THE LIFE, WORK AND INFLUENCE OF CHARLES FORT
There is a man, largely undiscovered by the modern world, whom I, and many others, believe made one of the most significant contributions to the world of science. Had it not been that he vehemently opposed modern scientists and their methods, his work might be enjoying a greater popularity than it does. Had this man decided to write about completely different topics, he would be hailed as a fabulous literary character. Here was a peculiar fellow. Charles Fort devoted 26 years of his life to compiling documented reports of scientific anomalies from journals and newspapers from all around the world. He lived in dire poverty so that truth could prevail. His life's work may one day be of great scientific worth, should the established scientific community ever muster the courage to approach it.
Anomalies. This is what Fort trafficked in. Reports of prehistoric beasts frolicking in the world's oceans. (Loch Ness, Champ, Storsjon Animal). Ancient artifacts found in improbable places (Roman coins in the deserts of Arizona, Chinese seals found buried deep in the forests of Ireland, small statues of horses discovered in pre-Columbian Venezuela). Falls of things other than rain from the sky (red rains in 1571 England, 1744 Genoa; a rain of "73 organic formations, particular to South America" in France in 1846). Unidentified aerial phenomena (excluding Ezekiel's Biblical description. Fort's list contains the first known report of a so-called "UFO", dating from 1779). These are but a few of the subjects Fort spent his lifetime collecting reports of. This anomalous data are roped together under the banner of "Forteana”, a term which probably does not exist in any dictionary, because that which it pertains to isn't supposed to exist at all.
He who championed underdogs, has been and will likely continue to be, one of the greatest underdogs of all time. For he has not a baseball team or brooding thespians to compete with, but the entire history of the scientific world. His work spat in the face of conventional scientists. There is much going on around us that defies explanation. Fort amassed reports of events seen by humans around the world countless times, which, none the less, have been dismissed. The data he collected were excommunicated by science, which acts like a religion. "The monks of science" he wrote, "dwell on smuggeries that are walled away from event-jungles- Science has done its utmost to prevent whatever science has done" (the Book of the Damned, p. 245). His legacy, his collection of data lies before us. It is indisputable, and yet still ignored. The reports he gathered could make any enemy of science acquire a renewed enthusiasm for the subject. In his four published works, the Book of the Damned (1919). New Lands (1923) Lo! (1931) and Wild Talents (1932) we find over 1,200 documented reports of occurrences which orthodox science refuses to attempt to explain. Explanation was not Fort's purpose. He merely presented the data, sometimes with his own speculations, sometimes with tongue in cheek. While anomalies can be entertaining, they can also be deeply disturbing, for they undermine the foundations of science, the idea that every thing in this world is rational and under control. Articles like those collected in Fortean Times and the INFO Journal (International Fortean Organization), two publications which continue Fort's work, prove that things are not under our control, nor will they ever be. Many people, including scientists, find this discomforting and so ignore that which they cannot explain.
Fort was born on the 6th or 9th of August, 1874, in Albany, New York, to Victorian parents. “His mother died when he was four, from complications of the birth of his second brother Raymond. After two years, his father bought a new house. Fort hated intolerance, and the severe Victorian upbringing he and his brothers received may have instilled in him a defiance which would carry on into his adulthood, one that may have compelled him to champion the material found in his books: the ignored but not defeated. At 13, his father remarried a member of a prominent Albany family, but the boys' cruel treatment did not subside. When they became too old to beat, they were imprisoned in a small, windowless room and starved.
Fort enjoyed church, but shot spit wads at the bald heads and small children there. He would confess his little sins to the keeper, Mrs. Lawson, for they kept him awake if he didn't. He had a keen interest in science which was put off by a series of failed experiments his teacher attempted to perform. With ambitions of becoming a naturalist, Fort began a collection of the birds he claimed with his slingshot, mounting the specimens and preserving their organs. While he was the sliver in his teachers' foot in school, a smug little skeptic, at home Charles read voraciously on subjects such as languages, natural history, geography, and taxonomy. His interests varied greatly and his inquisitiveness was rare in one so young. What he did not learn in school he pursued with a rare, determined passion. He forged his grades and his fondness for writing was encouraged by his uncle and teacher, John Hoy. Eventually he clamored into the office of the newspaper the Albany Democrat. After submitting his first assignment, the copy reader gave it back, saying, "the puzzle editor isn't in just now." The story was printed after Fort cultivated a more legible style of handwriting (Knight, p.21). Soon he was assigned to cover the local courthouse. Once he decided he was a man, he began drinking and gambling. He wrote peculiar little stories and sold them to the Brooklyn World. He was 17.
