Great Googley-Moogleys! Tiffany Thayer’s most un-Tiffany Thayer-like book is also the one that is most revealing of . . . Tiffany Thayer.
Back in the 1930s, Tiffany Thayer was a bad boy, a writer of slightly-respectable “dirty books”--Thirteen Women, Call Her Savage--although by today’s standards they are quite tame. Still, he had a gift for narrative, and could tell a story smoothly--even as some of his books didn’t show a great deal of writerly control; Little Dog Lost is actually exceptional in that regard: the plot wanders (quite) a bit, but on the level of paragraphs Thayer is focused.
This book was published in 1938, toward the end of his fiction writing career (he spent the 1940s working on the first three volumes of a projected 21-volume history of the “Mona Lisa”; they weren’t published until the 1950s), and when his life was in a bit of upheaval: he had returned from Hollywood, where he tried to make a career in movies, to New York, where he became an advertising man; he divorced his first wife and married his second; he embarked on an odd avocation publishing anti-scientific and anti-government pamphlets. These concerns are reflected in the book.
“Little Dog Lost” is the story of Frank-Stanly-John-Franklin, a man of uncertain origins who believes himself to be something of a Nietzschean superman who is troubled by two things: what he is (even more than who) and how to account for the existence of Woman’s Home Journal (a lightly fictionalized Ladies’ Home Journal). The second puzzle is never solved. He can understand the appeal of any number of other magazines and newspapers--though, like Tiffany Thayer himself he hates them and think they print nonsense in the service of the powerful--but not Woman’s Home Journal, which seems to have no natural audience, the stories unbelievable and unrelatable.
The bulk of the book is spent sorting out the first question, as Frank-Stanly-John-Franklin meanders from Hollywood, where he has become an accidental mogul after being adopted by a theatrical producer--but a mogul who hates the industry--as insipid Eastward, toward his original home in New York. Frank-Stanly-John is haunted by images of his parents, his mother with her throat cut, his dad shooting himself. All he remembers is being adopted by a nice, but poor and plain, family in New York. As a young man, he was taken under the wings of the producer and became his heir. Called Frank by his adoptive family, he re-christens himself Stanly (because it has fewer letters but can’t be pronounced any differently--this is a sign of his vast intellect and perfect logic).
Stanly marries Evelyn, who eventually gives birth to Barbara. Like Thayer’s real-life first wife, Evelyn is a dancer. But she cannot understand Stanly’s intellect. He wants her to work out aesthetic theories of dance, she just wants to dance. Despite their differences, Evelyn “worships” Stanly--this is a bit of a breakdown in the novel, first Thayer’s evident misogyny (women can’t really think, a theme that is repeated, and lightly contested) and the weakness of Stanly’s Nietzschean pose. The book ultimately shows that Stanly is not a Superman, so it is possible that Thayer wants us to see through Stanly from the get-go; the problem is that everyone else around him, and especially women, are blown away by his sophomoric philosophizing. The relationships just don’t make sense: Thayer never communicates Stanly’s magnetism except by asserting it.
And magnetic he must be: on the bus leaving Hollywood, when Stanly’s ditching his wife and daughter--after his wife staged an intervention to stay his melancholy, inviting a priest, a doctor, his boss, and his mistress, after he slunk out of that and defeated the priest separately in a battle of wits--on this bus, Stanly, now going by the name John Smith, meets a member of the criminal underworld, who immediately takes to John and invites him to join a kidnapping. Sure, there’s a slight connection--John’s brother from his adoptive family is a legendary career criminal, but mostly the guy is impressed by John complaining that if the medical profession weren’t a racket, doctors would have cured all known diseases by now. Hardly heady stuff.
The job in Kansas City gets complicated by a barber who had followed John from Hollywood to win his way into pictures. John is nonplussed. He hates Hollywood and first thinks kidnapping more honorable--because a man stands or falls on the quality of his own work--before realizing that kidnappers prey on the weakness of human emotions (blinding insight, that!) and, second, that barbering a better trade because the skill can be carried anywhere, a barber not tied to anyone or anything. The toughs get concerned about the barber, thinking him a G-man and John a stoolly; they set out to kill the barber and John to save him, only to end up in a shoot out with real government agents who had been following John in order to find his brother.
