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Banvard's Follyby Paul Collins
Sunday, June 30, 2013 07:30 PM
Powell's City of Books on Burnside, Portland, OR
Paul Collins's Duel with the Devil (Crown) tells the true story of a sensational murder mystery in the early days of the United States — one that shocked the young nation and inspired bitter rivals Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr to join forces in the pursuit of justice. Collins is regularly featured on NPR's Weekend Edition as the "literary detective."
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"...the joy of the lot lies in contemplating thewhims of fortune and the foolhardiness of humanity, while delighting in Collins's crisp prose and engaging storytelling. A delightful opportunity to get in touch with your inner loser." Kirkus Reviews
This impeccably documented book offers portraits of famously forgotten men and women, who leap from the ash heap of thankless obscurity and directly onto the page. Includes profiles of the eccentric panorama painter John Banvard, the delusional physicist Rene Blandlot, and the Shakespeare forger William Henry Ireland. 16-page photo insert.
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 Wales — a journey about which he is writing a book — and now live in Oregon.
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