"One measures a circle, beginning anywhere." - Charles Fort
Charles Hoy Fort (August 6, 1874 – May 3, 1932) was an American writer and researcher into anomalous phenomena. Today, the terms Fortean and Forteana are used to characterize various such phenomena. Fort's books sold well and are still in print today. His work continues to inspire people, who call themselves Forteans, and has influenced some aspects of science fiction.
Charles Hoy Fort was born in 1874 in Albany, New York, of Dutch ancestry. His grocer father was an authoritarian, and in Many Parts, Fort's unpublished autobiography, he describes his father's physical abuse. Fort's biographer, Damon Knight, suggested that Fort's distrust of authority had its roots in his treatment as a child. Fort did develop his strong sense of independence in his early years.
As a young adult, Fort wanted to be a naturalist, collecting sea shells, minerals, and birds. Although he was described as curious and intelligent, Fort was not a good student. He was considered quite knowledgeable about the world, but this only came from his extensive reading.
At age 18, Fort left New York on a world tour to "put some capital in the bank of experience". He traveled through the western United States, Scotland, and England, until falling ill in Southern Africa. Returning home, he was nursed by Anna Filing, a girl he had known from his childhood. They were married on October 26, 1896. Anna was four years older than Fort and enjoyed films and of parakeets. She moved with her husband to London for two years where they would go to the cinema when Fort wasn't busy with his research. His success as a short story writer was intermittent between periods of terrible poverty and depression.
In 1916, an inheritance from an uncle gave Fort enough money to quit his various day jobs and to write full-time. In 1917, Fort's brother Clarence died; his portion of the same inheritance was divided between Fort and Raymond.
Fort wrote ten novels, although only one, The Outcast Manufacturers (1909), was published. Reviews were mostly positive, but the tenement tale was commercially unsuccessful. In 1915, Fort began to write two books, titled X and Y, the first dealing with the idea that beings on Mars were controlling events on Earth, and the second with the postulation of a sinister civilization extant at the South Pole. These books caught the attention of writer Theodore Dreiser, who attempted to get them published, but to no avail. Disheartened by this failure, Fort burnt the manuscripts, but was soon renewed to begin work on the book that would change the course of his life, The Book of the Damned (1919), which Dreiser helped to get into print. The title referred to "damned" data that Fort collected, phenomena for which science could not account and that was thus rejected or ignored.
Fort's experience as a journalist, coupled with high wit egged on by a contrarian nature, prepared him for his real-life work, needling the pretensions of scientific positivism and the tendency of journalists and editors of newspapers and scientific journals to rationalize the scientifically incorrect.
Fort and Anna lived in London from 1924 to 1926, having moved there so Fort could peruse the files of the British Museum. Although born in Albany, Fort lived most of his life in the Bronx. He was, like his wife, fond of films, and would often take her from their Ryer Avenue apartment to the nearby movie theater, and would always stop at the adjacent newsstand for an armful of various newspapers. Fort frequented the parks near the Bronx, where he would sift through piles of his clippings. He would often ride the subway down to the main New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, where he would spend many hours reading scientific journals along with newspapers and periodicals from around the world. Fort also had a small circle of literary friends and they would gather on occasion at various apartments, including his own, to drink and talk, which was tolerated by Anna. Theodore Dreiser would lure him out to meetings with phony telegrams and notes, and the resultant evening would be full of good food, conversation and hilarity.
Suffering from poor health and failing eyesight, Fort was pleasantly surprised to find himself the subject of a cult following. There was talk of the formation of a formal organization to study the type of odd events related in his books. Clark writes, "Fort himself, who did nothing to encourage any of this, found the idea hilarious. Yet he faithfully corresponded with his readers, some of whom had taken to investigating reports of anomalous phenomena and sending their findings to Fort" (Clark 1998, 235).
Fort distrusted doctors and did not seek medical help for his worsening health. Rather, he focused his energies towards completing Wild Talents. After he collapsed on May 3, 1932, Fort was rushed to Royal Hospitalin The Bronx. Later that same day, Fort's publisher visited him to show the advance copies of Wild Talents. Fort died only hours afterward, probably of leukemia.
He was interred in the Fort family plot in Albany, New York. His more than 60,000 notes were donated to the New York Public Library.
Fort and the unexplained
Fort's relationship with the study of anomalous phenomena is frequently misunderstood and misrepresented. For over thirty years, Charles Fort sat in the libraries of New York City and London, assiduously reading scientific journals, newspapers, and magazines, collecting notes on phenomena that lay outside the accepted theories and beliefs of the time.
