A self-styled expert in "the forgotten ephemera of genius," Paul Collins sifted through history's dustbin to find the hearteningly strange characters that populate his first book, Banvard's Folly: Thirteen Tales Of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, And Rotten Luck. Stretching the bounds of non-fiction's propensity for weirdness, Collins exhumes little-known figures—artists, scientists, philosophers, hucksters—and recounts their perversely inspiring battles against the more logical ways of the world. The cast includes John Banvard, a 19th-century American panorama painter who squandered his worldwide fame and fortune in an ill-fated business duel with P.T. Barnum; William Henry Ireland, a "clever dullard" who temporarily fooled 18th-century London with forgeries of Shakespeare; John Cleeves Symmes, whose hollow-earth theory was actually debated in the U.S. Senate; Jean-Francois Sudre, a Frenchman who created a language translatable to music, color, touch, and numbers; and George Psalmanazar, who wowed 18th-century Europe with phony tales of bloodthirsty exotic lands. The stories, four of which first saw light in Dave Eggers' McSweeney's quarterly, earnestly expose the fickleness of both fame and history itself. Collins recently took a break from two works-in-progress to speak with The Onion A.V. Club.
The Onion: How did you first get involved with obscure history?
Paul Collins: I've always had an interest in obscure history and old books. My parents collected antiques, and they'd buy lots of stuff at estate auctions. So I grew up with a really random collection of old books. Then, when I was a grad student, a professor wanted me to photocopy the table of contents from every issue of the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's, Southern Literary Messenger, and all these other magazines for the entire 19th century. I never really got around to the photocopying, because I would start reading all of them. It floored me, because I'd see all these references to writers and events I'd never heard of. There's a tendency to have a "greatest-hits" approach to history and literature, where a relatively small number of people or events are covered intensely while many, many others are not.
O: How did you get started on this project in particular?
PC: I was reading a book by Van Wyck Brooks, a literary historian from the 1930s who would write history in a really contextual way. He would spend as much time on what were considered minor figures just to give a sense of the whole field of history as it existed at the time. And he compared Banvard to Walt Whitman, the way they both tried to convey the vastness of the American landscape. He was only mentioned in one or two sentences, and when I started looking up Banvard, I was just amazed that I'd never heard of him before.
O: How did you choose the 13 figures for this book?
PC: The common theme that runs through all of these people is that I really admire all of them. Most were quite idealistic and really dedicated to what they were doing. Even though some of them sound pretty strange with the benefit of hindsight, they were all very talented and dedicated idealists who often kept pursuing these ideas even when there was no gain left in it for them. You often hear of that in people who succeed, but I think it's possible for someone to act just as heroically and fail.
O: There's certainly a tendency in history to romanticize the heroics of the past. Are you inverting that by romanticizing failure?
PC: The opening epigraph in the book [taken from Whitman's "Song Of Myself"] says, "Battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won." In some ways, you learn more from failures than successes. Also, by tending to focus on the successes of the past, it's easy to denigrate one's present. It's easy to think of almost any given period from history and say people were really doing great stuff compared to the crap we have now, when the fact is there was just as much garbage back then. There's a real danger in that. It's like the way people always say the novel—and writing in general—is dying. When some prominent writer goes and announces that loudly, it's usually more a forensic marker of their own decomposition. It's easy for people to lose perspective on the ratio of success to failure in any period of time.
O: It's interesting, along those lines, how all of these figures' stories are inspiring and humbling at the same time.
PC: Absolutely. Most figures from history are forgotten, and they're often the ones people simply couldn't imagine it happening to. If you had told someone in 1850 that nobody would remember Martin Tupper [a critically lauded and best-selling English poet], they just wouldn't have believed you. So it is humbling in that regard, especially as someone who is producing stuff as a writer, to know that things do fall into black holes in history sometimes. Reputations have a kind of inertia to them. After a certain point, if they're in motion, they stay in motion, and if they're at rest, they stay at rest. There is something very humbling in that. But mostly, I wanted to write about these people because I found them really inspiring. People who are mostly considered failures actually show a lot of the same qualities we associate with the people we consider worth remembering.
O: Was spending time with such noble failures a self-preserving safeguard for you as a beginning writer?
PC: It helps. It gives you a bit of stoicism about it all. There's something incredibly depressing and discouraging about trying to start a career as a writer. Like most writers, I collected an unbelievable number of rejections for things I'd written in the past. When I sent this book to publishers, they'd
just say, "We've never heard of these people." That's why I really appreciated what McSweeney's did, because Dave [Eggers] didn't care about that.
O: Have you gotten any sort of feedback that makes you think any of these people might be rescued from obscurity?
PC: About a year after the Banvard piece ran in McSweeney's, a play opened in St. Paul about him. I've always been really curious about that. So I guess he is making a bit of a comeback. And we're going to be reprinting Psalmanazar's memoirs through McSweeney's. Dave and I are starting a new imprint, modestly called "The Collins Library," to do hardcover reprints of old, forgotten books. One of the things that struck me about [Psalmanazar's memoir] is that it's just impossible to get. The handful of libraries that have it keep it in their rare-book room, where you have to read it with a security guard watching you. Actual copies that turn up for sale go for a couple thousand bucks. We're also doing a book called English As She Is Spoke, from 1855. It was a textbook for Portuguese students to learn English, and it has to be the worst textbook ever written. The guys who wrote it didn't know English, so they wrote it using a Portuguese-to-French dictionary and then a French-to-English dictionary. My favorite section of the book is titled "Idiotisms And Proverbs."
O: How do you find this stuff?
PC: I spend two or three hours in the library almost every day, sometimes doing specific research, and sometimes just reading old magazines and newspapers I grab off the shelves. You can't rely on contemporary historians, because most of them tend to till the same fields over and over again. To find these great things that have been forgotten, you have to go back to the original sources. People talk about journalism being the first draft of history, but a lot of times it's the only draft. I spend a lot of time making interlibrary loans and collecting stuff from archives. The actual writing of [Banvard's Folly] only took about 10 percent of my time. The research took up the rest of it.
O: The tone of your book, apart from the occasional humorous comment, is really straightforward and earnest. Was that a conscious stylistic choice?
PC: It was really important to me that it not seem mocking or ironic, because these are all people I admire. Also, as a historian, I take it seriously that there is an important purpose in remembering these people, so I didn't want to just have fun at their expense. That would have been easy enough to do, had I been so inclined, but I didn't think that's what they deserved. The other extreme of that is, I didn't want to bury them in academic prose. I used all the same research I would for a dissertation or something like that, but I didn't want to write it that way. That kind of writing tends to mask the inability of a lot of academics to write well, and it simply puts a lot of people off who would otherwise be interested. I wanted to strike a balance of being accessible and recognizing that there is a certain amount of humor inherent in what happened to these people and what they were doing. In a way, the style of this book was inspired by a number of writers from the 1920s and 1930s: Van Wyck Brooks, Edmund Pearson, people like that. I felt like there was a lack of that kind of writing, of not talking down to readers and not trying to lock them out. But I wanted to be serious in my appreciation of what these people attempted.
O: Do you find a sort of built-in allegory in these stories' relationship to the way we watch prominent figures rise and fall so fast these days?
PC: Fame tends to come and go a lot more quickly now, simply because of the sheer volume of stuff we have being thrown at us. The more material you have to process, the quicker things are going to slip out of your mind. I'm not so sure the dynamic of how that happens has changed, but the speed has. It's not that everyone is going to be famous for 15 minutes; it's that those who are famous only will be for 15 minutes. It's easy to overstate, but there are definitely signs of that now.