[Paul Collins is founder and editor of The Collins Library, a project dedicated to the reprinting of unusual, out-of-print literary works. The most recent title, To Ruhleben — And Back, follows the adventures of Geoffrey Pyke, who, as a teenager in 1914, convinced a London newspaper editor to let him travel to Germany as a war correspondent. Captured by German troops, Pyke was imprisoned at Ruhleben, a German internment camp, from which he eventually escaped, making his way home to write this travelogue at the age of twenty.]
[Paul Collins is currently on tour in support of his memoir, Sixpence House, which recounts his time spent living in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, known as the “Town of Books.”]
Q: In Banvard’s Folly, you wrote about the failures of both scientists and artists. Is there a way that these two are related?
Collins: There are really three things in Banvard’s Folly. There is art, science… and technology, which is related to science but is not quite the same. Failures of technology are often related to economic pressure and competition, matters of practicality, and simply that an invention doesn’t really work well. The failures are sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with its utility or the value of its design. There are all sorts of examples of inferior inventions that have won out over superior ones.
In the case of art, it’s usually a matter of tastes, which may change for any variety of reasons. The fates of artists are so much more unpredictable than scientists. With a scientist you can always go back at some later point and see if they were right. You can’t necessarily do that with artists because it is so arbitrary and so subjective. And it is only when some later period decides that an artist is of some use to them that they usually go back and retrieve their reputation. When people don’t see some sort of use or relation to themselves in an old piece of art, they won’t bother to recover it.
The history that we have of art from any period is not the history of art as people from that period might have understood it. It is what we in our time choose to find interesting. Things that are declared classics therefore say as much about us as they do about the period in which they originally came out.
Q: The examples of scientific discoveries in Banvard’s Folly, such as N-Rays and Symmes’s hole, do not lead into new discoveries such as Priestley’s phlogiston theory helped lead up to Lavoisier’s chemistry.
Collins: In Banvard’s Folly they were generally dead ends. The story of science is largely a story of dead ends. Dead ends are an integral part of the scientific process. People often do not realize that, or it is easy to forget, because all you normally hear about are the scientific discoveries and successes. I felt that the dead ends were worth covering or describing, as well as the discoveries.
The other thing I was trying to do was to bring some of these individuals back, to make people aware of them and hopefully to get people to look into them more. Since the book came out, there has been renewed interest in a number of the individuals. I’m aware of someone writing a dissertation on John Symmes’s hollow earth theory, and of people working on Banvard.
Q: History can often be seen as being either pragmatic, where we look to the past for suggestions on what to do in the future, or genealogical, where we look to the past in order to understand the present. But neither of these options seem to account for what you are doing. For one thing, they do not account for the role of pleasure in history.
Collins: The essays that I wrote in Banvard’s Folly are meant to be historical appreciations of these people and what they were trying to do. Even if they completely failed or were forgotten, I think many of them were in their own way quite heroic, and very sincere in what they were trying to do.
Q: Do you see the necessity in making history enjoyable?
Collins: Yeah, I actually do. Though it does depend on the audience. The problem I have with a lot of historians is that they don’t realize that in order to make it a readable narrative you actually have to know what to leave out. Sometimes I’ll read a history and it feels as though I’m reading their notes rather than a crafted work of literature. To me, that is a problem.
I think if someone is writing for other scholars then obviously you want to put in as much detail as possible because in effect you are essentially creating a type of reference work. But when you are writing for a general audience, it helps to have some ear towards the aesthetics of the writing. That means creating a narrative and picking and choosing what element you want to highlight, so that people don’t get completely bogged down in the sheer mass of details.
The way I write history is probably affected by the fact that up until the age of twenty-eight I was writing short stories and novels. It really wasn’t until a few years ago that I turned to writing nonfiction. When you are writing fiction, it is all about: what do you put in and what do you leave out in order to create the illusion of a full narrative? In order to create fiction, you are basically creating an illusion of narrative movement through a relatively small number of important details that stand in for a great many other details that you are leaving out. Having trained in that style had me approach history in that way.