Here is another problem with the book: the melodrama starts to pile up. Not only do the G-men save John and the barber, John saves the life of one of them, Red, who then follows John to his next destination, Cincinnati, further hoping to find the great thief Peter. To this point, John had been idly playing with the idea of starting his own newspaper, one that printed logical stories, the truth, and in service of that he went to a local newspaper to start making connections. There he met Grace Morgan, a much younger journalist--she’s in her early twenties, John is somewhere around forty, though the way Thayer writes it (and at them time Thayer was thirty-five, looking at his forties), John is ancient. He knows he can seduce her, momentarily wonders about the vast age difference, then goes ahead and does it, becoming a kept man for several weeks. Supposedly to his credit, though, he warns her that he is a “moral leper” since e does not live by society’s conventions, but by objective ones. She doesn’t care.
“‘Oh, John,’ said she, ‘do you always--have you always taken such pains to be a fine lover. Is this your way with all women?’”
At any rate, he gets fed up with this arrangement--although, from a reader’s point of view, it takes him a bit too long. Thayer has a gift for narrative, no doubt, but he is too infatuated with it, like late Stephen King, and this section really drags. It’s what kept me continually setting the book aside. John cooks up an argument--Grace has accidentally brought home a newspaper, and he makes fun of its stupidity, getting so angry to storm out and leave her. She imagines he will be back; he knows better. You see, John has been working with an employment agency, and has so impressed one man that he is hired as a private investigator (disguised as the chief janitor) to look into communist agitation at a college in a small Ohio town. It just so happens, of course--melodrama--that this is the same college attended by Grace’s (kind-of) fiancé, who is experiencing a crisis of faith.
John takes the job, but is distracted by a twelve year old girl who shares with him an intense skepticism and disdain for convention. She is the prodigious daughter of an anthropologist professor and Christian mother, but shares neither of their biases, not a Darwinian nor a fundamentalist. John has immodest fantasies about stealing away with her--but only to study, to study! Despite the distraction provided by Doris (and her family, which regularly holds salons to discuss topics of the day, Christian ones on Friday, secular ones on Monday) John gets the goods on the economics professor spreading communist propaganda. He also deals with Grace, who has found his whereabouts--and is at first sure it is because John, in contradistinction to everything she knows about him--is jealous of her fiancé and then, after finding copies of New Masses in his room, that John is himself a Red.
He puts her off, incidentally solving her fiancé Abel’s spiritual crisis. Abel was the son of a Presbyterian minister, but had lost his faith while in college, and was now afraid his dad would cut off funding his education. He had written a letter explaining himself, but could not send it, instead asking for opinions from Doris’s father, from Grace, and from John--on the very night he accused John of making time with Grace. John easily convinced Abel to give him the original of the letter and, without Abel knowing, mailed it off. (Abel’s dad ended up being all right with his son’s apostasy.) After all that melodrama, John’s magnetism was still evident, and he convinced Grace not to expose him: a better story was available.
The economics professor was convening a meeting of communists, John was invited, and he told Grace of it. Every thread of the story comes together through pure coincidence. John’s brother Peter, the career criminal is there; and the speaker is a communist who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. Peter tells John, that man is his real father. The G-men who had been tailing John show up, and start a fight. John tries to spirit Peter out, but Peter is shot; John takes up Peter’s gun and shoots blindly, then runs off to Doris’s family.
John had become disgusted with Doris because she had shown the inclinations of a 12 year old girl: she liked a boy her age, and especially his new puppy. How could this be? Now, in a haze, John hears the boy looking for his dog, little dog lost. The pathos breaks him: he realizes that his egotism has been a defense for his extreme sympathy. The police arrest him, and the newly vulnerable John gets a chance to speak with his father, who returns at John’s request,and learn about himself and find a future.
