920: Banvard’s Folly by Paul Collins

by Gerard

920.02: Collins, Paul. Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck. New York: Picador, 2001. 267 pp. ISBN 0-312-26886-6.

Go into any public library and you will find that all the biographies are cordoned off in their own section. Patrons love reading about the lives of others, and modern biographies have just the same cachet as they did in decades past (the unauthorized ones are usually the most salacious, though).

The Dewey System tried to do it this way, too. In earlier editions, the 920s was the holding place for biographies and it mirrored the other classes internally: the 000s were general works, so 920 was general biographies; the 100s contained philosophy and psychology, so 921 held biographies of philosophers and psychologists, and so on. Then, they decided that people reading books on chemistry should also be able to find biographies of chemists nearby. So, at some point, the folks at Dewey moved everything out of the 920s and decided that they should be classed with the subject’s area of expertise. Biographies of chemists go into general works on chemistry (540); businessmen go to 338, and painters go to 759.

With this change, only two sections were left in the 920s. The first one is 920 for general biographical collections—a work containing the biographies of many different people in many different fields. The other is 929, for genealogy, names, and insignia—works about the histories of whole families; genealogical guides and references; books about the origins of names; and book on flags, crests, and heraldry. The good thing is that the 920 division is the easiest to complete. The bad thing is finding works general enough to satisfy the classification.

In Banvard’s Folly, Paul S. Collins gathers together the stories of thirteen people in history who provide cautionary tales. While I won’t go into deep detail about each one (I would give away the whole book), here’s his lineup:

  • John Banvard (1815-1891): A panorama painter who foolishly tried to run a museum opposite the great P.T. Barnum.
  • William Henry Ireland (1775-1835): A lazy British student who, for a time, was the best Shakespeare forger around, but no one believed he did it.
  • John Cleves Symmes (1779-1829): A New Jersey native who believed that the Earth was made up of concentric spheres and who died trying to get funding for an expedition.
  • Rene Blondlot (1849-1930): A brilliant French physicist who thought he discovered a new form of radiation called N-rays, but he was just seeing things.
  • Francois Sudre (1787-1862): A French musician who invented a language based on musical notes that never caught on.
  • Ephraim Bull (1806-1895): The inventor of the Concord grape who never saw any profit from it because other growers stole and grew their own crops from the seeds of his produce.
  • George Psalmanazar (c.1679-1763): A polyglot who convinced everyone in England that he was from Formosa (Taiwan) and then couldn’t break free from his lie.
  • Alfred Ely Beach (1826-1896): An American inventor who tried to get pneumatic transportation to ferry people under all of New York (it didn’t catch on).
  • Martin Tupper (1810-1899): A British poet who dazzled the people of his day for a while, but quickly became regarded as a clichéd fuddy-duddy.
  • Robert Coates (1772-1848): An Antiguan trust-fund baby who tortured audiences with his overly melodramatic renditions of Shakespeare’s main characters (Romeo was a favorite), and inadvertently invented Camp.
  • Augustus J. Pleasanton (1801-1894): An American Civil War general who thought that he could turn the sun’s rays blue and tried to harness them for medicinal purposes.
  • Delia Bacon (1811-1859): An American writer was among the first to “claim” that the Bard’s plays were not written by Shakespeare, but rather by a group of noblemen.
  • Thomas Dick (1774-1857): A Scottish theologian and natural philosopher who calculated that the Solar System contained extraterrestrial beings to the tune of 21 trillion inhabitants.

Each vignette is fun and quick to read. The writing is slick but wonderfully detailed. If you’ve got 20 minutes to kill, then any one of these mini-bios will work just fine. For each biography, Collins provides all the background material to direct you to further reading.