Q: A common theme throughout the characters in all of your books is that they possess the same two main qualities as Don Quixote: idealism and infinite courage.
Collins: I think that is true.
Q: In thinking about others’ forms of unique histories I thought of James Burke’s Connections. But whereas Burke appears focused on the relationships of ideas, your histories appear to be focused more on the individual’s story.
Collins: I enjoy Burke’s work. That sort of pinballing around from one item to another certainly comes up in Sixpence House. My more direct influence there was probably Nicholson Baker. I do wind up focusing more on the individual then on what it was they discovered.
Q: It is a very compassionate reading of history.
Collins: Oh well, thank you. I try.
Q: History can be thought of being driven by a few momentous characters. Contrary to that idea is Tolstoy’s theory of a calculus of history as set out in the Second Epilogue of War and Peace.
Collins: To be honest, I haven’t read War and Peace.
Q: A similar theory is presented by George Eliot in Middlemarch.
Collins: I haven’t read that either.
Q: Both Eliot and Tolstoy posit that history is not driven by a few individuals but by the summation of every individual. Though this theory may account for how the present came to be it is difficult to derive a history from such a theory.
Collins: That is interesting. There were a number of historians in the nineteenth century who were interested in the role of ordinary individuals. This may have been to counteract the tendency of histories which focused only on generals, kings, and popes. The French writer Michelet held that view of history, and Whitman was very influenced by him… that you had to look at the general population and see what they were doing. The idea of social history also began to come up around that time.
Q: Would you want to be a person in one of your books?
Collins: I would like to think that the things I do in this world would be worthwhile enough that recounting them would make me seem a sympathetic character. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to wipe out in a spectacular manner.
Q: I am aware of you writing on only one woman, Delia Bacon, in Banvard’s Folly. Do you not encounter many female figures?
Collins: No, not as many. Particularly when doing Banvard’s Folly. I believe it was mainly because of the historical period I was looking at. In order to fail in a spectacular fashion, first you have to be allowed to succeed in a spectacular fashion.
If I’d been writing more about the twentieth century, it would be different. But I wanted to write about people who were completely out of living memory. My feeling with historical reputation is that there tends to be a certain momentum, or inertia. If someone’s reputation is in motion, it will stay in motion. If it comes to a standstill, it will probably stay at a standstill. Once someone is out of living memory, and there is no one who knew them to champion them and their reputation, then they disappear. So that has really kept me to the very early twentieth century and earlier.
There was going to be another chapter in Banvard’s Folly, about Victoria Woodhull. Right around the time I began to research it, two books on her came out. It rendered it unnecessary as a chapter since she was no longer obscure.
Q: Who was Victoria Woodhull?
Collins: She was a controversial figure, quite a personality. She ran for president, I believe in the 1890s, and I think she was technically the first woman to run. Her ballots were thrown out in many states and counties. She wound up in jail at some point, too. She also worked as a stockbroker, something of a con artist, and was involved with spiritualism.
Q: What are your current projects?
Collins: I’m finishing my next book, Not Even Wrong. It’ll be done in June. It’s a combination of a travelogue, a family memoir on autism, and a history of neurology. It is sort of like Sixpence House, with neurology thrown into it. It’ll begin in the eighteenth century and go up to the present, and involve traveling to a variety of fairly obscure sights, tracing certain aspects of neurology. One historical lead actually took me to a storage room in a mall in Britain.
I’ve also been writing material for New Scientist, for their history column. That’s where the Banvard’s Folly type of material has migrated. The other thing that I’m starting to work on is my next book, which I’m just about to pitch this summer, and can’t go into it for that reason. But I can say that it is basically about me trying to find someone’s skull. Sort of like Roger and Me… but if Roger were dead.