The Banvard's Folly
Paul Collins
(Picador)

Paul Collins is one of those guys you always see at the library. He's the normal-looking guy with the armful of old books, sneezing his way to an empty table. I can also imagine him at a dinner party, confounding people with factoids about unheard-of losers and scientists. Collins' astounding book, Banvard's Folly, is full of this kind of know-it-all charm.

Subtitled Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck, this detailed work focuses on mavericks throughout history, such as John Banvard, possibly the first artist to earn a million dollars, a grape specialist, and a well-meaning physicist who unveiled a radiation in 1903 that proved to be his undoing. The thing they have in common, besides being misunderstood, is that their failures were so sweeping and embarrassing, that their names have sunk below the radar of obscurity. Still, their stories are worthwhile for their occasional triumphs and stubborn glimpses of brilliance.

Collins' gifts lie not only in the obviously countless hours of research (there's even a "Further Readings" chapter in back if you want to do your own research--but good luck, many of the sources are very rare), but also in his good-humored retelling of some of the happenings, like in "The Clever Dullard," when a Shakespeare forger watches the staging of an alleged "lost Shakespeare play," being endlessly heckled and attacked by fruit. Also in the laugh-out-loud mode is the story of Martin Tupper, a sincere (and stuttering) poet who, although praised by contemporaries (like Whitman), is rarely found in bookstores these days, probably thanks to poems like "The Toothache" (First line: "A raging throbbing tooth,--it burns, it burns!").

The most interesting piece in the book is the title story, which depicts the struggles of John Banvard. Creator of the "moving panorama" painting style, Banvard made a three-mile-long mural of the Mississippi River that he displayed by cranking the canvas from one giant spool to another. Banvard earned vast riches before getting in a strange war of bravado with P.T. Barnum that quickly drained the money out of his pockets. He died broke and alone in 1891, with little attention from the public.

Collins, who recently moved to Portland, has a great natural knack for telling these odd histories, and Banvard's Folly proves to be a great history book for fans of the weird underdogs of culture.