Skull and Bones: Historian Collins’s Head Games


A quest for the mortal remains of America’s late great radical Tom Paine serves as pretext for Voice contributor Paul Collins’s agreeably meandering volume of reflections on cultural memory and forgetfulness. “We forget all the time,” begins one of the book’s riffs: “Every moment gets thrown out like so much garbage.” Luckily Collins has the sharp eye of a first-class dumpster diver, noting oddities with a precision that saves the book from whimsy: He coins the phrase “sepia-tone manga” to describe a “hell-raising tale” called The Quaker City, and tells us that one plaster head in the phrenologist Orson Fowler’s collection was simply labeled “Excessive Digestion (Name Lost).” The book chronicles bizarre scenes such as the British journalist William Cobbett trying to clear customs with a wooden box full of Paine’s bones or Cobbett’s son engraving his own name on the Common Sense author’s skull. Such was 19th-century Englishmen’s fondness for cranial graffiti that one sexton posted in his crypt a notice that simply said “Please Do Not Write Upon Skulls.”

As befits the editor of the Collins Library (best known for reclaiming the notorious English As She Is Spoke), the author favors bookstores and libraries over most other repositories of the past. A visit to Columbia’s rare-book room—and the incongruity of looking at daguerreotypes on blond-wood tables under buzzing fluorescent lights—prompts a flight of fancy about the suite of period rooms Collins would build for his ideal library, equipped in this case with a fainting sofa, a damasked ottoman and “the yellow pallor of a gaslight chandelier.” While Collins’s facts are occasionally unreliable (not Swift’s “Modest Proposal” but Defoe’s Shortest Way With the Dissenters was the “hoax meant to be so absurd that it would backfire on its erstwhile proponents”) the charm of his manner and the originality of his critical intelligence mark this sensitive rendering of Paine’s afterlife.