Debut author Collins dissects the fickle fortunes of fame with 13 vignettes of men and women who dared to dream but failed to achieve.
What happens to the schemers and the dreamers whose plans lose their moorings in reality, whose theories do not quite jibe with actuality? Collins introduces us to a medley of such unfortunate souls, including the eponymous John Banvard. This true visionary created “moving panoramas,” an artistic innovation in which he claimed to scroll three miles of canvas before his audience’s unbelieving eyes; the resulting hullabaloo made him the star of the 19th-century art world until he was upstaged by master huckster P.T. Barnum. Now fallen into outright obscurity, Banvard serves as Collins’s leading exemplar of fame gone wrong, of early successes dashed by unlucky combinations of bad timing, bad luck, and bad judgment. The reader also meets such obscure figures as playwright and Shakespearean plagiarist William Henry Ireland, John Cleves Symmes (who attempted to prove that the earth is hollow and inhabited on the inside), Professor Rene Blondlot (discoverer of the non-existent N-rays—similar to X-rays but, well, nonexistent), Ephraim Bull (who lost out to Thomas Welch in the race to cash in on Concord grapes), and A.J. Pleaston (who recommended growing plants and healing humans with the salubrious effects of blue light). These unfortunates, as well as the others Collins has dug up from obscurity, made noble attempts to change the world for the better and failed miserably. One might quibble with some of Collins’s selections for inclusion (some of the failures are not nearly as spectacular as the others), but the joy of the lot lies in contemplating the whims of fortune and the foolhardiness of humanity, while delighting in Collins’s crisp prose and engaging storytelling.
A delightful opportunity to get in touch with your inner loser. (16-page b&w photo insert)