This morning I finished The Trouble with Tom, a necrologue of Thomas Paine’s bones (and the black lump that was once his brain). It is an excellent work — inquisitive, insightful, funny, pleasantly digressive. Paul follows Tom’s bones from New York to England (and all over England), and in doing so, uncovers a variety of 19th century revolutionary thought. Some of the book is laugh-out-loud funny (his excursions on EB Foote’s books for children, which he also wrote about for the Village Voice), other parts are delightfully illuminating (the excellent mini-biography of Moncure Conway, beginning with Paul’s poring over his effects in the Columbia Library, and ending with Conway living in Britain, too upset over the Civil War to call the United States his home), and the whole is continually thought-provoking.
What struck me, as I read the book, is how it reminded me of Sarah Vowell’s Assassination Vacation (and I wasn’t the only one…) In both, the authors explicitly retrace the steps of their historic subjects, and aren’t afraid of using their personal modern-day experiences to shed light on what’s past. Another book in my queue, Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live, apparently follows a similar path.
In much the same way as the first years of this decade saw the rise of the “mundane studies,” typified by Mark Kurlansky’s Salt, and books with subjects from mirrors to mauve, it feels like we’re now entering an era of what I’ve decided to call Heel-toe Histories.
These nouveau historians aren’t satisfied with simply poring over documents, but instead crave some degree of authenticity that these places can provide. I suppose their insertion of themselves in the stories hearkens to the New Journalism movement of the 60s. Such works seem easier to produce, thanks to a world of cheap airfares and extensive online travel planning.