Any edits aside, this review appeared in Black Static #6 just as it appears here.
CHARLES FORT by JIM STEINMEYER
Heinemann hardback, 332pp, £16.99
Reviewing The Book of the Damned in 1919, Ben Hecht described Charles Fort (1874 – 1932) as ‘the man who invented the supernatural’. Steinmeyer’s eloquent and concisely written account of Fort’s life comes with that phrase as its tag line though, as Steinmeyer is at pains to inform us, Fort himself would have eschewed such a label. In his philosophy there was no such thing as the supernatural, nor any possibility of it.
Like most people I know of Fort mainly through the adjective ‘Fortean’, that catch all term for those inexplicable phenomena he delighted in cataloguing and throwing in the face of conventional scientific thinking. With a wealth of quotes from a man who never seemed unwilling to record the minutiae of his life, Steinmeyer sets about fleshing out the story of this remarkable individual. It’s a tale of childhood bullying, of an early career as a journalist and determination to succeed as a writer, of two years spent travelling as a way to pile up vital experience, of marriage and critical success, but never commercial. Friendship with Theodore Dreiser, who was to become his greatest champion, was a turning point for Fort, though he was still to suffer crushing poverty and a hand to mouth existence, until a timely inheritance freed him to pursue scholastic pursuits. With the publication of The Book of the Damned and its successors Fort’s reputation was assured, with modest recognition and cult status for his writings on the unexplained during his lifetime, followed by a posthumous career as standard bearer for sceptics everywhere, with various journals and societies devoted to keeping his legacy alive.
Steinmeyer’s book is a well written and engrossing story of one man’s dogged persistence and eventual triumph over adversity, though for the wannabe writers in our ranks the subtext won’t be encouraging (get an inheritance or deal with the idea of sleeping on park benches). Steinmeyer never loses sight of the importance of Fort’s work, the fact that he was neither dogmatic or a proponent of the supernatural as such (he thought it was all supernatural). Instead, Fort comes over as a rigorous opponent of dogma and orthodoxy, whether rooted in faith or science, his books composed with a cheery wit and thoroughgoing scepticism. Agree with him or not, it was a valuable role for somebody to play, particularly with such good humour and perseverance in the face of all the odds.
By way of a coda, some may also appreciate this book for its portrait of America in the 1920s, the era of changes in the national psyche that made Fort’s ideas appealing, and for all the sketches of the various literary worthies of the day, most especially Dreiser. Recommended, and not just to people who read biographies.