The life of a man who managed to influence two revolutions, and the two that would have a decisive influence on the modern world, is more deserving than most of the type of lengthy tome that is now the norm in publishing. Craig Nelson does the job in fewer than 400 pages, with a strong sense of narrative pace – the book begins with the arresting scene of the disinterment of Paine's body by his idolater William Cobbett – and a good ability to summarise the main conflicts of Paine's life.
Nelson correctly breezes through his subject's "formative years" – they were unusually barren – and we are soon in 1774, when Paine, aged 35, made his first trip to America. The book is then nicely divided between his involvement in the American and French revolutions, where other books have focused on the writing of Common Sense.
Nelson, who favours the anecdotal over the argumentative, falls into the pernicious modern habit of psychoanalysing the past, speculating that Paine's mood swings might have been a sign of bipolarity. Some of the historical background, especially of the French revolution, is painted in broad strokes. This is one of the few recent bio-graphies in which brevity is the main drawback.