Lucky 13

If there's a lesson in Paul Collins's Banvard's Folly (Picador USA), a study of the lives of 13 long-dead pop-culture meteors and oddballs, it's that death has a consolation prize for all of us anonymous drones: We will be forgotten, yes, but so will Thomas Kinkade, "painter of light." Gadgeteer Ron Popeil and his marvels will be merely a puzzle to future cultural historians, and Barbra Streisand will be ageless and evergreen only in far-flung pocket cults of the Internet--or, more likely, she'll be silenced forever.

The characters excavated by Collins in Banvard's Folly didn't all spend their lives beating their heads against the granite walls of oblivion. Collins's contribution to the sprawling history of eccentricity--and the eccentricity of popular taste--demonstrates that the truly immortal occupy only the tiniest of trophy closets in the vast, musty mansions of the forgotten. Some of the subjects of Banvard's Folly were tremendous celebrities in their own lifetimes, widely known for their talents or achievements. Others were crackpots, impostors, and dreamers whose ambitions far outstripped their humble talents. All of them, despite the often entertaining nature of their lives, met the same fate: They disappeared into the abject obscurity of the rare-books room or the library basement, forgotten by all but the most zealous of footnote historians.

Collins has clearly spent years hunched over dusty books, exploring the "utter silence of oblivion" and pondering the "vagaries of ambition." Banvard's Folly is chock full of crackpot aspiration and inspiration. Some of the portraits are of people who achieved great renown only to be bypassed, in the end, for immortality. John Banvard, for instance, was a 19th-century painter of giant moving panoramas and was regarded in his time as the most famous living painter in the world. His "three-mile painting" of the Mississippi, which attempted to re-create the river in its entirety, was presented on a giant moving scroll and accompanied by Banvard's narrative of a trip down the river. Banvard's painting played to huge crowds and great acclaim in the U.S. and in England. His achievement was hailed as "a monument of native talent and American genius," and he quickly became the richest artist in history. Imitators promptly began to produce knockoffs of his work, however, and the public soon tired of the phenomenon of moving panoramas. Banvard moved into the museum business in New York, where he was swiftly ruined in a head-to-head competition with P.T. Barnum. He eventually died in South Dakota and was buried in a paupers' graveyard. South Dakota legend has it that his famous panoramas were shredded and used to insulate local homes.

Many of the characters in Banvard's Folly were merely garden-variety crackpots of the sort that flourished in the great scientific vacuum of the past, when general ignorance was still so vast as to allow all manner of lunatic speculation. Representative of this archetype is John Cleves Symmes, the early-19th-century originator of the "Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres and Polar Voids." Symmes was convinced that there was a habitable world beneath our feet, and he repeatedly, and futilely, lobbied Congress for appropriations for a proposed expedition to these interior regions. He was, of course, ridiculed even during his lifetime, but he did manage to convince some people of his speculations, including Edgar Allan Poe, who died a believer. (Lesson: If you can't be famous yourself, you might at least earn the respect of someone famous.)

Collins's most interesting and sympathetic portraits are of characters who were obviously fraudulent or clearly mad. William Henry Ireland was an 18th-century dullard who created a stir in England with his initially convincing Shakespeare forgeries. Ireland began by forging bogus legal documents bearing Shakespeare's signature and, emboldened by the attention these received (primarily from his Shakespeare-obsessed father), went on to create love letters, entire transcriptions of the plays, and, eventually, "lost" manuscripts of entirely new plays. Though his fraud was eventually discovered, his handiwork was of such enduring notoriety that he was able to scratch out a living making forgeries of his forgeries for the antiquarian market.

Robert Coates, "the amateur of fashion," made his own appearance in London shortly after Ireland's deceit had unraveled. Coates was a wealthy dandy, "a man both so seemingly bereft of talent and so monumentally confident of his abilities that he created an entire thespian tradition all to himself." Coates had been born on an Antigua sugar plantation, the only surviving child of a wealthy father, and in his middle age moved to London, not only to reinvent himself as an actor, Collins writes, "but to pursue this acting career through a driving hail of ridicule and spite--sustained only by his utter and unrequited love of theater." Coates, bundled in expensive furs and decked out head to toe in diamonds, made his way around London in a giant carriage "built in the shape of a scallop shell and emblazoned with the coat of arms of a crowing rooster. Written beneath the brazen fowl was this motto: Whilst I Live I'll Crow. A pair of expensive matched white horses led the procession."

Coates scandalized London with a baroque take on Romeo that was worthy of Andy Kaufman. One period witness recalled of his performance: "His dress was outré in the extreme: whether Spanish, Italian, or English, no one could say; it was like nothing ever worn. In a cloak of sky-blue silk, profusely spangled, red pantaloons, a vest of white muslin, surmounted by an enormously thick cravat, and a wig à la Charles the Second, capped by an opera hat, he presented one of the most grotesque spectacles ever witnessed upon the stage." Collins adds that the costume was "so tight upon his body that his limbs bulbed out like sausages, and he jerked across the stage in a tight-wrapped transport of delight. Every word he pronounced was wrong--histrionically rising and falling, with the wrong emphasis, and apt to simply dispense with the Bard's script altogether." His performances were, of course, all the rage. Coates had, Collins asserts, "in utter innocence, invented camp." After a long and successful run on the London stage, Coates eventually suffered financial reversals, married, and faded into retirement. He was departing a theater in 1848 when he was run down by a carriage and killed.

In Banvard's Folly, Collins has produced a rich and entertaining addition to the great, neglected literature of eccentricity and grand obscurity, a book to place on the shelf next to Isaac Disraeli's Curiosities of Literature, Edith Sitwell's English Eccentrics, and Stewart Holbrook's The Golden Age of Quackery. Indeed, one hopes that Collins will be better treated by history than his subjects were.

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