Fort took thousands of notes in his lifetime. In his short story "The Giant, the Insect and The Philanthropic-looking Old Gentleman" (first published by the International Fortean Organization in issue #70 of the "INFO Journal: Science and the Unknown"), Fort spoke of sitting on a park bench at The Cloisters in New York City and tossing some 48,000 notes, not all of his collection by any means, into the wind. This short story is significant because Fort uses his own data collection technique to solve a mystery. He marveled that seemingly unrelated bits of information were, in fact, related. Fort wryly concludes that he went back to collecting data and taking even more notes. The notes were kept on cards and scraps of paper in shoe boxes, in a cramped shorthand of Fort's own invention, and some of them survive today in the collections of the University of Pennsylvania. More than once, depressed and discouraged, Fort destroyed his work, but always began anew. Some of the notes were published, little by little, by the Fortean Society magazine "Doubt" and, upon the death of its editor Tiffany Thayer in 1959, most were donated to the New York Public Library, where they are still available to researchers of the unknown.
From this research, Fort wrote four books. These are The Book of the Damned (1919), New Lands (1923), Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932); one book was written between New Lands and Lo! but it was abandoned and absorbed into Lo!.
Fort's writing style
Fort suggested that there is a Super-Sargasso Sea into which all lost things go, and justified his theories by noting that they fit the data as well as the conventional explanations. As to whether Fort believed this theory, or any of his other proposals, he himself noted, "I believe nothing of my own that I have ever written."
Notable literary contemporaries of Fort openly admired his writing style and befriended him. Among these were Ben Hecht, John Cowper Powys, Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, and Booth Tarkington.
After Fort's death, the writer Colin Wilson said that he suspected that Fort took few if any of his "explanations" seriously and noted that Fort made "no attempt to present a coherent argument." He described Fort as "a patron of cranks", while at the same time he compared Fort to Robert Ripley, a popular contemporary cartoonist and writer who found major success publishing similar oddities in a syndicated newspaper panel series called Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Wilson called Fort's writing style "atrocious" and "almost unreadable," yet despite his objections to Fort's prose, he allowed that "the facts are certainly astonishing enough." In the end Fort's work gave him "the feeling that no matter how honest scientists think they are, they are still influenced by various unconscious assumptions that prevent them from attaining true objectivity. Expressed in a sentence, Fort's principle goes something like this: People with a psychological need to believe in marvels are no more prejudiced and gullible than people with a psychological need not to believe in marvels."
Jerome Clark, on the other hand, wrote that Fort was "essentially a satirist hugely skeptical of human beings' – especially scientists' – claims to ultimate knowledge".
Clark described Fort's writing style as a "distinctive blend of mocking humor, penetrating insight, and calculated outrageousness".
Examples of the odd phenomena in Fort's books include many of what are variously referred to as occult, supernatural, and paranormal. Reported events include teleportation (a term Fort is generally credited with coining); poltergeist events; falls of frogs, fishes, inorganic materials of an amazing range; unaccountable noises and explosions; spontaneous fires; levitation; ball lightning (a term explicitly used by Fort); unidentified flying objects; unexplained disappearances; giant wheels of light in the oceans; and animals found outside their normal ranges (see phantom cat). He offered many reports of out-of-place artifacts (OOPArts), strange items found in unlikely locations. He also is perhaps the first person to explain strange human appearances and disappearances by the hypothesis of alien abduction and was an early proponent of the extraterrestrial hypothesis, specifically suggesting that strange lights or objects sighted in the skies might be alien spacecraft. Fort also wrote about the interconnectedness of nature and synchronicity.
Many of these phenomena are now collectively and conveniently referred to as Fortean phenomena or Forteana, whilst others have developed into their own schools of thought: for example, reports of UFOs in ufology and unconfirmed animals (cryptids) in cryptozoology. These new disciplines are not recognized by mainstream scientists or academics.
Fort's work has inspired very many to consider themselves as Forteans. The first of these was the screenwriter Ben Hecht, who in a review of The Book of the Damned declared "I am the first disciple of Charles Fort… henceforth, I am a Fortean". Among Fort's other notable fans were John Cowper Powys, Sherwood Anderson, Clarence Darrow, and Booth Tarkington, who wrote the foreword to New Lands.
Precisely what is encompassed by "Fortean" is a matter of great debate; the term is widely applied from every position from Fortean purists dedicated to Fort's methods and interests, to those with open and active acceptance of the actuality of paranormal phenomena, a position with which Fort may not have agreed. Most generally, Forteans have a wide interest in unexplained phenomena in wide-ranging fields, mostly concerned with the natural world, and have a developed "agnostic skepticism" regarding the anomalies they note and discuss. For Mr. Hecht as an example, being a Fortean meant hallowing a pronounced distrust of authority in all its forms, whether religious, scientific, political, philosophical or otherwise. It did not, of course, include an actual belief in the anomalous data enumerated in Fort's works.
