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.