Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural.
By Jim Steinmeyer
(Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2008)
332 pp.; $24.95
CHARLES FORT, who died over three-quarters of a century ago, was a failure as a fiction writer and achieved only minor success in his lifetime with his other writing. This isn't surprising because his prose and philosophical musings were at best pretentious and stilted and at worst pretentious and incoherent. He was antisocial--a loner--and spent many years doing little but sitting in libraries reading obscure books and documents and taking notes. But Jim Steinmeyer's efficient though vexing new biography makes it clear why we all live today in Charles Fort's benightedly bizarre world.
Charles Hoy Fort was born in 1876 in Albany, New York, into a family that owned a prosperous wholesale grocery. His mother died when he was four; his father was a lout who constantly beat Charles and his two brothers. As a youth Charles swiftly lost faith in parental, religious, and scientific authority. He also became a dedicated collector of stamps, paper soldiers, birds' eggs, nests, and other eccentric items. As an adult, accumulating curiosities--specifically, accounts of offbeat events--remained a passion.
Charles left home at seventeen without finishing high school and became a reporter in Brooklyn. (Note to restless teenagers: Don't try this now.) He hoboed through parts of the United States and worked his way to England, South Africa, and South America. Fort wasn't exactly in the Sir Richard Burton mold: if anything exciting occurred during these journeys, Steinmeyer doesn't mention it. When Fort returned to New York City he married at the age of twenty-two and published short stories while living in or close to poverty. However, the stories attracted the attention of Theodore Dreiser, then a magazine editor in New York. Dreiser would become Fort's best friend and ardent champion. (Dreiser's idolizing of Fort--he addressed him as: "You whose books thrill and astound me as almost no other books have thrilled and astounded me"--is more perplexing than any of the oddities ever compiled by Fort.) In 1909 Fort published a novel, The Outcast Manufacturers; it was neither a critical nor a popular success.
Fort's financial and professional fortunes improved when he inherited money from relatives. The inheritance meant that he no longer had to seek employment and could concentrate on, to quote Steinmeyer, "researching anomalies? Fort's lucubrations in the New York Public Library produced forty thousand notes; the notes undergirded The Book of the Damned (1919), which was published because Dreiser told his publisher, Boni & Liveright, that he would take his own new novel elsewhere if Boni & Liveright didn't publish Fort's book.
The Book of the Damned is filled with reports of peculiar incidents: stones, frogs, and fish falling from the sky; UFOs; inexplicable footprints; and so forth. These marvels presumably served to validate Fort's epistemology, which he called Intermediatism:
I should say that our existence is like a bridge, like the Brooklyn Bridge, upon which multitudes of bugs are seeking a fundamental--coming to a girder that seems firm and final--but the girder is built upon supports. A support then seems final. But it is built upon underlying structures. Nothing final can be found in all the bridge, because the bridge itself is not a final thing in itself, but is a relationship between Manhattan and Brooklyn. If our existence is a relationship between the Positive Absolute and the Negative Absolute, the quest for finality in it is hopeless. Everything in it must be relative, if the 'whole' is not a whole but is, itself, a relation.
Steinmeyer clarifies matters somewhat (he copiously quotes from Fort's work in his book, but the reader will be relieved to learn that the biographer is a more adept explicator of Fort's ideas than Fort was): "This becomes Fort's philosophy of Intermediatism. Everything becomes part of a hyphenated existence, between positive-negative, or animal-vegetable, or even yellow-red."
Integral to Fort's worldview was a pronounced suspicion of science. "The continuity" Steinmeyer writes, "the gradual state of positive to negative, explains Fort's skepticism of scientific knowledge: 'That nothing [Fort maintained] ever has been proved. Because there is nothing to prove.' Fort believed that the continuity of all things meant that attempts at scientific definitions--animal, plant, atom, or planet--were completely arbitrary or pointless."
The Book of the Damned sold respectably and was the prototype of three other books by Fort: New Lands, Lo!, and Wild Talents. The mix of mysteries and metaphysics in these four volumes would, in time, establish their author's guru credentials. Charles Fort died in 1932 at the age of fifty-seven, probably of leukemia. In the last years of his life he became an object of cultlike devotion: disciples founded the Fortean Society to propagate Fort's concepts (among the founding members were Dreiser, Ben Hecht, Booth Tarkington, and Alexander Woollcott). Fort's status as a cult figure endures to this day in INFO, the International Fortean Organization (unrelated to the defunct Fortean Society) and the Fortean Times (not connected to INFO), a slick monthly magazine containing "The world's weirdest news stories."
Jim Steinmeyer is an able writer and a conscientious researcher (for the most part: Booth Tarkington won the Pulitzer Prize, not the Nobel Prize, for The Magnificent Ambersons, and the Scopes trial took place in Dayton, Tennessee, not Dayton, Ohio). He does a proficient job of making his subject's uneventful life as stimulating as possible. Fort's only importance consists of his posthumous influence on our culture. This, admittedly, is significant--and perturbing--and it is Steinmeyer's observations on this topic that prompt my misgivings about this biography.
Steinmeyer has written two books about magicians and magic (Hiding the Elephant and The Glorious Deception) and has designed stage tricks for famous magicians. It is understandable, given these accomplishments, that he would be fascinated with the limits and lacunae in human comprehension and thus would conceive of Charles Fort as a man who ingeniously toyed in a salutary way with people's notions of certainty:
What Fort invented was our modern view of the paranormal. He worked as a pure agnostic; rather than building up his phenomena to the status of miracles, he tore down the hallowed traditions of religion and science. After Fort, it was no longer possible to discuss these subjects without debating the nature of reality. After Fort, the supernatural was no longer associated with religiosity, but was presented as a natural, if unexpected, part of the world: those nagging 'believe it or not' facts suggesting that our belief system is at best misguided and at worst conspiratorial.
Fort was, indeed, the progenitor, the godfather of contemporary paranormal (I prefer the term pseudoscientific) beliefs. But because I think of pseudoscience as an ominous and ubiquitous manifestation of our society's intellectual philistinism, the Charles Fort that I discern in Charles Fort is a different poltergeist than the one envisaged by Steinmeyer: a self-important opportunist who (I believe I'm paraphrasing Wittgenstein) didn't know what he didn't know.
Steinmeyer seems all too in sync with Fort's scorn of science and scientists. "Critics may have been peeved," Steinmeyer states, "at Fort's suggestion that scientific truths are 'fashionable; but the word offends only by degree. He makes an essential point: the history of science is indeed full of buffoons, mistakes, miscalculations, changes of emphasis, arguments, and reevaluations. The public has done a disservice by ignoring these, elevating science to holiness-our salvation--and promoting scientists to a sort of priesthood." Is this the most astute of sentiments at a time when science illiteracy is rampant? (To cite just two examples: approximately 50 percent of Americans reject the theory of evolution; a recent measles outbreak was the result of parents who didn't vaccinate their children because they were convinced that vaccines cause autism.) Moreover, disdaining science now in the United States has pernicious social and political consequences.
Steinmeyer asserts, apropos of Martin Gardner, the great debunker of peudoscience, that "Gardner's drum-beating for science was precisely the sort of thing that would have delighted Fort" By "delighted" I presume Steinmeyer means, delighted in a derisive way. It's depressing to think that Steinmeyer probably shares that mocking attitude toward Gardner (who is superior in every way to Fort as a thinker and a writer). An even more depressing endeavor is to speculate on why it is that the Charles Forts become powerful cultural forces and not the Martin Gardners.
Howard Schneider is a writer and editor in New York City.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2009|
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