Blood rain, showers of frogs, ice blocks the size of an elephant that fall from the sky, spiderwebs that float down and stretch for miles over the land, unexplained lights dancing across the sky--to most people these are the things of tabloid newspaper covers, the sort of tall tales that begin with the insistence of one person who can't back it up with any proof, or a group of true believers whose belief ends in shamed silence when a scientific explanation emerges that turns their fantastic into our everyday mundane. To Charles Fort, though, these events weren't oddball phenomena, but rather proof that the extraordinary is ordinary, that everything we think we know is wrong, and that what we call science is just as likely a fairy tale as any story that involves giants and elves.*
You may not know the name Charles Fort. I didn't either, until one day, as I was walking through the library, a book on one of the shelving carts caught my eye, not because of the title--Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural--but the author, Jim Steinmeyer. I had read Hiding the Elephant, one of Steinmeyer's other books a few years ago and found his story of the history of magicians and the secrets behind their tricks so fascinating, that I actually bought my own copy to have around for reference purposes (I don't often get to buy books, so when I make the leap, it's a pretty big event). As is easily apparent from my previous reading choices, if I like one book by an author, I'm probably going to read several other of that writer's books (or wistfully await another, in some cases). So I trusted Steinmeyer and set off to learn about Charles Fort.
(Keep reading if you dare--one of my sort of New Year's resolutions was to stop clogging up this front page with long posts.)
(Another was to not write excessively long posts. Oh well. Tomorrow's another day.
(And no, I absolutely did NOT resolve to cut down on my use of parentheses.)
Well, it is a catchy title.
Fort was a writer in the early twentieth century, most famous for the four books he published beginning in 1920 with The Book of the Damned. A collection of phenomena such as extraordinary meteors, numerous unexlained objects falling from the sky, rain composed of odd substanced, mixed with Fort's philosophical musings (for example, said falling objects perhaps come from a Super Sargasso Sea located above us, where interplanetary wreckage gets trapped and then occasionally falls to earth), Fort's book befuddled some and enchanted others. The New York Times called it a "mass of words and quagmire of pseudo science" that could potentially drive readers insane. Life magazine thought it would be perhaps appreciated by "Hamlet, visited by Ophelia's madness." HG Wells, who received a copy of the book from Theodore Dreiser, Fort's longtime friend and loyal supporter, thought it was appalling and called Fort "one of the most damnable bores who ever cut scraps from out-of-the-way newspapers." (How Wells found time to read it when he was always so busy being a first-class jerk is beyond me. I dislike Wells. And by the way, he was certainly no mean contender in the most damnable bores competition.) Booth Tarkington, though, found it fascinating and Ben Hecht thought it was hilarious. He wrote, "For every five people who read Charles Fort, four will go insane. Charles Fort has delighted me beyond all men who have written books in the world." He became a Fort fan, and one of the few at the time who seemed to see the hint of mischief and fun in Fort's tweaking of the scientific establishment.
Fort had been born into circumstances that would seem to have made him part of The Establishment. The son of a well-off Albany grocer, Charles was raised with his two younger brothers in traditional Victorian style, or at least an attempt at it. Despite the family's respectability, Charles and his brothers constantly got into the kind of mischief that little boys have gotten into throughout time--playing on rooftops, swinging on fragile beams in old abandoned houses, surviving near misses with carriages in the streets, falling through ice, burning down a neighbor's fence during a prank; in his autobiography, Fort wondered at how he managed to escape with his life, as undoubtedly do many others when looking back. His autobiography, much quoted by Steinmeyer, seems like something from Mark Twain (though Fort uses a distinct, weird first person plural style in which he refers to himself as "We," his father as "They," his brothers as "the Other Kid" and "Little Kid").
It wasn't all scampish adventures and pranks, though. Fort's father punished his sons severely, which in turn made Charles more and more defiant. The relationship between the two grew more and more distant as it became obvious that Charles had no interest in the family business. He escaped thanks to the help of a kind uncle, who noticed Charles' love of writing and got him a job at an Albany newspaper, a job that his father treated with thorough disdain. Fort climbed up the ladder at the Albany paper and eventually published enough pieces to land a job with a Brooklyn newspaper. He stayed there for a few years, then left with a few co-workers to start a newspaper in Woodside, Queens, which failed. After that, using money from rents on property left to him by his grandfather, Fort left New York and traveled, supporting himself in between payments from the property with any number of menial jobs.