John learns that he is the bastard child of the the colonel and his mother; his mother’s husband found out, became enraged, and killed her, then himself. John was left an orphan. His real name, like his biological father’s, was Franklin. (That was also Peter’s real name: Peter was the son of the colonel and the colonel’s wife.) And John learns that his father’s not really a communist--communism, John thinks, and unions, are just a protection racket for the incompetent. John’s father wants to enlighten them masses, not educate them:
“The air over their heads has been filled with a terrible, jealous God! The rock under their feet has been melted into a fiery pit yawning for them. The food they eat has been filled with a mystical nothing called vitamins. Their eyes have been dazzled with uniforms and simpering dolls on spools of celluloid. Their ears have been filled with saxophone moans and radio baby-talk. Their feet have been taught to tap out infantile rhythms. Their hearts have been torn from their breasts and sold as greeting cards. Their penuses [sic] have been daubed with pitch and slime by moralists to make them odious and disgusting. And into the pores of their bodies a filmy, intangibility called a ‘soul’ has been injected. In the name of reason, my boy, what do you expect to find in their heads? How could they possibly think? When do they have time to think?”
John sees such an act as the true fulfillment of Nietzsche’s call to “live dangerously.” His is the minority opinion, he knows, but if he lives his ideals--without insisting everyone else do the same--he can be a “fig for posterity,” an emblem for the world to look back to when it realizes his ideals are the just ones.
His father, incidentally an old advertising man himself, brags that he could reach the masses and bring them true enlightenment: “Give me a broadcasting station and a battery of color presses and I’ll show you a miracle in ten years.” His dad, too, wants to put out an independent newspaper, one that pokes holes in modern conventions. John knows just what to do: he has money to start such an operation. Grace is a reporter and Doris brilliant, so he has staff. He tells his dad to do so, but he wants to wait in the hospital for the next ten years and come out when the world is better, or at least close to better. He needs the rest.
The autobiographical elements are clearly here, though remixed, and it is difficult not to read the book as Thayer appeasing himself for the gradual descent into a life he never meant--becoming an advertising man, leaving the arts, leaving his first wife. Read that way, the book is very interesting. Read as an egoist manifesto, not so much: it’s more like a combination of mid-life crisis story mixed with adolescent existentialism--I guess you could read it as “The Corrections” of the 1930s.
But there is one final irony, one that Thayer could not have anticipated when writing the novel. In 1938, he imagined life in an asylum as a welcome refuge from the demands of an insipid world. Seven years later, Ezra Pound was brought to the United States and, according to wikipedia, was thought to be “an intellectual 'crackpot' who imagined that he could correct all the economic ills of the world and who resented the fact that ordinary mortals were not sufficiently intelligent to understand his aims and motives.” He was put into an asylum. Thayer was a huge fan of Pound , and spent the rest of his life incensed at the injustice of Pound’s imprisonment, offering him support (he even bought Pound underwear) and trying to rally friends to protest.
I found it--Tarkington's report on Fort in The Bookman:
As suggested by Tarkington's bibliographer, it did appear in the advertising section of The Bookman. The section was unpaginated, but it was attached to the August 1920 issue.
Interestingly, Tarkington is not noted by name. But he did send his query to the gossip section of the magazine, and so it was meant for general delectation.
An interesting read. This is a biography of Alexander Woollcott by an acquaintance--who helped him get his start in journalism--but not a fan. Adams often resorts to the least charitable interpretations (though he does absolve him of being homosexual (!))), but it is clear there is also great fondness, if only because he undertook this biography. The book is almost novelistic at times--which raises questions about the research, especially since there are no citations and conversations are recorded as though exact--and insightful, if also a bit repetitive.
Woollcott was born in 1887 to a family that lived in a Fourier-inflected commune. His parents moved the family to Kansas and then Germantown, PA, and Woollcott eventually matriculated at Hamilton College in New York, a poor school but one he had a fondness for. (He visited China in 1931 on the strength of an alumnus connection; he had his ashes interred here.) The commune eschewed formal education, but Woollcott was well learned in several languages there. Hopkins thinks that the environment effected him in other ways: “The principles, practices, and social status of the Phalanx powerfully affected Alexander Woollcott’s character, particularly upon the emotional side. He breathed in nonconformity with the soft air of his first habitat. Throughout his life he was a hot and often unreasoning partisan of the underdog, a passionate supporter of minority rights, a devoted crusader for free speech and independent thought." (p. 26; also 96).
His time in school was difficult. Woollcott was very feminine, but also more than willing to brave schoolyard fights. He loved being in plays, including acting female parts. There was some suggestion of his being homosexual, but that was put to rest when he had an affair with a married woman (and was beaten for it). This part o the biography made me think of Carl Sandburg saying that Abraham Lincoln had a touch of the lavender about him. Throughout his life he would fall "in love" with women, but rarely had sustained relationships, and never married or had children. One wonders what a modern day biographer would make of this sexual confusion.
