I ordered the book from Amazon. The seller had noted that it was a library discard. Still, an actual copy of something published in 1863, for less than fifty dollars, seemed like a steal.
It came to me rebound in one of those heavy institutional covers – plain black, stamped in bright gold letters along the spine: author, title, publication date. At less than 200 pages, it was a slim book, and I was impressed that “G. Vale –The Life of Thomas Paine” had actually been made to fit horizontally across the narrow spine. Inside, a book plate (front) and a card-pocket (back) – at a guess relics from the 1960s – informed me that this little piece of history had once belonged to Long Island University’s (no-longer-existing) Southampton College. The book plate, in narrow letters punched out by a manual typewriter, told me that the book was given to the university by a “Mr. Neil MacNeil.”
Inside the cover were 192 yellowing pages — a biography of Thomas Paine published during the Civil War, printed using old-school letter-press technology that left visible indentations in the paper. The page-edges had been trimmed to fit the new binding, of course – a sacrilegious practice that I was yet willing to overlook. I was holding in my hands one of the earliest attempts to restore Thomas Paine to the American public memory.
But I had not yet discovered the book’s best treasure, the thing that made it unique.
On the very last of the original pages, in a space left conveniently blank by the publisher, I found this note in faded ink, set down in old-fashioned longhand:
Thy fidelity to God and humanity shal be forever held sacred in the hearts of the American people. Yes generations yet unnumbered in the cycles of Eternity shal come fourth and delight to do the Honor.
June 25th, 1871
The inscriber left no signature – just three newspaper clippings pinned onto that last page. These are dated in pencil as published in 1877, and involve the tale of Paine’s many-times-debunked deathbed conversion to Christianity (a “libel” as our reader notes in pencil at the head of one of these clippings). The cuttings were in good condition – as un-yellowed as if they had been taken from a newspaper of last year, never mind over a century ago. At first I had trouble believing they were real. But examining the backs of these scraps convinced me that they were, in fact, genuine old newspaper articles. They contained nuggets of information such as the following:
A St. Petersburg dispatch of the 9th says a fanatical rising had taken place in the Tchetchensi country. One band of 500 insurgents were dispersed by the Russian troops, with a loss of ninety-nine killed and 250 wounded. The Russian loss was small.
An explosion of gas occurred on the morning of the 9th, in the Wadesville Mines, near St. Clair, Pa. Fourteen men were imprisoned, and the bodies of six had been recovered up to the morning of the 10th. Eight were rescued alive, badly injured.
From statistics in the Railroad Gazette, it appears that Colorado built 154 ½ miles of railroad in 1876; California, Ohio, and Texas were the only states that built a greater number of miles during the year. The total mileage in this state [Iowa?] is put down at 950.
These cuttings paint images of a time both distant and familiar. Mine accidents. Chechen rebels (readily labeled as “fanatical” and “insurgents”) fighting oppression by the Russian government. States competing for technological bragging rights. In this world, as in our own, the ardent concerns of Thomas Paine – political liberty, the rights of working people, and the thrill of innovation – still have meaning and resonance for the American people.
It also seems worth noting that the inscription and cuttings are from the 1870s. 1876, of course, was the American centennial year. There would have been renewed public interest in the American Founders. While the culture at large still denied that designation to Thomas Paine in the late nineteenth century, his devotees have never been in any doubt that he deserved that status. Our engaged reader of Paine’s life, reflecting in private, here predicts (accurately) a future time in which the unsung hero will be honored.
I often think of Paine devotees as members of a small and quasi-secret fan club that now (no longer so secret, but still a bit under the public culture radar) has come to span over two centuries. When I “meet” members of this club who have passed this way, leaving traces of their love for Paine in personal or published writings, I feel a bit like the fictitious Anne of Green Gables, who waxes poetic whenever she has the great good fortune to meet a “kindred spirit.” It is as though I have found a message in a bottle that is actually, miraculously, addressed to me, sent by a secret friend across time. This little note – a declaration of love both private and public – is addressed not just to Paine but to those future generations “yet unnumbered.”
I envision a quiet little army of such readers and writers, each keeping the flame of Paine’s ideas and his memory alive through these small covert actions over at least a century of establishment silence about Paine’s life and contributions. In 1871, as this particular reader was making reverent notation in the last pages of a book, Moncure Conway’s definitive, thoroughly researched life of Thomas Paine would not be published for another 21 years, in 1892.
I can’t help wondering who this reader/curator was – this person who troubled to put a steel-nib pen into an inkwell and compose a personal note to Thomas Paine — sixty-eight years after his death. Eighty-eight years before I was born, and nearly a century and a half before the book would fall into my hands. A century before 1976, when the nation’s Bicentennial would provoke my own interest in the American Founders at age eleven.
Was our writer the mysterious “Mr. Neil MacNeil,” or someone else?
No doubt I’m doing a lot of projecting here. I keep notes of this kind in some of my own books. Some of them are addressed to Paine or to other writers. Many are addressed to myself, or to possible future readers. Sometimes I’m not sure who I’m addressing. Notes made in the margins and on the end-papers of books often seem to be in dialogue with both the published author and some other audience. William Blake is said to have defended Paine fiercely in the marginal notes penned into his own copy of The Age of Reason. There is at least one scholarly study of Thomas Jefferson’s volumes of marginalia.
Yet for me, the notes of an anonymous and so-called “ordinary” reader are no less fascinating or valuable. They are the material evidence someone’s reaction to the written word, as well as the wish to leave something of that reaction behind. Such notes are reminders that scholarship is not only for scholars, and that small acts of memory are the very things that come to build “history.”