Harvey Kaye says in an interview that his hero has always been Thomas Paine

Historians in the News
tags: Harvey J. Kaye

The PEN Ten is PEN America's biweekly interview series curated by Lauren Cerand. This week Lauren talks with Harvey J. Kaye, the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay and the author of “Why Do Ruling Classes Fear History?” and Other Questions; Thomas Paine and the Promise of America; and the just-published The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great.

When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?

Honestly, it never really did until someone at PEN invited me to join the organization about eight years ago. Writers were not only people who wrote for a living, I thought. They also did it far more skillfully or creatively than what I imagined myself doing when I put pen to paper or finger to keyboard (even now I type with one finger). I figured I was a teacher, a professor, expressing myself through other means when I wrote. Even now, I only seriously think of myself as a writer when people ask me about it. I hope that’s not false modesty—or that I worship the craft too much.

Whose work would you steal without attribution or consequence?

My lifelong hero—ever since I was a boy—is Thomas Paine, the American Revolutionary and radical-democratic pamphleteer. I would love to be identified with his words, words such as “The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth” and “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” But I really couldn’t steal them. Not simply because of scholarly and intellectual norms, but all the more because I am committed to redeeming the past that conservatives are so eager to suppress or manipulate.

I must add, however, that in the course of writing The Fight for the Four Freedoms I also became enamored of the works of the great radio playwright and producer Norman Corwin. Corwin had an extraordinary intellect and a poet’s sensibility. Just read the published scripts or listen to the recordings available online of We Hold These Truths, his December 1941 Bill-of-Rights Day play, and On a Note of Triumph, his May 1944 VE-Day play. The opening lines of the latter are magnificent and moving:

So they’ve given up.

They’re finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the


Take a bow, G.I.,

Take a bow, little guy.

The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this


This is It kid, this is The Day, all the way from Newburyport to Vladivostok.

You had what it took and you gave it, and each of you has a hunk of


           ‘round your helmet.

Seems like free men have done it again

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