Woollcott also loved journalism, and Adams, also a Hamilton alum, though older than Woollcott, got him a job with the _Times._ This was cut short by a case of the mumps, but Woollcott bounced back and spent the rest of his life in journalism, as a drama critic, book reviewer, and essayist writing for a variety of New York publications.
The other interruption to his career was World War I. He was a dedicated supporter of the Allies and though physically prevented from becoming a soldier was a hospital worker for the AEF before being transferred to work on the American wartime newspaper, Stars and Stripes, where he met other future journalists, including Harold Ross, who would be a friend and publish him in the New Yorker.
Woollcott hit his stride in the mid-1920s. In addition to his writing, he was a well-known member of the Algonquin Table. He made a lot of money. and lived a very large life. He became notably corpulent. Woollcott could be mean and cutting, but he did not intend injury: he was interested in the turn of the phrase. I cannot help think of him as an a proto-example of what Susan Sontag described as a camp persona. Adams writes, “Aleck’s enduring friends--I use the term in its double sense--bore with him out of tolerance, compromise, or kindly understanding of a character that had its elements of tragedy. They realized that there was a deep-seated reason for these outbreaks; that he suffered from an inner exasperation, constantly if secretly inflamed by the ineluctable sense of his inadequacy.”(225) Woollcott was a great writer, but with nothing in particular to say.
The narrative does not dwell on the point, but it is hard to resist the interpretation that Woollcott hated himself--perhaps because of his sexuality, perhaps for some other reason--and so created a caricature to overcome that hatred. He made himself a vehicle for attack. (On one occasion he confronted a group exasperated by waiting with the announcement, “I have just had the most magnificent bowel movement.” (168) He picked fights with friends--at one point Ross disowned him, though Booth Tarkington never did: “It was not for lack of conscientious endeavor on Woollcott’s part that his friendship with Booth Tarkington did not come to ruin over political difference; against the novelist’s imperturbable good humor, the younger man’s savage thrusts were impotent.” (208). He resigned from positions on the slightest offense, only to come simpering back. A friend diagnosed him well: “What began as a defense mechanism led to the invention of the almost wholly artificial character, Alexander Woollcott, persistently enacted before the world until it became a profitable investment." (168). Some called him a Gila Monster.
Against this relatively negative assessment is set his greta generosity; Woollcott never really cared for money. He shrugged at his losses in the Great Crash of 1929 and went on to become maybe the highest paid book reviewer (He was paid 2,500 for each issue of _McCall's_). He supported Seeing Eye--the charity that supplied dogs for the blind--both because he was worried about blindness--especially Tarkington's flirtation--and loved dogs--particularly poodles, a love sparked by Tarkington and shared with many other writers of the time, He threw himself into the war effort as World War II approached, Woollcott had pacifist--and generally leftish--leanings--but thought that the war would bring the best chance for perpetual peace. (He got in trouble once for supporting the ACLU during a sponsored talk on the radio.) He evangelized his enthusiasms--among them Charles Fort; Adams has it that, “the prime virtue of Alexander Woollcott’s method method lies in its informing personality and pervasive friendliness.” (251) But while it seemed personal, there was a method: “Yet, though the Woollcott practice may seem casual, almost careless, the results were generally happy; the finished product, which appeared to be generated so effortlessly, was thoughtfully constructed, uniformly readable, and often brilliant. This was due largely to his prodigious if not always reliable memory, which enabled him to hold all his data in solution ready for use; partly to his newspaper regimen when he must work under the imminence of the deadline.” (249).
His writing career was recurrently interrupted by a love for acting--Adams thinks he preferred the immediate gratification--and resurrected by radio. “Radio saved Alexander Woollcott. High grade though his literary wares were, they were becoming shopworn. He had rung the interminable changes upon his stock subjects; his friends, his dogs, hi mysteries, his favorite murders, his war experiences; in newspapers, in magazines, between book covers, on the lecture platform. It was done with inimitable art and wit, with infinite adroitness. But it was done too often. Editors were becoming restive.”