When his father died, Fort was sent to live with his grandfather. Now 18, he smoked, drank and consorted with fallen women, all in the dubious hope of gaining experience which would enrich his writing career. Unsatisfied, he abandoned school to work full time on the Brooklyn World. Within a year he was editing a weekly that two ex-employees of the paper had begun in Queens. When the Woodhaven Independent met its demise, he decided to use the $25 he received each month from his guardian to finance a trip around the world, all to "accumulate an experience and knowledge of life that would fit me to become a writer" and "to put capital in the bank of experience."
Two years he spent collecting impressions of the world, gathering coconuts on the island of St. Helena in Africa, traipsing through Nova Scotia, sleeping in parks in England, sharing trains with cowboys in New Orleans. Upon his return to New York in 1896, he wrote "30,000 miles—nothing more to see—only 21, but for now the work of a master!" Soon he met up with a paralyzed ex-world traveler whose advice Fort seemed to take to an extreme. "I, too, have always had that interest in life," the man said. "Lord! Lord! such a mistake! You don’t want to know something about everybody, but everything about somebody. I never begun to learn about life until I was cooped up here with my wife and (daughter) Maggie." Fort wrote: "One cannot ignore a truth when one has passed through all the errors below it." He knew, as Damon Knight put it, "that one should not scatter one's self upon all life, but center upon some kind of life and know it thoroughly" (Knight, p. 33). Thus ended his first lesson. It appears that Fort had contracted malaria in South Africa. He ran into Anna Filing, who had known Fort since she was 13, and she nursed him back to health. In October they were married. They were separated only by his death 35 years later. After a honeymoon in Maine, they returned to tenement life in New York. She never read, but cooked well. He wrote for magazines about his wretched neighbors. He took 25,000 notes on all kinds of subjects but decided they weren't what he wanted and destroyed them, an impulsive task which he was to repeat many times throughout his life. For 20 years they lived on the edge of poverty. He couldn't look for work when it rained for the holes in his shoes; they broke chairs for fire wood; visits where made to the pawn shop. Fort sold stories to newspapers. He collected 40,000 more notes from every scientific journal he could find and began to see an unsuspected pattern.
In 1905, he came to Smith's Magazine with a batch of his stories, which editor (and influential author) Theodore Dreiser called the "best humorous short stories I have ever seen produced in America." He went on to call Fort "a new and rare literary star". Only in a financial sense was Fort an unsuccessful writer. Although he eeked out a living as a journalist, much of his writing was too quirky to publish. By December of 1907, Fort wrote "my mind [is] filled with pictures of cutting my throat or leaping out of the window head first." Biographer Damon Knight says of his character: "He was built like a walrus; an utterly peaceable and sedentary man. He lived quietly with his wife, had almost no visitors or went out, and owned no telephone—he spent his mornings working at home, afternoons at the library, and went out with his wife to the movies almost every night."
Fort's father died in 1912, leaving his estate to Charles’s blind stepmother, which was inherited by Raymond when she died the following year. The Outcast Manufacturers was published in 1909, the only one of his ten known completed novels to be published. It never received the attention it deserved, as a realistic novel ahead of its time. He resumed his "grand tour", scouring the world's newspapers and filling shoeboxes with notes he had taken in a shorthand of his own invention.
By 1915 he had collected several tens of thousands of notes, and began two books, X and Y. By now Fort was completely frustrated by the publishing industry, and becoming increasingly soured by the scientific community as well. He decided that in science, there were only cranks and believers, and so he became a crank. In X, he proposed that life on earth had been controlled by some force on Mars. In Y he told of a sinister civilization which existed at the South Pole, and that Kasper Hauser, a mystery man who suddenly appeared in Nuremburg in 1828, was actually a visitor from Y-Land. In writing Dreiser, he said "You have at least one thing to be thankful for — I could've begun with A."
In May of 1916, Fort's uncle died, leaving him a share of the estate, enabling him to buy a few pieces of furniture, and at the age of 42, he was relieved of having to earn a living. Unsatisfied, he rewrote Y. Even though he began his serious career with two books filled with what we must call "crackpot theories", we know that the information in his four published non-fiction works, while incredible, can all be verified. Why would a man sacrifice his life to write about things which he did not believe in the validity of?
Fort quickly overcame his temporary insanity and burnt the manuscripts of X and Y which Dreiser had taken to many publishers, all of whom rejected it for one reason or another. Fort began work on the Book of the Damned, so titled because any datum that did not fit one scientist's view or the collective paradigm was ignored, suppressed, discredited or explained away, and was therefore "damned." Dreiser demanded that his personal publisher put the book out, and threatened to leave when told it would lose money. With the Book of the Damned, Fort now arrived at the idea that if there are unsuspected patterns in the universe, they can be found in the data that does not fit known patterns. He distrusted established categories, because every system excludes other systems which may be equally as valid. Individuals can only see what they are looking for. He questioned Euclid, Newton and Darwin, and wrote with an amazing wit and boundless insight.
