Second Chances

A new book resurrects history's also-rans: people who hoped to change the world but didn't quite succeed

Paul Collins' paean to history's underdogs, Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales of People Who Didn't Change the World, sheds light on those scientists, artists, intellectuals, and madmen who despite their repeated efforts didn't become household names. That's not to say these runners-up didn't make worthy contributions: In truth, many of them were geniuses who achieved some level of fame during their lifetimes. But for whatever reason, these 12 men and one woman haven't stood the test of time. Like history's version of music's one-hit wonders, they enjoyed their 15 minutes before slipping into oblivion -- that is, until Collins came to the rescue.

A fascinating analysis of the quest for fame, the book compiles well-researched biographies of folks like Ephraim Bull of Concord, Mass., a horticulturist who invented the Concord grape, which he thought would revitalize the American wine industry. Sadly, the grape was easily duplicated by other farmers, including Artimus Welch, who turned Bull's precious seedling into a grape juice conglomerate. Or consider the discouraging tale of John Banvard, "possibly the first millionaire artist in history." Banvard's spectacular, three-mile-long painting of the Mississippi River, which he mounted on a giant spool that he would unwind during his lectures, was the talk of the town back in the 1830s. He met his downfall when he went head-to-head with P.T. Barnum by opening an oddities museum in Manhattan, which quickly went bankrupt.

Author Paul Collins salvages history's losers  in 
Banvard's Folly.
Author Paul Collins salvages history's losers in Banvard's Folly.

A self-described "collector of obscurity," Collins is yet another one of those quirky contributors to McSweeney's; he employs a writing style that's wry though good-natured. Instead of poking fun at these mavericks, Collins recognizes their collective desire for immortality and gives them a taste of it. My hat's off to these daring gamblers, who took a risk and lost.

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