Who Was Charles Fort?
Charles Fort. Public domain image.
This podcast would have never gotten very far off the ground if it wasn't for the perpetual public interest in the strange. And by extension, part of that credit must go to Charles Fort, the author who is eponymous with what's known as Fortean Phenomena, strange things, weird things, things not explained by science; they go bump in the night, they zoom through our skies, they breathe life into the inanimate. Fort's books in the early 1900s were not the first to talk about such things but they were arguably the most influential. But Fort himself was an enigma. Was he a true believer in the things he wrote about, was he a clever satirist, or was he putting us all on with some gigantic joke? Today we're going to go back to the Bronx in New York, to the roaring interbellum days of suffrage and deco and prohibition, and of Charles Fort's frogs falling from the sky.
Born in Albany, New York in 1874, Fort lived a relatively unremarkable life until 1916 when an inheritance from an uncle gave him the freedom to devote himself full time to writing and studying strange reports. He is best known for four books, all of which are poetically written collected accounts of phenomena outside of science: The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931), and Wild Talents (1932). Some describe them as sardonic, others as hilarious, others as witty, amusing, and wild. He blends reports of strange phenomena with his bizarre philosophical view of the universe, one in which all things are connected as if all part of an omnipresent intelligent organism.
Two other writers figured prominently in Fort's career: Theodore Dreiser who helped Fort publish his books and also published some of his short stories in his own magazine; and a gentleman named Tiffany Thayer, whose admiration for Fort grew into an obsession. Thayer founded the Fortean Society in 1931 a year before Fort's death, against Fort's wishes; with Dreiser as its first President and editor of its magazine. Thayer collected quite a gallery of personalities drawn by Fort's books, notably Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, the paranormalist Ivan T. Sanderson, and more mainstream writers such as Booth Tarkington, Ben Hecht, Alexander Woollcott, Dorothy Parker, and H. L. Mencken.
What would have attracted such a diverse bunch to a reclusive author whose books were not so much literary as they were curiosities? And moreover, the Fortean Society flourished long after Fort's death. To allure would seem to have been elusive, and so we begin to consider whether the Society was a serious venture or not. In 1952, author Martin Gardner wrote:
For his part, Thayer was clear enough. After Fort's death, he wrote:
But there is cause to take Thayer with a grain of salt. After Fort died, Thayer took over the Society and its magazine completely, writing nearly all of it himself, and often turning it into his own political soapbox, especially during World War II. It was anything but a tongue-in-cheek satire mag.
Whatever Thayer's motivations may have been, Fort's own writing gave us plenty that we could easily interpret as evidence that he was putting us all on. He sometimes became so bizarre that it couldn't possibly seem that he expected to be taken seriously:
Fort's life showed us that he was probably a disturbed individual and he displayed many of the signs of a crank, which we might reasonably interpret as consistent with his actually believing some of the silly things he wrote. Dreiser and Thayer are reported to have been the only two friends Fort had; he was not social and didn't really leave the house much. And even then, both Dreiser and Thayer met Fort opportunistically, attracted by his writing; and though both were genuine admirers of his, both attempted to make money from his work. Fort's only reported recreation was to spend hours at a game of his own devise called Super Checkers, a solitaire game played with one thousand checkers on a huge board. Much of the rest of the time, he buried himself in the public libraries. He was, by all accounts, a loner, working in isolation, and never sought peer review or collaborators.
Had he been a genuine satirist, he was well outside the mold. Deliberate satirists write for a reason, and tend to be passionate about that reason. If Fort ever had such an inclination he kept it to himself. He gave no indication that his interest in strange phenomena was anything but a personal obsession. He did not satirize any subjects and poked fun only at science and scientists. It is possible that Fort was a deliberate satirist, but his work is equally consistent with being that of a serious author whose ideas just were really that far out there.
As a critic of the folly of human nature, Fort was — some might convincingly argue — on a par with Twain. For his criticisms of scientists and their efforts to succeed at science are but thinly veiled observations of universal human weaknesses. When he wrote The Book of the Damned, Halley's Comet had passed by only a few years before. Fort observed:
Fort's books are iron-dense with such musings on the human spirit. It's no wonder that Thayer had no trouble populating the original Fortean Society with so many literary giants. To describe Fort's books as lists of strange events is to completely miss their true potential. They are, instead, collections of deeply insightful characterizations of human reactions to strange events; lightly written, but profound in their implication. And yet, in the very next passage, Fort would write of a naval observer watching ice flakes pass across his view through a telescope:
...and at that point, supporters of the position that Fort was an ardent True Believer have to borrow a tactic from the Biblical literalists who say "Well, the rest of it is true, but this is clearly just a metaphor." But then you have to do that on every page. Just when Fort has you convinced that he's a true antagonist to science and proponent of the supernatural, he pulls the rug out from under you with an undeniable observation of the recklessness of the id; and when you conclude that he's in reality a philosopher with a keen eye, he trips you up with a scientific claim that wouldn't convince a Chia Pet.
The satire characterization seemed the most persuasive to UFO author Jerome Clark, who described him as "a satirist hugely skeptical of human beings" but who tended to reserve most of that skepticism for "scientists' claims to ultimate knowledge". The straw-man charge that scientists claim to have ultimate knowledge is commonly heard from those hostile to the scientific method — because in reality, scientists owe their very existence to the fact that much needs to be learned — and so we might conclude that Fort was genuinely anti-science. Clark also described Fort's writing as full of "mocking humor, penetrating insight, and calculated outrageousness", but there's nothing there inconsistent with a legitimate disdain for science-based discovery. This is backed up by existentialist author Colin Wilson, who called Fort the "patron saint of cranks", and said:
Here's my take on Charles Fort. I've read what's out there and I'm truly not sure where he was on the spectrum ranging from "dead serious" to "completely pulling all our legs". It's a question I don't have the answer to. Curiously, that's the precise theme that ran through all of Fort's writing: not knowing the answer. Conjectures, speculations, hypotheses, and knowing only one thing for sure: anyone claiming to have the exact answer is almost certainly wrong. For me, that's the most significant takeaway from Fort's contribution to the twentieth century: not a collection of bizarre events unexplained by science, but an attitude of questioning our own observations, and even more importantly, ourselves.
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