3 Quarks Daily editor J.M. Tyree has a funny piece in The Believer. Unfortunately, the entire essay is available only to subscribers. Nevertheless, here is a bit, with a link to the rest of the teaser:
The opposite of a Renaissance man, presumably, would be someone who tried his hand at a number of different things and failed at all of them. Mostly forgotten today, Ignatius Donnelly (1831–1901) is worth a second look because he is quite possibly the greatest failure who ever lived. Donnelly, a bestselling writer and reform-minded congressman from Minnesota, might be dubbed the Great American Failure. Among the things that Donnelly failed to do were: build a city, reform American politics, reveal the facts about Atlantis, discover a secret code in Shakespeare, and prove that the world’s gravel deposits were the result of a collision with a comet. His dire political prophecies of class warfare and the imminent collapse of civilization also failed to come true.
Donnelly genuinely believed he was a genius, and that, by applying his mental powers to any problem, no matter how tangled or intractable, and regardless of the established body of relevant scholarship or scientific tradition, he could solve it with a fresh look. He was a kind of secular prophet, a combination of demagogue and revivalist tent-preacher, destined, he believed, to do great things. If Donnelly were alive today, he would probably be a “guru” on the lecture circuit, fervently putting forward his latest Theory of Everything. Congressman, master orator, pseudoscientist, student of comparative mythology, crackpot geologist, futurist, amateur literary sleuth, bogus cryptologist, Donnelly did it all with a charmingly boundless energy and a voracious intellectual appetite that utterly outstripped his real abilities.