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Banvard's Folly : Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck

Collins, Paul

620 ratings by Goodreads
ISBN 10: 0312268866 / ISBN 13: 9780312268862
Published by Picador, New York, NY, U.S.A., 2001
Condition: Fine Hardcover
From Kennedy Books (Jamestown, ND, U.S.A.)

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A Fine/Fine unread copy protected by Brodart Archival Cover. Size: 8vo - over 7" - 9" tall. Bookseller Inventory # 000400

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Bibliographic Details

Title: Banvard's Folly : Thirteen Tales of Renowned...

Publisher: Picador, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Publication Date: 2001

Binding: Hard Cover

Book Condition: Fine

Dust Jacket Condition: Fine

Edition: First Edition.

About this title


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 p0revel 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.


Sometimes things don't exactly work out. Schemes collapse, experiments fail, luck runs out, or times and tastes simply change. It's a cliché that history is written by winners--but it's important to remember that it's usually written about winners, too. Paul Collins changes that, highlighting the failures, the frauds, and the forgotten in Banvard's Folly.

Most of Collins's starts were famous--or infamous--in their own time. For example, William Henry Ireland forged dozens of documents "by Shakespeare," including the play Vortigern, but was found out by his overenthusiastic use of "Ye Olde Sppellingge." (Oddly enough, William's father refused to believe his son was responsible even after William confessed; William was widely held to have been too stupid to have written such impressive forgeries.) Then there's respected scientist René Blondlot, who fooled himself--as well as most of the scientific community--into believing he had discovered a remarkable new form of radiation, which he named N-Rays. In reality, they were only an optical trick of peripheral vision. The book's namesake, John Banvard, amassed a fortune from his celebrated "Three Mile Painting"--a huge panoramic rendering of the Mississippi River--and then lost his fortune in an unsuccessful attempt to compete with master advertiser and showman P.T. Barnum.

Collins describes these and several other "nobodies and once-were-somebodies" in chatty, often tongue-in-cheek prose (in recounting the story of Jean François Sudre and his musical language, Collins notes "obsessive fans who hear already secret messages in music would not do their mental stability any favors by learning Solresol"). He also includes a handy "for further reading" section, should you have the desire to learn more about, for example, Symmes's theory of concentric spheres, grape propagation, or the medical benefits of blue glass. Funny, thought provoking, and sometimes poignant, Banvard's Folly helps to rescue these lost souls from the ash heap of history. Very highly recommended. --Sunny Delaney

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