Inventing the Supernatural

Jim Steinmeyer. Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural. William Heinemann, 2008.

Writing a biography of Charles Fort is not one of life’s easiest tasks. He was a notorious reclusive person who spent most of his adult life perambulating between the hushed desks of old fashioned reference libraries the local cinema, and the apartments he shared with his long suffering, semi-mysterious wife. He is by no means an ideal subject for a biographer.

Given this, Jim Steinmeyer makes quite a stab at it in this the second biography of Fort. Unlike his predecessor Damon Knight, Steinemeyer is perhaps more interested in the man and his general writing career than in his phenomena. But like Knight, he paints the portrait of someone who above everything else was an abused child. There can be little doubt his father would have been imprisoned for child abuse in today's world. It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the authority he spent his life railing against was a projection of this remote, authoritarian control freak.

Steinmeyer seeks to place Fort within the context of the 1920s, but somehow never quite sees his iconoclasm as part of the general reaction against the Victorian older generation which was conducted at that time; a rebellion which in the case of the others such as his friend Theodore Dreiser, took the form of rejection of the official sexual mores of the age.

It may well have been the influence of Dreiser, a man given to mystical and occult beliefs, which sent Fort off in the direction his life took, turning from a chronicler of working class life amid the slums and tenements of New York, to a hoarder of unexplained facts.

Despite the surface levity and the mantra from more intellectual Forteans, that “of course Fort didn’t believe his own theories” it is possible to detect in Fort’s writings a couple of general themes, one is the standard crank theme of looking for a smaller, neater more enclosed universe. At some level Forts hankering after the old geocentric universe with the moon and sun just above the atmosphere and starlight being the empyrean light shining through little holes in the crystalline spheres, is a hankering for a warm, safe almost womb like world.

For the other great psychological fact of Fort’s life was the death of his mother when he was a small child. It is perhaps not a coincidence that his wife was several years older than him, and seems to have been as much as a mother figure was a wife. (Anna Filing (sic) was probably the Eallinor Finnighan born sometime between January and March 1864 and in 1871 living at 73 Brown Street, Sheffield, her father John F. was a comb maker) His small cosmos reflected the small world he had retreated into.

Though Fort rebelled against science allegedly for its dogma and authoritarian pronouncements, in some ways it was the reverse that irked him. He never seems to have really appreciated the provisional nature of science, or that good science occurs when scientists change their opinions as new data comes along. The constant changing appeared to him to reflect the failure of science to come up with the true answer, the answer which would explain the mystery of his own life.

There are however other aspects of Fort’s work though which do seem more modern, the notion of the interconnectedness of all things can look like look like some of the speculations of quantum physics or chaos theory (or it might simply hark back to the old magical cosmos), and his theory of dominants can foreshadow Kuhn’s ideas on paradigms. There are clear hints within Fort also of what became known as postmodernism, the notion that all literature, non-fiction as well as acknowledged fiction are just texts.

Short of the miraculous discovery of Fort’s lost manuscripts, this is probably going to be pretty much the final word in Fortean biography. -- Peter Rogerson

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