The Fortean Society was founded at the Savoy-Plaza Hotel in New York City on 26 January 1931 by his friends, many of whom were significant writers such as Theodore Dreiser, Ben Hecht, Alexander Woollcott, and led by fellow American writer Tiffany Thayer, half in earnest and half in the spirit of great good humor, like the works of Fort himself. The board of Founders included Dreiser, Hecht, Booth Tarkington, Aaron Sussman, John Cowper Powys, the former editor of Puck Harry Leon Wilson, Woolcott and J. David Stern, publisher of the Philadelphia Record. Active members of the Fortean Society included journalist H.L. Mencken and prominent science fiction writers such as Eric Frank Russell and Damon Knight. Fort, however, rejected the Society and refused the presidency, which went to his close friend writer Theodore Dreiser; he was lured to its inaugural meeting by false telegrams. As a strict non-authoritarian, Fort refused to establish himself as an authority, and further objected on the grounds that those who would be attracted by such a grouping would be spiritualists, zealots, and those opposed to a science that rejected them; it would attract those who believed in their chosen phenomena: an attitude exactly contrary to Forteanism. Fort did hold unofficial meetings and had a long history of getting together informally with many of NYC's literati such as Theodore Dreiser and Ben Hecht at their various apartments where they would talk, have a meal and then listen to short reports.
The magazine Fortean Times (first published in November 1973), is a proponent of Fortean journalism, combining humour, skepticism, and serious research into subjects which scientists and other respectable authorities often disdain. Another such group is the International Fortean Organization (INFO). INFO was formed in the early 1960s (incorporated in 1965) by brothers, the writers Ron and Paul Willis, who acquired much of the material of the original Fortean Society which had begun in 1932 in the spirit of Charles Fort but which had grown silent by 1959 with the death of Tiffany Thayer. INFO publishes the "INFO Journal: Science and the Unknown" and organizes the FortFest, the world's first, and continuously running, conference on anomalous phenomena dedicated to the spirit of Charles Fort. INFO, since the mid-1960s, also provides audio CDs and filmed DVDs of notable conference speakers (Colin Wilson, John Michell, Graham Hancock, John Anthony West, William Corliss, John Keel, Joscelyn Godwin among many others). Other Fortean societies are also active, notably the Edinburgh Fortean Society in Edinburgh and the Isle of Wight.
Fort is acknowledged by religious scholars such as Jeffrey J. Kripal and Joseph P. Laycock as a pioneering theorist of the paranormal who helped define "paranormal" as a discursive category and provided insight into its importance in human experience. Although Fort is consistently critical of the scientific study of abnormal phenomena, he remains relevant today for those who engage in such studies.
More than a few modern authors of fiction and non-fiction who have written about the influence of Fort are sincere followers of Fort. One of the most notable is British philosopher John Michell who wrote the Introduction to Lo!, published by John Brown in 1996. Michell says "Fort, of course, made no attempt at defining a world-view, but the evidence he uncovered gave him an 'acceptance' of reality as something far more magical and subtly organized than is considered proper today." Stephen King also uses the works of Fort to illuminate his main characters, notably It and Firestarter. In Firestarter, the parents of a pyrokinetically gifted child are advised to read Fort's Wild Talents rather than the works of baby doctor Benjamin Spock. Loren Coleman is a well-known Cryptozoologist, author of The Unidentified (1975) dedicated to Fort, and Mysterious America, which Fortean Times called a Fortean classic. Indeed, Coleman calls himself the first Vietnam era C.O. to base his pacifistic ideas on Fortean thoughts. Jerome Clark has described himself as a "Skeptical Fortean". Mike Dash is another capable Fortean, bringing his historian's training to bear on all manner of odd reports, while being careful to avoid uncritically accepting any orthodoxy, be it that of fringe devotees or mainstream science. Science-fiction writers of note including Philip K. Dick, Robert Heinlein, and Robert Anton Wilson were also fans of the work of Fort.
Fort's work, of compilation and commentary on anomalous phenomena has been carried on by William R. Corliss, whose self-published books and notes bring Fort's collections up to date.
In 1939 Eric Frank Russell first published the novel which became Sinister Barrier, in which he names Fort explicitly as an influence. Russell included some of Fort's data in the story.
Ivan T. Sanderson, Scottish naturalist and writer, was a devotee of Fort's work, and referenced it heavily in several of his own books on unexplained phenomena, notably Things (1967), and More Things (1969).
Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier's The Morning of the Magicians was also heavily influenced by Fort's work and mentions it often.
The noted UK paranormalist, Fortean and ordained priest Lionel Fanthorpe presented the Fortean TV series on Channel Four.
Paul Thomas Anderson's popular movie Magnolia (1999) has an underlying theme of unexplained events, taken from the 1920s and '30s works of Charles Fort. Fortean author Loren Coleman has written a chapter about this motion picture, entitled "The Teleporting Animals and Magnolia", in one of his recent books. The film has many hidden Fortean themes, notably "falling frogs". In one scene, one of Fort's books is visible on a table in a library and there is an end credit thanking him by name.
In the 2011 film The Whisperer in Darkness, Fort is portrayed by Andrew Leman.
The American crime and science fiction author Frederic Brown included an excerpt from Fort's book Wild Talents at the beginning of his novel Compliments of a Fiend. In that quote Fort speculated about the disappearance of two people named Ambrose and wondered "was someone collecting Ambroses?" Brown's novel is centered around the disappearance of a character named Ambrose and the kidnapper calls himself the "Ambrose collector" as an obvious homage to Fort.
Author Donald Jeffries referenced Charles Fort repeatedly in his 2007 novel The Unreals