Friday, February 6, 2009

The Monkey Reads: It's Hard to Believe It

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural
By Jim Steinmeyer
Writer Charles Hoy Fort's life, at a glance, follows a Victorian literature arc.

After a privileged but suffocating childhood and a stint as a cub reporter at a farm-league newspaper, he traveled for a short time as a hobo (albeit a vagabond with a secret property income), married below his station and struggled with poverty as he tried his hand at fiction, before finding his calling as an eccentric philosopher who may or may not have believed what he wrote.

Biographer Jim Steinmeyer clearly admires Fort's mercurial goals and Puckish stance of challenging both science and religion. As a result Fort can feel like a love letter. But it's easy to get caught up in Steinmeyer's appreciation and elevate Fort to a status he may not have deserved -- and based on this biography, didn't necessarily want.

Fort collected the odd stories from the back pages of small town papers, almanacs and published journals. The clips he sought were accounts of what today's audience would call unexplained phenomena, supernatural occurrences and mysterious sightings.

What made Fort's efforts noteworthy was his methodical yet playful analysis of the data. Fort shot down scientific explanations of a well-documented rain of frogs for being too sloppy. Alternately, Fort neither rejected nor embraced a divine machine behind such events.

So what's left? Fort's outsider ideas that are ultimately no stranger or less plausible than anything religion or science has to offer -- reorganizations of the cosmos and science-fiction sounding ideas on worlds above, below and concomitant to the one we know.

Steinmeyer avoids getting too bogged down in the tangle of Fortean philosophy -- a smart move that allows him to pull back far enough to show how Fort's writing inspired both outrage, scoffs and, worst of all, disregard.

The wider scope also gives an affectionate look at Fort's positively mundane, comfortable life once he settled in with his wife Helen. The man who discussed UFOs a good 20 years before the rest of the country paid attention spent his days in the library and his nights with his wife drinking beer, eating snacks and going to the movies.

Fort's contemporaries included ally/true believer Theodore Dreiser; harsh critics H.L. Mencken and H.G. Wells; and a few, such as Ben Hecht, who thought of the man as a crackpot savvy enough to laugh at his own cosmic jests.

Based on Steinmeyer's take, Hecht may have been closest to the truth.