In his story, “Paper Pills,” Sherwood Anderson writes of the eccentric, old Doctor Reefy, who would record his thoughts on small scraps of paper that he kept in his suit pockets. Reefy would accumulate these balled-up bits of paper, “until he developed a truth out of the thoughts.” Anderson’s character from his classic work, Winesburg, Ohio, while fictitious, could easily have been inspired by his contemporary and fellow chronicler of oddities, Charles Hoy Fort.
The new biography, Charles Fort – The Man Who Invented the Supernatural by Jim Steinmeyer portrays a man as deeply peculiar as any of the “grotesques” in Anderson’s fiction. Pathologically private, leery of others to the point of misanthropy, Fort devoted the bulk of his life to researching odd phenomena, which he recorded on tiny paper notes. From the tens of thousands of these “paper pills” Fort accumulated through his painstaking research, he too “developed a truth.” Or, at least, he posited his own distinct cosmology over the course of several books. Whether Fort was ever sincere in proposing that his version of the strange workings of the universe merited his readers’ serious consideration, or not, is far from clear.
If you’ve watched The X-Files, you’ve been exposed to the types of weird phenomena Fort cataloged, from UFO encounters, to human combustion, to teleportation (a term he originated). The X-Files’ lead agents also could have been inspired by Fort’s indefatigable pursuit of the strange and unexplained, although Fort embodied both Scully and Mulder characteristics in one person, both the skeptic and the believer.
For a figure still so present in contemporary culture, there have been few available resources to learn about this fascinating character. A biography by Damon Knight, seemingly the most authoritative until this, is long out of print. Based on the popularity of the strange and supernatural in TV series, film, and fiction, the appearance of Jim Steinmeyer’s book is well-timed.
Throughout Charles Fort, Steinmeyer strikes a sensible balance between telling Fort’s life story and trying to explicate his life’s work. Accounts of Fort’s disciplinarian father, a successful merchant doling out abuse and other extreme punishment establish both a possible source of Fort’s shyness and aversion to people, and his outrageous theory that we humans “are property.” After escaping from his father’s influence, Fort embarked on an ambitious journey of discovery, traveling the eastern U.S. and overseas to gather experiences for his planned career as a writer.
The “vast capital of impressions of life” that he accrued on these travels, however, was not the basis for Fort’s work that has endured. Rather, it was the substantial portion of his life spent making notes in libraries that informed most of his surviving work, (during periods of depression, Fort destroyed several full manuscripts and countless of his notes). The Book of the Damned, his breakthrough book that was the foundation of the rest of his work, was based on bizarre happenings—mysterious creatures, unidentified flying objects, inexplicable disappearances, rains of fish, frogs, and butter—the data that Science has excluded, which have come to be known collectively as Forteana or Fortean phenomena.
Had he merely offered catalogs of these Forteana, it’s unlikely that Fort would be remembered and read today, much less part of the English language. Interest in Fort has endured due to his presentation of his singular views on the origins and deeper implications of the unusual phenomena, based on a monistic principle that all reality is one entity, and the suspension of judgment regarding the unexplained. He castigated science for dismissing these phenomena, while forcing data to conform to theories in order to explain others.
While the hyperbolic designation, “Man Who Invented the Supernatural,” is eye-catching, it is also slightly misleading. Charles Fort, with his rejection of dogma of most varieties, is more appropriately, “The Patron Saint of Skeptics.” Many of the theories he proposes are so outrageous it’s hard to believe even Fort himself expected us to swallow them. Surely he is giving his readers the knowing wink of the satirist when he suggests, for example, a “Super-Sargasso Sea” in the sky that rains down all those objects that science can’t account for falling from the sky. If Fort was genuine in advancing his theories for the unexplained, of course, will never be known with certainty, although he did disavow (like a true skeptic), “the products of minds . . . [as] subject matter for belief,” stating, “I believe nothing of my own that I have written.”
Steinmeyer’s book doesn’t definitively answer the question it poses—whether Fort was a genius or a crank— nor does it set out to. Only Fort’s writing, much of which is still available, might provide the right data to accurately categorize him. Charles Fort does serve as a useful introduction to an intriguing, largely unknown figure that has had such unique influence on popular culture.