Fame just isn't what it used to be. It must be one of those big fish-small pond things. Celebrity is so much the coin of the realm, there is this sense that everyone is entitled to coverage and a forum or their own Web page. Everyone's got a videocam more or less aimed at them from birth. Twelve-year-olds write memoirs. Hipness and urban chicness require a kind of "been-there-done-that" smugness that disallows any but the most minimized response to the chaos that happens all around us. Curing cancer, mapping the genome, settling ancient conflicts, cloning ourselves--if we can imagine it, we can predict it. If we can predict it, it is only a matter of time. And because nothing is especially "incredible" anymore, our reliance on faith has been downsized and our appetite for mystery seems sated.
And more's the pity.
But there is hope. The appearance of "Banvard's Folly" by Paul Collins bids us pause and reflect upon the Ages of Epic, Adventure and Invention--those yesteryears before all the little ponds were connected by globalized news and cable modems, downsizing by dilution all the fish within them; when bombast and exaggeration were the staples of style; when every oddness was remarkable; when the rich and famous were one and the same; when one great thing secured fortune and fame. To the hyper-modernity that professes Less is More, Collins' text proclaims the former conventional wisdom that drove the Age of Discovery, the Industrial Revolution and, not incidentally, world wars, global warming and campaign finance reform, whereby enough was never enough and excess was its own reward, where only the famous were really famous (if only momentarily).
Here are the stories of those who dreamed big dreams and fell far short, or were trumped by time or who, like most of humankind, were only local heroes--famously forgettable.
We are all curators at heart, I suppose, of items that we fear no one else will have time for.
Why write about such things? you may ask.
And if it's not you, surely someone will ask this question. Despite our being a nation of moralists, the only real sin in America is that of failure. There are moral successes, of course. But for each person with a winning innovation to their credit, there are losers who pursued a similar path to failure.
So writes Collins in the preface to his first book that invokes, in its title, the name of the once-famous and now-forgotten 19th century dioramatist and hyperbolist John Banvard, whose life, we are instructed:
" ... is the most perfect crystallization of loss imaginable. In the 1850s Banvard was the most famous living painter in the world, and possibly the first millionaire artist in history. Acclaimed by millions and by such contemporaries as Dickens, Longfellow, and Queen Victoria, his artistry, wealth, and stature all seemed unassailable. Thirty-five years later, he was laid to rest in a pauper's grave in a lonely frontier town in the Dakota Territory. His most famous works were destroyed, and an examination of reference books will not turn up a single mention of his name. John Banvard, the greatest artist of his time, has been utterly obliterated by history.
What happened? is the rhetorical question that haunts Collins' text and defines his brief. He proves himself a tireless investigator, looking under rocks in the remotest reaches of, well, libraries--of all places. The New York Public, the Library of Congress, the Huntington and Folger Shakespeare and dozens more--the stacks seem a perfect bromide to his expansive interests. "Libraries exist to preserve the thoughts and deeds that no one else has time for anymore," he explains, "to collect items that might not be used for another ten, fifty, one hundred years--if ever. It is this last uncertainty that makes libraries the most heroic of human creations."
Collins, whose work has appeared in McSweeney's, Lingua Franca and elsewhere, secures with "Banvard's Folly" a place on the shelf among the blessed and most probably neglected, for surely all writers everywhere identify with his subtitle and every writerly impulse begins as folly.
For his part, Banvard, casting about for a worthy indenture, decided on sailing down the Mississippi River from the confluence of the Ohio and Missouri rivers to New Orleans, keeping journals and sketches on the way. The sketches became a three-mile-long canvas panorama of the 3,000-mile voyage to which he added his own narration--tales of perils and beauty and unknown things--and charged 50 cents admission to the spectacle which was the pre-Edisonian model for the cinema: Banvard's turning bolts of painted canvas (both downstream and upstream adventures could be viewed) becoming reels of film that first bore image, then sound, then color; progress doing to Banvard what it does to all new things: It makes them old. But before the future had its way with Banvard, his ambition and industry and vision were rewarded abundantly. He was, if only for a moment, in the right place at the right time. As Collins notes: "But if his project was grander than any before, so were the ambitions of his era. Ralph Waldo Emerson, working the New England public lecture circuit, had already lamented, 'Our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts ... the Northern trade, the Southern planting, the Western clearing, Oregon, and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes, its ample geography dazzles the imagination ...."
Of course the egg timer of history works both ways. And Collins gives us equal measures of lament and amazement and cautionary tale. There is a Shakespeare forger by the name of Ireland and a man who believed the Earth is hollow--a theory that is not without its comforts. Chapter 9, titled "He Being Dead Yet Speaketh Not," delivers the sad particulars of Martin Tupper, the warm-fuzzy, if oddly stuttering, mytho-poet of his day over whose "Proverbial Philosophy" Victorians doted for pearls of wisdom. A bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1860s, he toured America, hobnobbed with the greats of the age and disappeared into oblivion. As Collins wryly observes:
"Predicting literary reputations is a tricky business. When I was a student at the College of William and Mary, a conservative student newspaper ran a dismissive article headed:
"Visiting Poet Hardly a Household Name
"About a year later, Angelou intoned her poem 'On the Pulse of Morning' at President Clinton's inauguration. The poem became a best-selling book, and she became ... well, a household name."
The powerful appeal of Collins' book is that most poets, like most people, are, however famous, however long, still globally unknown. And for most of them, who will not get a Boswell, there is hope that a Collins might come along. Poets know this from the get-go, much as prophets do. Less so scions of commerce, culture and politicos--Microsoft What? Britney Which? President Who?--that think their fame will more than flicker. The 13 lives and times to which Collins devotes his considerable scholarship and his manifest narrative gifts in "Banvard's Folly" are the flash-in-the-pan, briefly notable and long ignored ones of a kind who remind us of the nobility and futility, the grandeur and begrudgery of our endeavors.
Of Collins' endeavor, however, we can proclaim our permanent thanks and amazement and heartiest welcome.