"Both Fruchtman and Keane mention Jarvis's account of Paine's drinking.
What's your opinion of Jarvis's assertions? Does Kaye get into it?"
The answer to this question goes all the way back to Cheetham's attack-bio of Paine -- yes, the one that he published immediately after Paine's death in order to avoid a libel or slander suit that Paine had threatened. In his malicious and defamatory biography, Cheetham wrote:
"He did not constantly drink to excess, yet he frequently got excessively tipsy. Once Mr. Jarvis knew him to abstain from liquor two weeks. He had fits of intoxication, and when these came on, he would sit up at night, tippling until he fell off his chair. Disposed to listen to his conversation, Mr. Jarvis sat with him one night from twelve to three, doing all he politely could to keep him sober. At three he left him at his bottle. At four he returned to the room and found him drunk on the floor. Mr. Jarvis wished to raise him up, but Paine desired to lie still. I have vertigo, the vertigo, said he. Yes, said Mr. Jarvis, taking up the bottle and looking at its diminished contents, you have it deep -- deep!" [Cheetham, Life of Thomas Paine, 274-5]
Now, Jack Fruchtman wrote that "Jarvis thought he [Paine - author] sometimes drank too heavily, although he never accused him of being an alcoholic or drunkard." Jarvis was abstemious and religious, so he probably thought ANY elevated drinking was too much. And besides, as we shall see further along, Jarvis strongly repudiated Cheetham's account. What is interesting here is that Fruchtmans only citation for his allegation that "Jarvis thought he sometimes drank too heavily" was the Paine biography of Gilbert Vale [p.153] which makes no like proposition and it was Gilbert Vale who, more than any Paine biographer, repudiated the mythology of Paine's supposed drunkenness. While this would be loose scholarship in a more academic context, Fruchtman's bio is a popular work and cited more loosely as is characteristic of the genre.
John Keane's biography of Paine is perhaps the most intensively researched and cited of all Paine biographies and I have written elsewhere that it is an indispensable work for the library of any Paine scholar or enthusiast. It is not, however, without difficulties -- one of which is his frequent use of Cheetham's attack-biography without disclosure of its use or citation to Cheetham. I have documented a number of places where Keane resorted to Cheetham's account without disclosure or citation. The present account is one of them. On page 524 of his biography he repeated Cheetham's account almost word-for-word .... without any citation for his source. Did he simply overlook the citation to Cheetham's account? Keane's persistent use of Cheetham in his biography without attribution certainly gives the impression of a more systemic oversight or systematic omission.
Cheetham's biography is not now nor has it ever been reliable. Cheetham was a convicted and notorious libeler who was in fact successfully sued for slander based on this very work. There is little doubt that he wrote his bio of Paine in order to curry favor with British Tories and American Federalists-- Cheetham fled to Britain largely in order to escape further lawsuits. Madame Bonneville, who Cheetham accused of having fathered at least one child by Paine, successfully sued Cheetham in an American court so hostile to Paine that the judge commented on the beneficial effect he thought Cheetham's biography produced on the morals of society.
More importantly, Jarvis himself repudiated the entire account as related by Cheetham. The great American portraitist -- who painted, drew and sculpted some of our finest images of Paine -- lived until 1839. He was known for his wit, conversation and integrity -- and Gilbert Vale knew him personally. Vale was an experienced journalist and scholarly researcher whose investigation of the "black legend" of Paine's supposed drunkenness led him ultimately to write his own Life of Thomas Paine . Vale, whose credibility is without question, wrote that
"Here he [Paine] soon recovered, and he and Mr. Jarvis became good companions; the one the greatest wit of the age, and the other, though now an old man, not deficient in sprightly thoughts or conversation , and abounding in information. Mr. Jarvis still speaks of their agreeable companionship with much gust, and relates a number of anecdotes highly characteristic; and he positively denies to us the language ascribed to him by Cheetham. As Mr. Jarvis was at this time in good circumstances, and received Mr. Paine as a companion, the Cheetham stories of Mr. Paine's dirtiness kill themselves, for it is absurd to suppose Mr. Jarvis would have had such a companion."
In fine then, all of the accounts of Jarvis' testimony to Paine's drunkenness devolve on the discredited, litigated, and personally repudiated -- by Jarvis himself -- account of James Cheetham, the lying Tory expatriate.
© Kenneth W. Burchell 2011, All Rights Reserved.