Ben Hecht, who went on to become a major screenwriter in the 1930's, made a review of the book when it was published in 1919. "Fort has made a terrible onslaught upon the accumulated lunacy of 50 years... He has shot the scientific basis of modem wisdom full of large, ugly holes... I am the first disciple of Charles Fort. Henceforth, I am a Fortean." (The words Fortean and Forteana, while popular among his followers, are not to be found in dictionaries.) Booth Tarkington asked, "Who in the name of frenzy is Charles Fort? People must turn to look at his head when he walks down the street; I think it's a head that would emit noises and explosions, with copper flames playing out from the ears."
With the Book of the Damned, the material Fort is known for began to emerge. He questioned all authority and went on to reject it. He was not opposed to the scientific method or science in general, but to the narrow-minded views on which they were largely based. He became the defender of discarded data. With threads of his own speculation and wit, he stitched the yarns of his books together. "The interpretations will be mine, but the data will be for anybody to form his own opinions on." (Book of the Damned, p. 17). In the quantities he had collected, the data spoke for themselves.
The next year Fort fell into a deep depression and again undertook his ritual of note-burning, which now numbered over 40,000. In 1921, he and Anna set sail for London, where they lived within blocks of the British Museum for eight years. He undertook his "grand tour" several more times, gathering new subjects and finding new correlations on each trip. He now wrote New Lands, the least successful and most sour of his books. In the introduction, Tarkington wrote: "Here indeed was a brush dipped in earthquake and eclipse; though the wildest mundane earthquakes are but earthquakes in teapots when compared to what goes on in the visions conjured up before us by Mr. Charles Fort." Published in 1923, New Lands is a continuation of the Book of the Damned, with heavy emphasis on astronomy. In it he openly attacks the pomposity of astronomers, who "are led by a cloud of rubbish by day and a pillar of bosh by night."
In 1929 he returned to New York to work on Lo! It was published in 1931, and began to explain the "underlying oneness" that he discovered pervaded his data. "One measures a circle," he said, "beginning anywhere." After all, he collected data because they correlated with other data. For instance, Fort discovered that aerial phenomenon (storms), meteors, luminous appearances in the sky--occur at the time of earthquakes with an implausible frequency (Lo!, p. 48). He completed Wild Talents, a further continuation of inter-related data (this time with a paranormal bend) in 1932, while enduring gradual blindness and weakness. Mere weeks after publication, he was admitted to a hospital on May 3 where he died within a few hours. He left 60,000 notes, which are housed in the rare books department of the New York Public Library.
Most critics were baffled by the content and whimsical style of Fort's work. With tens of thousands of pieces of data, it is impossible to go into any great deal of explanation or introduction to his work in so short an essay. A random look through Fort's works might include: falls of substances and organic matter from the sky, including: alkali, asbestos, ashes, axes, beef, birds, bitumen, blood, brick, butter, carbonate of soda, charcoal, cinders, coal, coffee, beans, fish, gelatin, hay, insects, iron, larvae, leaves, lizards, manna, nostoc, sand, silk, snakes, spider webs, sulfur, turpentine, turtles, water and worms; documented cases of spontaneous human combustion; unidentified flying objects and unknown bodies seen in space; reports of poltergeist phenomena and paranormal abilities; unexplained appearances and disappearances of living things (especially humans); and evidence of discoveries of America before Columbus, stigmatic wounds, mass hysteria and manias, wild men, teleportations, visions and miracles, modern objects found encased in ancient rocks; accounts of things seen in the sky since biblical times; unexplainable swarms of insects or animals, phantom bullets, things seen in the ocean, storms associated with earthquakes and volcanoes, various animals being in places with no explanation for being there; and so forth and so on.
Not surprisingly, a cult grew around this eccentric visionary. In 1931, a year before his death- Dreiser, Tiffany Thayer and Aaron Sussman founded the Fortean Society, which Fort himself refused to join. He had expressed his objections to such a group as early as 1926, saying that the great majority of persons attracted would be the ones they wouldn’t want. The Society enjoyed much success in its early years, and if Fort was snubbed by the scientific community, he may have found solace from the number of literary figures who admired his work and were members of the Society. The list included: Booth Tarkington, Clarence Darrow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Cowper Powys, Havelock Ellis, Alexander Walcott, Eric Dingwall and Eric Frank Russell.
