Sunday, February 27, 2011

Who was Charles Fort

Charles Fort Beast Hunter
Beast Hunter Host Pat Spain mentions that Charles Fort is his great Uncle. But who really is this interesting man? Patrick J. Kiger gives us some insight in this article.

Charles Fort, Chronicler of the Unexplained

At Charles Fort's funeral in May 1932 in New York, renowned novelist Theodore Dreiser gave the eulogy address, in which he called his friend and author "one of the greatest minds the world has ever known," and predicted that future generations would pay tribute to Fort. Only six other mourners showed up to listen to those words of praise.

It could be that Fort, whose United Press obituary described him as "the indomitable iconoclast who flung his darts at the dogmatism of science," had antagonized too many people with his writings, which questioned near-sacred assumptions and pointed out phenomena that could not be reconciled to existing scientific laws and theories — UFOs, ghosts, spontaneous human combustion, stigmata, people with psychic abilities, and the like. It could be that some of Fort's own notions — he once famously argued that the Moon was only 39 miles away from the Earth — were so outrĂ© that most saw him as either a satirist or delusionary.

Or it could be that, like many other prophets and visionaries, Fort simply was a bit too far ahead of his time.

It's easy to imagine that if Fort were alive today, the author of four provocative nonfiction books — Book of the Damned, Lo, New Lands, and Wild Talents — might have his own coast-to-coast A.M. radio program similar to Art Bell's, or that his musings about strange and troubling occurrences might inspire a hit TV series along the lines of Fringe or X-Files. His startling, unsettling collection of facts might have made him a huge hit on Twitter.

All the same, Fort introduced the world to speculations about matters such as alien abductions, and his influence is still strongly felt today, in everything from the continuing scientific search for extraterrestrial intelligence, to the vast legions of un-credentialed, self-taught researchers who gather data on bleeding statues of Mary, alleged sightings of strange creatures, and alternative explanations for world events. Writer Jim Steinmeyer subtitled his 2008 biography of Fort "the man who invented the supernatural."

In the style of Fort himself, here is a collection of facts: Charles Hoy Fort was born in 1874 in Albany, NY, the oldest child of a grocer whose reportedly harsh parental discipline may have helped instill in Fort a strong distrust of authority and the status quo. As a youth, he didn't distinguish himself in the classroom, preferring instead to collect minerals and sea shells and follow his own intellectual serendipity in public libraries. At 18, he left home and traveled widely, from the western U.S. to South Africa, married a woman who raised parakeets, worked as a newspaperman and held assorted odd jobs as he struggled to make his name as a novelist. In 1916, when he was 42, Fort had a stroke of luck; his uncle left him an inheritance, which supported him so that he could write fulltime.

Fort's speculative fiction, however, was a bit too unsettling and non-commercial for his time. One of his unpublished novels, simply entitled X, envisioned a reality in which Martians secretly controlled events on Earth, while another, Y, focused on a sinister civilization based at the South Pole.

But his writing caught the attention of Dreiser, who helped Fort to publish a nonfiction work, The Book of the Damned, in 1919. As Fort explained on the first page:

By the damned, I mean the excluded. We shall have a procession of data that Science has excluded. Battalions of the accursed, captained by pallid data that I have exhumed, will march.

What follows is a vitriolic, rambling attack on established science, bolstered with bizarre happenings that Fort amassed in countless hours of perusing books, magazines and newspapers at the New York Public Library. Fort was particularly fascinated with strange objects that fell from the sky — he cites, among other things, torrents of small fish and frogs in England and France, snowflakes 15-inches across that supposedly startled Montanans in 1887, bucketfuls of a strange yellow muck that fell from the sky in the various locations around the globe in the 1870s, and "flakes of a substance that looked like beef" that descended upon Bath County, Kentucky on March 3, 1876.

After noting orthodox science's inability to explain such phenomena, Fort offered his own theory — the existence of a region in the atmosphere, a sort of aerial "Super-Sargasso Sea," which held the planet's flotsam and jetsam with some sort of magnetic force until the items were shaken free by storms.

The Book of the Damned and Fort's subsequent works attracted a modest but fervent following, many of whom corresponded with the author and took to conducting paranormal research of their own. But as he enjoyed a belated measure of success, Fort's health began to worsen — in part, perhaps, because of his distrust of medicine and reluctance to seek treatment. Shortly after he delivered his final book to the publisher in 1932, he collapsed and was rushed to a hospital in the Bronx, where he died.

Though Fort avoided joining groups himself, since his death several institutions — including the Charles Fort Institute and the International Fortean Organization — have arisen to continue the examination of puzzling phenomena. Such items and events are often referred to as Fortean, in remembrance of the unconventional seer who led us to consider them.

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