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Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World
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Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World [Paperback]

Paul S. Collins (Author)
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews) Like (1)

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Book Description

May 3, 2002 0312300336 978-0312300333
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.

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Editorial Reviews

From The New Yorker

Thirteen wry biographical essays about people, once famous, who have disappeared from memory. In 1903, the French physicist René Blondlot was so eager to follow up the recent discovery of X-rays that he discovered N-rays, which do not exist. In the eighteen-forties, the American painter John Banvard gained international celebrity for his painting of the Mississippi River—a panorama which measured over fifteen thousand square feet. And in the seventeen-nineties, when England was suffering a fit of bardolatry, a London lawyer's clerk, William Henry Ireland, began "finding" Shakespeare documents. After these forgeries became collectors' items as forgeries, Ireland met the demand by making forgeries of his forgeries, and every line from his pen remains extremely valuable.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker


"No writer better articulates our interest in the confluence of hope, eccentricity, and the timelessness of the bold and strange than Paul Collins. [This book is] sublimely odd, frequently funny, and better yet, thrillingly factual."--Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

"Though the most profound question is 'What is the meaning of life?' the most human question 'Don't they know how special I am?' Paul Collins knows. Thanks to these fascinating tales, his forgotten attention-seekers must be rolling over in their graves, if only to finally bask in the limelight."--Sarah Vowell, author of Take the Cannoli

"Collins's swift, humorous prose makes for satisfying schadenfreude."--Time Out New York

"[A] lively treatise on eccentricity, flawed genius, and star-crossed obsession."--The Washington Times

"An unqualified success."--The Seattle Times

"A remarkably lucid and entertaining peek into the admittedly strange lives of the characters [Collins] has unearthed . . . A witty meditation on the vagaries of fame and the human drive for validation."--Tucson Weekly

"With crisp prose and engaging storytelling, Collins contemplates the whims of fortune and the foolhardiness of humanity."--Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Hearteningly strange . . . Stretching the bounds of nonfiction's propensity for weirdness, Collins exhumes little-known figures [and] recounts their perversely inspiring battles against the more logical ways of the world."--The Onion

"The thirteen lives and times to which Collins devotes his considerable scholarship and manifest narrative gifts in Banvard's Folly are the flash-in-the-pan, briefly notable, and long-ignored ones-of-a-kind, who remind us of the nobility and futility, the grandeur and begrudgery of our endeavors. Of Collins's endeavor, however, we can proclaim our permanent thanks and amazement and heartiest welcome."--Los Angeles Times Book Review

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Picador (May 3, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312300336
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312300333
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 5.4 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #370,388 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
4.8 out of 5 stars
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This was a fantastic piece of history that I find amazing the world has forgotten. AnakaliaKlemm  |  1 reviewer made a similar statement
"Banvard's Folly" is a wonderful book, thanks to the talents of author Paul Collins. W. C HALL  |  1 reviewer made a similar statement
I'm not too proud to admit that I started reading this book purely for the schadenfreude. villekulla  |  1 reviewer made a similar statement
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Walk Through A History of What Might Have Been May 14, 2002
This is a great book. A current trend in popular history is to write histories of great people who achieved success but who are not household names (consider the book "Longitude"); Paul Collins turns this idea on its head by writing the stories of 13 people whose ideas, frankly, did not have a lot of merit, but who were famous in their day.

The title story, Banvard's Folly, tells the tale of the artist John Banvard -- world famous in the 1850s, but utterly forgotten today, whose great moving panorama of the Mississippi River made him rich, but who ultimately was destroyed competing with P.T. Barnum.

Other stories include "The Man With N-Ray Eyes", which relates how a French scientist believes erroneously that he has found a new source of radiation; "A.J. Pleasonton's Blue Light Special", which discusses the 1870s fad concerning the healing properties of light reflected through blue glass, and numerous others, including the story of a Shakepeare forger, a woman's quest to prove Shakespeare's works were written by Francis Bacon and others, and the development of the pneumatic train.

The book is a little sad, because each of the characters really believes in their ideas, even though they are rejected by society. But instead of a happy ending, these stories all end badly for the protagonists -- they end up mocked and forgotten.

The book is remarkable for its scholarship -- researching the forgotten intellectual and cultural history of a previous century is no easy task; but Mr. Collins brings the reader back into the culture of the times easily. The stories are entertaining and very amusing.

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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the best books of 2001 June 27, 2002
BanvardŐs Folly is a lovingly-researched tribute to the forgotten, the mistaken, and the discredited. The book profiles 13 historical figures, many of whom were among the most well-known figures of their day. Each, however, pursued his or her genius to a historical dead end, and their reputations and achievements have long since vanished into obscurity. Although each of these profiles is ultimately a study in failure, these ill-fated individuals demonstrate a brilliance, eccentricity, or audacity that is often breathtaking. CollinsŐ subjects may be failures, but they are spectacular failures, visionaries and dreamers who failed with an astounding degree of ambition, style, and verve. Exceptional.
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Sypathetic Retelling of Tales of Failure May 19, 2003
"Banvard's Folly" is a wonderful book, thanks to the talents of author Paul Collins. As you have probably gathered by now from other write-ups, this book tells the story of 13 people, once prominent, and now largely forgotten. They each earned inclusion in this book because of a grand failure of some sort. In other hands, this material could have been a tool for ridicule; but Collins strikes just the right tone here. While not forgiving his subjects' excesses or blind spots, he manages to tell their stories with a real sense of empathy. It's obvious that a lot of research went into this volume, but Collins never overpowers the reader with it; each chapter just seems to glide along. If history's lesser lights are of interest to you, you should enjoy this.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A Collection of Unknown Gem-like Histories
So maybe I have a bit of a crush on Paul Collins and everything he writes, but truly Banvard's Folly is quite clever. Read more
Published 7 months ago by AnakaliaKlemm
4.0 out of 5 stars A Few Great Stories, A Few Good Stories
Although every story was fascinating, some were better told than others. The story of Banvard and blue light therapy were quite absorbing while I also recall shifting in my seat... Read more
Published 24 months ago by Martha B.
5.0 out of 5 stars very interesting
This book is filled with windows into the the lives of people who did or tried to do very interesting things, and never had their stories told until now. Read more
Published on August 14, 2008 by Barry Solomon
5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful and true tales
This humurous and sympathetic presentation of thirteen lives of historical nobodies is a sheer delight to read. Read more
Published on January 3, 2006 by Tanya Abramovitch
5.0 out of 5 stars Truly insightful
I absolutely loved this book. Paul Collins takes thirteen chapters of American myth that have been largely forgotten and turns them into an eye opening treatise on the failure of... Read more
Published on June 15, 2005 by Snorri Wolfersson
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty damn good
Don't know if I'd give it 5 stars but it's pretty good.
Published on October 1, 2004 by S. Kohan
5.0 out of 5 stars When failure was funny
I'm not too proud to admit that I started reading this book purely for the schadenfreude. Dreamers whose bold visions go wrong are a reliable source of humor. Read more
Published on May 7, 2002 by villekulla
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