; the poetry … maybe after a few more revisions …) I went searching for models of Paine and depictions of his life and world not just in biography, but in fiction and drama. The seeds of this blog had always been there. It just took me a while to recognize them.
In addition to celebrating Thomas Paine, this website also seeks to be part of a larger discussion about how Americans think and talk about and remember our national past. That discussion includes not just historical fact and scholarly analysis, but cultural artifacts: art, literature, popular myth – in a word, “story.” I wanted to tell my own Thomas Paine story and also provide a space to explore the way that other writers, artists, thinkers, and scholars have told and continue to tell theirs.
Call it a fanzine with footnotes.
Welcome to my ongoing labor of love and scholarship. Enjoy.