He returned to New York, married his childhood sweetheart from Albany, and abandoned the newspaper business to try to make a living as a short story writer--which of course necessitated stints as a dishwasher, security guard, etc, as writing fiction for a living is a timelessly shaky proposition. He managed to get published regularly in a number of the many pulp magazines that were popular at the turn of the twentieth century (getting published is historically difficult; getting paid by publishers is even worse), and from the examples quoted and described by Steinmeyer, it's not hard to see why. He wrote stories about subjects he knew well, which made them come to life--gossipy goings-on in tenements seemed authentic because he lived in a tenement; descriptions of life amongst dockworkers were realistic because he had done time working on the docks. The ones that seem best (from Steinmeyer's description, at least) tell about reporters at small newspapers doing their best to come up with ways to do as little work as possible and still get paid.
Theodore Dreiser, then a magazine editor (Sister Carrie had been published by then, but was a failure in its first go-round), liked Fort's work and encouraged him, even suggesting he write a novel. Fort was usually shy and socially awkward, but eventually warmed up to Dreiser, and the two became close, lifelong friends (their steady correspondence is another heavily used source in Steinmeyer's book). The suggestion of writing a novel intrigued Fort, who was beginning to feel hemmed in by the conventions of the popular short story; his ambition to do something more was visible in the increasingly experimental style he used in his stories, something Dreiser tried to gently explain was making his work unreadable for the average magazine audience. Fort didn't take the criticism, and when he did produce his novel, Outcast Manufacturers, it was written in an equally strange style, that told a fantastical tale of workers in a factory that didn't make anything, who eventually get tossed out on the streets and try to survive together with various odd plans which fail until a seeming miracle comes along to make them prosperous and their former landlord gives them their factory back. Steinmeyer writes that it's more than a bit of a mess, with major characters who just disappear and are never heard from again, people who do inexplicable things, and a rambling style that at times is frustrating, and at others, enchanting. It sounds very much like the kind of story written by a poor, struggling author. Fort and his wife were constantly shuttling downward to worse and worse living quarters, probably with some stints on the streets or sleeping in parks in between. Writers often write stories that fulfill their wishes, and in Fort's case (and undoubtedly many others), there could have been no greater wish than a landlord who welcomed him to come back to a place and lived comfortably for free.
For Fort, incredibly, that kind of miracle, or something like it happened. He became the beneficiary of a series of inheritances that left him with enough money to write full-time--not enough to make him wealthy but enough to live in pleasant rooms, eat well, and let Anna quit her laundress job while he worked on new projects. He had greater ambitions than just writing fiction, by then; Fort, along with Dreiser and many others at that time, became fascinated by the various new philosophies floating around, attempts to explain everything. This was the time when spiritualism was regarded matter-of-factly by well-regarded, famous people, (Fort disdained spiritualists, but to his annoyance, often found himself lumped in with them). Theosophy was in vogue. Marconi calmly explained that some of signals picked up by his wireless radio were from mars. Orthogenesis, a bastardization of evolution in which species spontaneously changed on their own rather than through natural selection, was accepted in some circles; Fort believed in it. He also liked the idea that everyone on earth was being controlled by external forces, perhaps some kind of interplanetary puppeteer; we had no free will (Fort wasn't religious but the seemed okay with a Godlike figure). Monism, a theory that everyone and everything on earth was part of one universal whole, was being promoted by some and was another idea that appealed to Fort; two novels by Fort, X and Y apparently show the influence of monism. Fort couldn't get them published, though, and eventually destroyed the manuscripts (this broke Dreiser's heart, as he had been a constant champion of X; look, say what you will about Dreiser's taste--not to mention serial philandering--but he sounds like he was just about as good a friend as anyone could hope for).
At the same time, though, Einstein was publishing his work on relativity. Other physicists were making astonishing discoveries about the nuclear world, and doctors were finally uncovering more about the human body and how it works. It seemed, though, like the more science gave to people, the further they took it; the outlandish was often mixed with the accepted, something Fort noticed. He began to spend time each day in the library, looking for examples of the unexplained and phenomenal. When he found one, he wrote it down on a slip of paper, then filed it away in one of the many boxes he kept to organize the stories he found.
(Throughout his life, Fort kept various collections, of insects and reptiles when he was a child; later as a writer he constantly wrote down metaphors and descriptions he thought of and filed them away for use in future stories--the man would have been in love with Post-Its. He typically reached a point, though, where he destroyed each collection, something which horrified Dreiser, who had offered to buy the metaphor slips. He said once that he feared being controlled by his collections, which sounds weird at first, but then not so weird as you think about people who do become obsessed with collecting things and let their lives become overwhelmed by the act of collecting and the upkeep of their collections. Oddly, Fort almost always seemed to say his collections had "40,000" objects in them, as in "His collection of metaphors had reached 40,000." I don't know if he actually counted all of them or if he was just guessing, or perhaps exaggerating. I also don't know if Steinmeyer noticed how often this number comes up in his book.)
