Thursday, July 18, 2013

Banvard's Folly by Paul Collins

I've written about Paul Collins's books -- non-fiction, usually on quirky or oddball subjects -- several times before here, including Sixpence House, The Trouble With Tom, Not Even Wrong, The Book of William, and The Murder of the Century. He writes the kind of books that I like to think I might have done, if things had worked out differently -- and we always are fascinated by the people who seem to be alternate versions of ourselves.

Banvard's Folly was Collins's very first published book, back in 2001. Its thirteen chapters each tell the story of one man's quest to change the world -- all of which ended in ignominious failure, usually while that man (or, in one case, a woman) was still alive to be thoroughly destroyed by it. It's an amusing book to read, particularly for those of us who have no hopes of ever changing the world -- we might never reach these heights, but at least we'll never lose everything and become the world's laughing-stock. (Or maybe we will: we're not dead yet, and the future holds unknown dangers.)

So we learn of John Banvard, who invented and mastered the moving diorama as a stage experience just in time to see its fame plummet while he was still trying to make a living. There are literary nuts and forgers, like William Henry Ireland, who faked Shakespeare plays, and Delia Bacon, who insisted her namesake really wrote the (actual, non-Ireland) works of Shakespeare. There's the once-noted French scientist Rene Blondlot, who discovered the sadly non-existent N-rays, and John Cleves Symmes, who was sure he could discover the secret world inside the Earth if only he could get enough funding for an expedition. Most of the chapters are about cranks of one sort or another: Francois Sudre, inventor of the musical language Solresol; the fake Formosan George Psalmanazar; Alfred Ely Beach, who built a secret pneumatic subway beneath New York City; the lousy actor and fashion plate Robert Coates; and Augustus J. Pleasonton, who insisted that blue-tinted light was the premier source of health and happiness.

They weren't all deluded -- though a lot of them were -- but they were all monomaniacs, in common with a lot of politicians and artists and writers. Sadly, all of their monomanias turned out to be either factually untrue or too-quickly out of fashion -- and they all lived in the ages before mass media, when lives might have second and third acts, but they rarely got another run at the big brass ring.

So all of these men (and the one woman) were failures, in the end, even if many of them were hugely successful for at least a while. But, in the end, we're all dead, and at least these thirteen followed their own idiosyncratic dreams, and achieved enough to get a chapter in a book a hundred or three years after they were dead. That, as the man says, isn't nothing.

I wouldn't recommend Banvard's Folly to a young man -- you need to have a good footing in failure yourself to really understand and appreciate it. But, if you've failed and been ground down enough by life, it's a great book, one part Schadenfreude and one part whistling-past-the-graveyard.

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