Historical Hysteria

Reveling in the flaky splendor of oddball geniuses lost to history.

It's a sad but true fact that history doesn't always dole out its medals of recognition to the most deserving, but often to those most blessed with the potent combination of tenacious moxie, fortuitous timing and just plain good luck. Understandably, the recorders of human achievement prefer to crown successes rather than miserable failures--after all, losers don't forward history, they just make subsequent losers feel better about themselves. They also don't make hot fodder for best-selling biographies.

What a gas, then, to encounter Paul Collins' new book, Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck. Collins, a frequent contributor to the hipster journal McSweeney's, has taken it upon himself to rescue a handful of geniuses and/or crackpots from the bowels of historical anonymity, and at last expose them to the glowing light of the public arena.

This revisionist historian nimbly dissects the lives and careers of a motley crew of attention-seeking scientists, poets, artists and adventurers, many of whom actually achieved a good deal of fame and fortune (as well as notoriety) in their heyday, but who have, due to various and cruel twists of fate, been kicked to the curb of public memory. Through his rather remarkable research (after all, information on these obscure folks won't be found at your local library), Collins valiantly attempts to illuminate what he calls "the forgotten ephemera of genius." And to this end, he has constructed a remarkably lucid and entertaining peek into the admittedly strange lives of the characters he has unearthed, and in the process proffered a witty meditation on the vagaries of fame and the human drive for validation.

Although most of the geniuses who populate Collins' book clearly fall into the "oddball" category (and in many cases, that's putting it mildly), he thankfully steers clear of the snickering one might expect from a book whose existence is credited to the smart-aleck "It-Lit" boy of the moment, McSweeney's publisher Dave Eggers. (Although the book was eventually published by Picador, Collins plainly acknowledges that Eggers had everything to do with bringing his book to the public, taking a keen interest in its unusual, uncommercial potential after it was rejected by numerous other major publishers, most of whom remarked without irony, "I've never heard of these people that you're writing about.")

Although the general public may not know the names of these plucky individuals, chances are they've heard of their contributions to society. Consider the sad saga of Ephraim Bull, horticulturalist and creator of the hearty Concord grape in the mid-1800s, whose dreams of success were squashed under the sticky boot of Artimus Welch, who swiped the growing procedures for the popular fruit and turned the stolen knowledge into the Welch's Grape megacorporation. Poor Bull was so incensed over this reversal of fortune that he spent the rest of his life obsessing over his losses, eventually having his tombstone engraved with the bitter epitaph "Ephraim Wales Bull 1806-1895: He Sowed, Others Reaped."

Or consider John Banvard (of the book's title), whose obscenely huge, panoramic paintings in the 1830s predicted the birth of motion pictures and dazzled both the art world and mass audiences; one such painting, mounted on gigantic moving rollers, was a detailed representation of the entire eastern shore of the Mississippi River, complete with homes, livestock and people found along the banks, and was unfurled before astonished audiences under the name "The Three-Mile Painting." But his bizarre showmanship techniques ultimately threw him into battle with show-biz goliath P.T. Barnum, a war that ended in oblivion for the unhinged Banvard.

Readers will also discover off-kilter intellectuals among Collins' menagerie of hard-luck cases, brainiacs whose disputed theories drove them into raving madness, but not before capturing the imagination of some of our most revered historical figures.

Figures like John Symmes, a hero of the War of 1812, who nearly persuaded Congress to fund his crazed expedition to the North Pole (at the time still unexplored) in a giant, metallic, corkscrew-shaped vehicle, all to prove his controversial thesis that the world was hollow and full of thriving populations of very pale shut-ins. Although self-delusion and public scorn eventually derailed his subterranean ambitions, writers Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe became rabid fans of Symmes' theories and gave them immortality as classic works of science fiction.

One of Collins' most tragic stories involves Delia Bacon, an American scholar considered by such lofty contemporaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne to be among the greatest female intellectuals the U.S. had ever produced. After becoming convinced of a shadowy conspiracy involving Shakespeare's true identity, Delia relocated to England, where she repeatedly attempted to rob the faux-Bard's grave in Stratford-on-Avon in order to produce evidence that could corroborate her increasingly far-fetched theories. Losing her grip on reality, she eventually published (with the help of a sympathetic Hawthorne) a bizarrely unreadable manifesto on the sordid affair, before being reduced to shouting her paranoid suspicions to strangers on the street, and finally meeting a fate of melodramatic proportions. Sadly, the fact that the true identity of Shakespeare is still being debated by scholars today has done nothing to improve poor Delia's reputation as a loon.

And so it goes. Ever wonder how in 1878, François Sudre created his five-musical note, universal language system "Solresol," intended to teach the world to communicate in perfect harmony via dueling piano keyboards (an idea appropriated by the New Age aliens in Close Encounters)? It's here. Curious about how a beggar from the slums managed to dupe England's stuffy academics and scale the ladder of success by passing himself off as an exotic foreigner from a country that didn't exist, even managing to publish several best-selling, critically lauded nonfiction accounts of this completely fabricated fantasyland? It's here, too, along with numerous other portraits of inspiration gone gonzo.

As absurd as his historical excavation gets, Collins never seems unsympathetic toward his fascinating subjects, and although he illuminates the doomed air permeating their failed notions, he manages to be wryly funny without ever becoming mean spirited.

And in the end, Banvard's Folly even manages to become kind of inspirational, a twisted primer on the importance of self-confidence in the face of adversity, as well as a reminder of how thin a line separates true genius from rabid eccentricity. And perhaps most importantly, these 13 lost souls have finally received the public attention they so richly craved in life, and somewhere in the great beyond they now know: We like them ... we really like them.

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