- American Adventurers, Parisian Opportunities
Discussing the phenomenon of the “lesser Founder,” and Thomas Paine as a particular case, Jill Lepore has quipped that in “the comic book version of history that serves as America’s national heritage, where the Founding Fathers are like the Hanna-Barbera Super Friends, Paine is Aquaman to Washington’s Superman and Jefferson’s Batman; we never find out how he got his super powers and he only shows up when they need someone who can swim” (61–62). Paine, in Lepore’s view, probably deserves more, especially given the vast influence of Common Sense on Revolutionary-era readers, but his involvement in the French Revolution and his religious infidelity ruined his reputation in his lifetime; drink and depression, which prevented him from writing his own history of the age, left him to an ugly, anonymous death, and for much of the two centuries since then he has been regarded, in Bernard Bailyn’s words, as an “ignoramus” who happened to write a “work of genius” (qtd. in Lepore 64). If such was the fate [End Page 571] of an international Revolutionary celebrity like Thomas Paine, what hope is there for even lesser historical figures like his sometime associates, Joel Barlow and Gilbert Imlay? If Paine is relegated to the Aquaman position in the Saturday morning version of American history, does that make Barlow and Imlay something more like Marvin, Wendy, and Wonderdog—or maybe their successors, the Wondertwins, if they’re lucky? The comprehensive, meticulously researched recent biographies by Richard Buel Jr. and Wil Verhoeven—the first book-length volume on Barlow in fifty years, and the first ever biography of Imlay—would suggest that recent scholarly interest in the Age of Revolutions has helped broaden our gaze from the marquee names to sidekicks and bit players who can offer surprising insights into the intellectual, commercial, political, and literary networks that spanned the Atlantic in the post-Revolutionary Era. Together with a work like Philipp Ziesche’s Cosmopolitan Patriots, the two recent biographies help us better understand that these and other Americans in Paris in the 1790s hold forth more than an expat’s eyewitness account of the French Revolution. Rather, they offer an understanding of how American nationalism emerged from cosmopolitan encounters, even fraught or failed ones, as much as it did from the development of partisan political cultures at home.
Barlow and Imlay come down to us in these biographies as character types, as the books’ subtitles would indicate. For Buel, Barlow is an American citizen who happens to have been launched abroad on business just as the French Revolution kicked into gear. Imlay, for Verhoeven, is less an American abroad than a citizen of the world, albeit one who played his “American” card—or better yet, his “Kentucky” card—shrewdly at times. Both men also took advantage of opportunities afforded by the events of the American Revolution to remake themselves in European contexts: as political radicals, as literary figures, and as economic actors. They repeatedly refashioned themselves, always with an eye on making their fortunes: “minding the main chance,” in the parlance of The Contrast, the play by their contemporary Royall Tyler. In this they were not alone, of course. Benjamin Franklin was much more successful at this game, and on some of the same stages. Rather, Barlow and Imlay are useful to us as representatives of a generation in which many men—and some women—used a Revolutionary public sphere, including literary authorship, to garner private influence and, at times, personal wealth. For this reason they, like [End Page 572] Paine, have become figures of interest for scholars trying to understand the currents of the Revolutionary Atlantic, not simply relegated to niche studies of early New England poetry or frontier writing, or footnotes in biographies of more famous associates.1
Though Buel tends to think...