The historical record crowns success. Those enshrined in its annals are men and women whose ideas, accomplishments, or personalities have dominated, endured, and most important of all, found champions. John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists, and Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets are classic celebrations of the greatest, the brightest, the eternally constellated.
Paul Collins' Banvard's Folly is a different kind of book. Here are thirteen unforgettable portraits of forgotten people: men and women who might have claimed their share of renown but who, whether from ill timing, skullduggery, monomania, the tinge of madness, or plain bad luck-or perhaps some combination of them all-leapt straight from life into thankless obscurity. Among their number are scientists, artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and adventurers, from across the centuries and around the world. They hold in common the silenced aftermath of failure, the name that rings no bells.
Collins brings them back to glorious life. John Banvard was an artist whose colossal panoramic canvasses (one behemoth depiction of the entire eastern shore of the Mississippi River was simply known as "The Three Mile Painting") made him the richest and most famous artist of his day. . . before he decided to go head to head with P. T. Barnum. René Blondot was a distinguished French physicist whose celebrated discovery of a new form of radiation, called the N-Ray, went terribly awry. At the tender age of seventeen, William Henry Ireland signed "William Shakespeare" to a book and launched a short but meteoric career as a forger of undiscovered works by the Bard until he pushed his luck too far. John Symmes, a hero of the War of 1812, nearly succeeded in convincing Congress to fund an expedition to the North Pole, where he intended to prove his theory that the earth was hollow and ripe for exploitation; his quixotic quest counted Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe among its greatest admirers.
Collins' love for what he calls the "forgotten ephemera of genius" give his portraits of these figures and the other nine men and women in Banvard's Folly sympathetic depth and poignant relevance. Their effect is not to make us sneer or revel in schadenfreude; here are no cautionary tales. Rather, here are brief introductions-acts of excavation and reclamation-to people whom history may have forgotten, but whom now we cannot.
|Edition description:||First Edition|
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About the Author
Paul Collins writes for McSweeneys Quarterly, and his work has also appeared in Lingua Franca and eCompany Now. While writing Banvard's Folly he lived in San Francisco, where he taught Early American literature at Dominican University. He and his family moved briefly to Walesa journey about which he is writing a bookand now live in Oregon.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It was the title that caught my attention at first. I did not really know what to expect, but I was curious and craving for something different to read. That and more, I found in this book. I commend the author for paying tribute to these thirteen, well-deserving, individuals. He and they have earned my respect. I would recommend this book to everyone.
This was an intersting history of how you can become huge for a moment or perhaps even a decade and yet a hundred years later be completely forgotten because you didn't make an impact or at least not enough of one.It would be hard to read the tale of Banvard (the first chapter in the book is devoted to him) and not immediately think of a successful artist like Thomas Kinkade. Will he be remembered past this brief moment in time? Will he make a business mistake and squander a fortune? The book is filled with stories about artists, "scientists" (or at least those who thought they were), musicians, and writers who are now not even the footnotes of history.