Stage-magic historian Steinmeyer (Art and Artifice: And Other Essays of Illusion, 2006, etc.) examines the quirky life of Charles Fort (1874–1932).
Fort’s books, writes Steinmeyer, are filled with “data that Science has excluded,” and laid the groundwork for modern science fiction as well as belief in the paranormal, alien abductions and other quasi-supernatural phenomena. Fort grew up in Albany, left an abusive home early and nearly starved in New York City before discovering a talent for fiction. Between 1900 and 1920 he wrote short stories to scrape by, attracting enthusiastic support from Theodore Dreiser (then better known as a magazine editor than a novelist). Despite Dreiser’s influence, Fort remained on the edge of poverty, and his only novel flopped. Always fascinated by weird events, he began spending days at the public library, poring through books and journals. In 1919 Dreiser persuaded his publisher to bring out Fort’s first collection of oddities, The Book of the Damned; it turned out to be mildly successful, and three more followed. All listed myriad marvels: blood or frogs raining from the sky, ghosts, UFOs, talking animals, telepathy, etc. Fort was no skeptic; if someone witnessed a corpse return to life, he wrote it down. He had no overall philosophy except to ridicule the authority of science and, more occasionally, religion. Since scientists quarreled, disagreed and were sometimes wrong, he assumed that one theory was as good as another, and paranormal events as likely as any others. Clearly an admirer, Steinmeyer avers that Fort’s writing foreshadowed a respectable philosophical school that asserts that all truth is relative. The biographer shows little interest in pointing out that Fort’s implausible anecdotes remain implausible today, or that his disbelief in such scientific triumphs as the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics hasn’t held up.
An uncritical but colorful picture of a offbeat character who convinced many that he was a genius.