Books and Code · A Miscellany

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural, by Jim Steinmeyer (A Review)


You have to know a bit about Charles Fort and his work before reading this biography (otherwise there’s little reason to bother doing so), but it is a very well done account of his life and writings. For starters, Steinmeyer is generally skeptical of Fort’s claims, but not an ass about it. As he put it in this interview:

I tend to be skeptical, but I don’t consider myself a “debunker,” and maybe that’s why I appreciated Fort’s work, even if I didn’t always accept the phenomena.

The book is about Fort not Fortean phenomena–although Fort’s biography goes a long way toward explaining how Fort developed his particular approach.

Steinmeyer has dug up a lot of detail about Fort’s life and work (published and unpublished) from his short story days to early attempts at book-length “crank” theories, through to the four primary works that are still in print today (which Steinmeyer also edited–The Collected Works of Charles Fort.)

You will also learn a fair amount about the novelist Theodore Dreiser, who was Fort’s patron and advocate, in the process. H.L. Mencken and Benjamin De Casseres also make regular cameos. These three figures typify the ways one might interpret and appreciate (or not) Fort’s work: through the eyes of a credulous enthusiast (Dreiser), a scornful skeptic (Mencken), or as willfully agnostic satire (De Casseres). I myself straddle the Mencken/De Casseres borderline.

Fort’s work fits into a broader pseudo-scientific, Spiritualist movement of the time where the occult, theosophy, seances, and circus freak shows were popular and names like P.T. Barnum, Robert Ripley, and Harry Houdini became well-known. Steinmeyer touches on this cultural phenomenon a little bit, but I am keen to find a broader study of this from the same point of view Steinmeyer takes with Fort. Nevertheless, this book is a fascinating piece of the historical puzzle that outlines the development of the modern paranormal community and its skeptical antithesis.