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Banvard's Folly Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World

Paul Collins

Picador

0312300336

9780312300333

Trade Paperback

320 Pages

$19.00

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A Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2001 for Nonfiction

A fascinating and often wickedly funny work of literary biography, social history, and cultural curiosity, Banvard's Folly is a different kind of book. In a volume that reads like the antithesis of Lives of the Artists, or the opposite of Profiles in Courage, Collins offers 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 awful mix thereof—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.

Collins brings them all 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 Blondlot was a distinguished French physicist whose celebrated discovery of a new form of radiation, called the N-Ray, went terribly awry. At the 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 aims to capture the "forgotten ephemera of genius" in his portraits of these figures, as well as the other nine protagonists in Banvard's Folly. Indeed, each essay in this off-beat, original collection brings to its neglected subject sympathetic depth, poignant relevance, cultural detail, and historical reclamation.

REVIEWS

Praise for Banvard's Folly

"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

Reviews from Goodreads

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BOOK EXCERPTS

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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 Wales--a journey about which he is writing a book--and now live in Oregon.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Paul Collins

  • 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 Wales—a journey about which he is writing a book—and now live in Oregon.
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