Science's exclusion of incredible data is not a new thing. Things once considered complete nonsense, have occasionally been proven true within 50 or 100 years. Voltaire scorned the idea of fossils; Lavoisier told the Academy of Sciences in 1769 that only peasants believed that stones fell from the sky, so meteorites were not accepted until 1803. Space flight was considered complete fantasy until the 1930's. Ball lightening has recently been rescued from the realm of folklore, transformed into the promising field of plasma physics. We still do not have a conclusive theory to explain the demise of the dinosaurs. Why do we pretend to have all of the answers?
Fort's impact on the scientific community, now, as then, appears miniscule. Orthodox scientists cannot accept anomalous data and are frequently blind to it. There are no absolutes. I find the established scientific community's ignorance and complete disregard ludicrous. Perhaps it is due in part to his ridicule of scientists in his books. Truth be told, I have found few endorsements of serious scientists in any related writings. "I conceive of nothing in religion, science or philosophy," he said, "that is more than the proper thing to wear for a while. Witchcraft always has a hard time, until it becomes established and changes its name." (Wild Talents, p. 118). I believe that Fort's outrageous and constant ridicule, while he may have felt it justified, damaged his chances for recognition. For you can dislike his whimsical writing style, disregard his own theories, but you can not argue with his data.
THE CONTEMPORARY INFLUENCE OF FORT
In researching this paper, I spoke to four professors from local universities to discover Fort's influence, if any, on science. An anthropology professor, while polite and helpful, hadn't a clue as to who Fort was; an astronomy professor who appeared to believe I was making Fort up, suggested I contact someone in Arizona; a physics professor. Dr. Haufmann, who seemed to blame me for his unfamiliarity with Charles Fort. The end of my research came from Dr. Gould, a physics professor at UCLA. He had no offhand recollection of Fort, but promised the name was floating in his brain somewhere. He was 90% certain, however, that he was the only member of the Department of Physics and Astronomy who had even heard of him.
While scientific acceptance eludes him, there are a number of individuals and publications that keep his spirit alive by continuing to keep up with reports of contemporary anomalies. In 1965 Ronald J. Willis founded the International Fortean Organization (INFO) in order to continue and expand the original Fortean Society. [as I wrote this in 1995, issue # 72 of its journal had just been completed.] INFO encourages members to send clippings from local newspapers of anomalous stories. The Fortean Times was first published in 1973 in England to continue the work begun by Fort. In 1991, they published a collection of personal favorites--stories culled from 2,700 pages of impossibilities. As the editor of FT says, there are two usual respondents to anomalies--debunkers and cranks. Fort didn't demand belief from his readers. He suspended disbelief in favor of temporary acceptance until further evidence came along one way or another.
Virtually all of the board members of INFO, and authors in the field make their money through some other (usually related) profession, like psychology, zoology, journalism, etc. As one would expect, most of the writing in the field is a spare-time, labor of love effort. Those who have become more mercenary in their pursuit have almost invariably sacrificed scholarly integrity.
Contemporary Forteans pursue varied careers. Hynek was a scientist, as was Vallee. John Keel was a journalist/screenwriter. Ivan T. Sanderson, who was a zoologist and for many years worked as professional animal collector for zoos and museums, discovered dozens of new species through his work. He also wrote a number of highly regarded popular science books. (He considered himself first and foremost a cryptozoologist.)
Contemporary authors like Charles Berlitz, William Corliss, Jenny Randles and Brad Steiger have kept alive the tradition and spirit of Fort’s writing and research. As Forteana seems to be a major taboo in all fields of science, it is impossible for young scientists to openly pursue any subject considered as such. Those who are publicly involved in anomalies research are or were invariably secure in their tenure or retired, such as cryptozoologists Roy Mackal and Grover Krantz and Mayan expert David H. Kelley. The only academics who can pursue Forteana are folklorists who must follow the dogma that their material consists of stories whose truth or falsity is irrelevant. (Rickard. p. 5).
Fortean Times and Fate Magazine (which takes a more sensationalistic approach), make a little money on their publications. INFO is a non-profit organization devoted to continuing serious, intelligent investigation into the world of anomalies. They have correspondents all over the globe, most of whom hold degrees in some scientific discipline. [Former] INFO secretary Michael Shoemaker says that true believers have lost any scholarly credibility by becoming such--which is opposed to Fort's doctrine of open-minded skepticism, the idea that tentative acceptance is preferable to belief. I am amazed by the dedication and intelligence of those who currently pursue Forteana. Decades after his last book was published, Fort and his works remain enigmas.
I am disappointed that more mainstream attention isn't paid to Fort's work. (Excluding the dearth of television shows with the “unknown" angle, which in a way pay homage to Fort, but usually ignore his principles). Fort's books are valuable but sadly neglected. If more individuals discovered his writings, I'm positive it would alter their perceptions of science greatly. And should some bold young scientist challenge one of the ancient ideas which dictate scientific thought, it might alter science itself.