Sunday, January 3, 2010

A Proto-Geek and His Legacy

Charles Fort’s work is the foundation of a movement of the quirky that survives to this day. Forteans, especially as manifested in the Fortean Times magazine, live in the great grey area between hard scientific skepticism and bozo bonkers true believers. The main thing to keep in mind with Forteanism is that there are lots of things out there that science hasn't explained yet. Sure, many of those things are "trivial," but that doesn't mean they should be dismissed out of hand. So as long as folks keep noting and recording the odd things that the world keeps kicking up (falls of frogs, moving glowing lights in the sky, ball lightning, hauntings, visitations) maybe someday someone will pay attention and we'll all learn something about the universe. Fort was the first to start collecting hundreds upon hundreds of these tidbits--damned data, he called it. They certainly didn't fit in with any understanding of the universe promulgated by early 20th century scientists. In Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, Jim Steinmeyer gives us an interesting portrait of the man who came up with all this stuff. What he wisely leaves ambiguous however, is the question: how much of this stuff did Fort actually believe?

The most important thing that emerges from Steinmeyer's account is that Fort was, at heart, a geek. He may not have started out as one; his youth was marked by a horribly abusive Victorian father in New England. He took off as soon as practicable and worked as a journalist. He traveled around the world on very little money in order to build up his cache of experiences, and for a while was considered an emerging American voice in short stories. It was during that period that he met up-and-coming Great American Novelist Theodore Dreiser, who as an editor took Fort under his wing.

However, Fort took a turn for the eccentric and gave up on short stories. He started spending all his time in the New York public Library, collecting research for non-fiction books. He destroyed all the drafts of one that he was unable to sell, but eventually with Dreiser's help he published four volumes: The Book of the Damned, New Lands, Lo! and Wild Talents. He had stacks and stacks of boxes of neat notes that he jotted down during his researches. He also designed complex games and was unsociable. Today we'd probably class him as OCD, at least to some degree. He always had at least a little money coming in from his father's estate, but it was rarely enough to live on in comfort, at least not in New York City. He and his wife sometimes lived in slums, and she often had to work as a maid or laundry woman. Eventually he succumbed to cancer in late middle age, while absolutely refusing to see a doctor.

He postulated some wild theories in his books, including floating islands in the upper reaches of the atmosphere (where the fish and frogs were falling from, you see). Did he believe that, or was he trying to provoke a scientist somewhere into taking this stuff seriously enough to refute--and thus get an actual explanation? Or some other motivation? He didn't leave any journal of his thoughts, although he did write a partial autobiography. In the end, even Dreiser (who tended towards a rather worrying credulity and seemed to believe a lot of this stuff prima facie) couldn't tell. Steinmeyer wisely refrains from fruitless speculation.

However, Fort’s legacy continues to be a fruitful one. I find Forteanism to be a more humane approach to the world than the American brand of skepticism practiced by folks like Michael Shermer and magazines such as Skeptic. While I personally tend to believe that all these odd phenomena have mundane explanations, I refuse to label all those who experience them as deluded ignorant morons. Science hasn't explained everything yet, and sometimes the data on the margins of the graph are what lead us to broader understandings. I also found the skeptical magazines to be terribly repetitive, making the real world seem an awfully boring place. Thus, when I was about 23 I switched my subscription loyalty from Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer (both American) to the much more good humored and inventive Fortean Times (based in England). My image of Forteanism is so associated with England, by the way, that I was surprised to learn that Fort was born in America, lived in America almost all his life, and spent only a few months in London (where he of course spent much quality time with the British Library).

Steinmeyer's biography is a quick and easy read, written in a journalistic style. It feels thoroughly researched, and he seems to have a real fondness for his subject. It's also an interesting tangential look at the publishing industry in New York in the early 20th century. I'm not sure that this book will necessarily appeal to people who don't already have an interest in Fort and his legacy, but for those who do this will prove a worthwhile investment of reading time.

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