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Banvard's Folly    by Paul Collins order for
Banvard's Folly
by Paul Collins
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Paperback

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* * *   Reviewed by David Pitt

I'd say there are enough books that celebrate the great success stories, the remarkable accomplishments of extraordinary men and women. We need more books like this one, books that spotlight the little-known, the weird, the ludicrous.

Take William Henry Ireland, for example. The son of an antiquarian, he was, or so it was said by pretty much everybody, not a particularly bright boy. One day, in 1793, he discovered something very useful about his father: the man was extremely gullible. Samuel Ireland was a collector, see, and he bought some junk that some scoundrel passed off as having belonged to William Shakespeare; young William Ireland soon realized his dad had been duped, but ol' Samuel bought the scam hook, line, and sinker.

What did William do? Did he sit his father down and explain the facts of life to him, or did he instantly begin forging documents and letters and signatures and passing them off as genuine? William became quite the forger, able to dash off chunks of fraudulent handwriting off the top of his head. He discovered legal documents, letters written by famous people, lost Shakespeare sonnets, and other nifty things. He gave them all to his father, who accepted every one of them as genuine. Eventually William wrote a couple of plays which he passed off to his father as Shakespeare originals.

It was only a matter of time, of course, before the bubble burst. William, remember, was not very bright. He was not an especially good forger: he wrote letters in dreadful pseudo-Tudor prose, he forged signatures that looked nothing like the real ones, he basically made it all up as he went along. No one, except for his poor gullible father, would have believed any of it. And as long as the forgeries were seen only by his father, things were fine.

Then - you saw this coming, right? - some of William's creations finally made their way into the hands of people who would actually recognize, say, a genuine piece of Shakespeare's writing. The forgeries were speedily unmasked. But, and here's the thing, nobody suspected young William Ireland, not at first: he was too slow-witted, everybody thought, utterly incapable of such creativity and panache. William had to confess, had to write an account of what he did, and how he did it. The villain had to prove he was the villain, because nobody would believe him otherwise.

One person never did believe him: his father, Samuel, who apparently died under the impression that his son's forgeries were genuine. (In a delicious ironic twist, William's last major forgery, a play entitled Henry the Second, is apparently quite good. After two years as a forger, William may have developed some genuine talent as a writer.)

The book is full of stories like Ireland's. Here's John Symmes, who spent his life trying to convince people that the world is hollow; here's Jean Sudre, who created an entire language based on the seven familiar musical notes (do, re, mi, etc.); here's Rene Blondlot, the brilliant scientist who fooled himself into believing that he'd discovered a new form of radiation; here's John Banvard himself, the famous and wealthy artist who was a successful showman, until P.T. Barnum came along and blew him off the map. And that's just a hint of the wonders within this remarkable book.

Banvard's Folly is a splendid book, compassionate and smartly written. Collins does not hold his subjects up to ridicule, does not make them into drooling morons or nitwits. These were people with larger-than-life dreams, people whose grasp on reality was sometimes extremely shaky, people who, despite all their foibles and eccentricities, we can't help admiring. Because, unlike most of us, they took their dreams and at least tried to make them into realities.

(Alert: if you like this book, you should also check out Complete & Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres and Total Flops, by Neil Steinberg. It was published in 1994, by Doubleday.)

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