The Book of the Damned, then, was made up of these instances of the seemingly unexplained, a sort of volume of "News of the Weird." Fort's point was that science was unreliable--these things had happened and had been seen by people with their own eyes, but science couldn't explain them, so why should we believe anything from science? In between his oddities he wrote about things that had once been widely accepted as fact that had now been dismissed by so-called science; he seemed to think that science was really nothing more than whatever was the current fashion, and that scientists were hopelessly biased by their own beliefs, which influenced their theories.
Of course it should be noted, that that was exactly what Fort was doing--he had ideas, then cherry-picked evidence to support them. He took his own explanations only as far as would help him make his case. For example, he dismissed the theory that frogs and other living things seen falling from the sky were simply creatures caught up in a whirlwind that lifted them up, then tossed them back down; he argued "I have not heard of one fall, in this period, of dust, or pebbles, or leaves, such things as a whirlwind would be more likely to carry, than frogs and fishes." What he doesn't think through, though, is that few people would bother to report or be particularly amazed by falling dust or pebbles.
Many of Fort's ideas make you think, "Well, no, that doesn't make sense." Some of his failings can be explained by the fact that this was a time in which ideas and theories had hopelessly outraced technical might. The work of astronomers can seem less credulous when there aren't satellite photographs to act as proof; geologist's dating of material can just seem like a guess without equipment to pinpoint it exactly. Medicine, even at its most advanced, seemed hit or miss to everyday people. Fort's suspicion of science may have been over-the-top, but his skepticism, put in the context of the period, seems understandable. He was dismayed, however, to find that his disregard of science made him appeal to religious fundamentalists; he had no more interest in organized religion than establishmentn science, thinking that both just picked and chose at will what they would demonize as "witchcraft."
Some of Fort's ideas, though, may leave you thinking, "Well, I guess I see..." He is right that there have been many instances throughout history where what was once accepted as science has been thrown out by the next generation of scientists, though as noted above hopefully those types of changes will become less and less as technology allows for greater proof. He pokes fun at the revered system of classification by pointing out its seeming arbitrary choices; that you could put a camel and a peanut in the same class because they both have two humps, or an elephant and a sunflower together because they both have long stems. Obviously, classification is based on more than one feature, but his point, that what one person's reality isn't another's, is taken. Fort was endlessly scornful of Einstein, but his own theories sometimes seemed to be based on "everything is relative."
The Book of the Damned, with its mix of oddities and philosophy, its unclear boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, would have been a hard sell to a publisher, but Dreiser basically bribed his publishers to put it out in exchange for giving them the rights to his back catalogue and his next novel (it took him time to make good on that, but the book turned out to be An American Tragedy). Fort's book, though, actually sold reasonably well and he made enough money from it to live well. He spent the rest of his life doing research to find more oddities, both in libraries and through appeals to the general public made in letters to newspapers. He produced three more similarly themed books--New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents, before his death in 1932. He lived long enough to see a fan establish a "Fortean Society;" Fortean has since become an occasionally used adjective to describe the outrageous or outlandish. He still has fans today.
Steinmeyer's book is short (I think I may have written it's length today), and a quick read--except in sections where he extensively quotes Fort's philosophical musings, which are often so tangled and contradictory that I'm still not sure if I even understand what he believed and was trying to say, despite all I've written above. Sometimes Steinmeyer repeats himself--not word for word, but just, "didn't we cover that already?" There is one section that just describes what he and Dreiser served each other for dinner on a number of visits. I felt sometimes that slim as the book is, the material was already stretched. But like I said, I went through it fast, it's reasonably enjoyable, and Steinmeyer has sympathy for his subject, always an important quality; it's a fine enough way to pass a little time. I don't think I'll be returning to it in any way, though. It doesn't make the case for Fort as an important literary figure, although some apparently consider him one of the godfathers of science fiction (by the way, you get the feeling Fort would have loathed the book's subtitle, "The Man Who Invented the Supernatural;" he probably would have argued there was no difference between the natural and what we call the natural. I suspect Steinmeyer would agree and guess that the publisher stuck the title on the book). I probably came out of the book more interested in Dreiser than Fort.
What isn't completely clear about Fort--to anyone--is whether he was sincere in his insistent rejection of all we think we know--whether he actually believed in rain made of blood, a giant Sargasso sea that acts as a dumping ground for the universe, frogs that fall from the sky, in man's existence as nothing more than a cog in a giant machine; whether we are nothing more than a part of someone else's dream or in our own dream in which the rest of the world are simply actors. Or was he slyly just making fun of everything, as Ben Hecht believed, a teller of the world's tallest tales? No one is sure, but however outlandish his work may seem, even Fort had his limits. The New York World printed a story about a group of men who were standing on the street when a large black dog walked by. It paused and said, "Good morning," then disappeared in a greenish paper. Fort wouldn't include it in any of his books, though. He explained that he had heard many accounts of talking animals and therefore could accept a talking dog. But he couldn't buy the idea that a dog could disappear into thin air. Some things are just too crazy to be believed.