Woollcott eventually moved out of New York, looking for a place to conquer, and ended up on an island off of Vermont, where he continued his lordly lifestyle. Towards the end of his life, his body started to break down, but he continued to live as he always had--trapped, I guess, by the prison he had built--and despite doctor's orders travelled to England to rally support for the War. Back in America, doing a radio broadcast, he suffered a stroke, and died later that day.
The book is eloquent, though dwells too much on Woollcott's negatives. This may be because of the times--it was an attempted correction of the legend, Today, oddly, Woollcott is known as one of the original collectors of urban legends, but this book dismisses this work as an anomalous love of 'mysteries."
In the end, my conclusion would be, insightful but, at least from today's perspective, limited.
Speaking of Burton Rascoe, in an earlier post I said--based on a Google Books snippet--that his review of Lo!
appeared in the little magazine Contempo
. Through the wonderworks of the Harry Ransom Cente
r I finally got a chance to look through the issues that mentioned Fort.
There was indeed a review of Lo!
there but it was short and signed by Ajax:
"Frogs begin to hop, bleeding trees, fishes flop, a rainstorm of rocks, mud, more frogs, fish, worms, etc. All a matter of motion, a reorganization of matter and motion giving life a new significance: all expression a matter of continuity . . . all falls from the sky. This jumble of believe it or not
facts, startling, stupid, curious, amaze and distort all life and mechanics, physics. Charles Fort goes on to say: I believe nothing. I have shut myself away from the rocks and wisdom of ages, and from the so-called great teachers of all time, and perhaps because of that isolation I am given to bizarre hospitalities . . . and that appeal to authority is as much a wobble as any other of our securities
. . . a curious collection and conglomeration."
Rascoe's review--actually just one paragraph--appeared not as content, but as part of an advertisement on 15 June 1932.
It is interesting that Fort was advertised in Contempo
, just as he was advertised in that other literary magazine Circle
. The lines between literary modernism, pulpish writing, and science fiction was relatively thin.
Burton Rascoe's review
mentioned two Forteans I had not heard of: Louis Sherwin and Gorham Munson. I'm still not sure who Munson is; I think I've figured out Sherwin--and also that he was not a Fortean.
The Louis Sherwin in question seems to have been Hugo Louis Sherwin Golitz
, a drama critic, who attended the Fortean Society meeting as a member of the press. He wrote about the night in his "Roving Reporter" column for The New York Evening Post
The article is a bit arch, especially with the picture of a beufddled Dreiser used to illustrate it. Nothing in it suggests Sherwin was necessarily a fan of Fort. And I have found no evidence of Sherwin's trumpeting Fort; certainly Thayer never mentioned him. Since Rascoe was also at the first (and only) Fortean Society meeting, a member of the press but also a fan, it may be that he saw Sherwin and assumed he was also a partisan.
Here is what Sherwin wrote for the Post
, published 27 January 1931, the day after the meeting:
“Seeing and hearing a live man undergo the process of being erected into a cult in his own presence is something you won’t experience every day. Nevertheless, this somewhat uncustomary operation was performed last night on Charles Fort, whose ‘New Lands’ and “The Book of the Damned’ have been variously bepraised and bespattered and whose latest work, ‘Lo!” has just been published by Claude Kendall.
The event, which took place in the Savoy-Plaza apartment of J. David Stern, was the birth of the Fortean Society, whose purpose is to promulgate and celebrate, not to say propagandize, the work of Mr. Fort. This parturition seemed to be eminently successful, parents and offspring doing well.
In case you should be tempted to giggle, be careful. For several of the founders are fellows who can giggle back and giggle better. Rather a curious assortment, in a way. You would hardly expect to find Theodore Dreiser and Booth Tarkington in the same boat. But there they are, and Harry Leon Wilson also. Likewise Ben Hecht, Edgar Lee Masters, Burton Rascoe, Harry Elmer Barnes and John Cowper Powys. Tiffany Thayer, author of ‘Thirteen Men’ and ‘The Illustrious Corpse,’ is the secretary of the society. Our host, Mr. Stern, publisher of the Philadelphia Record and a string of other papers, is evidently its angel, for the time being at any rate. Not all of these were present last night, but enough for a good start.
They put one over on Fort himself in order to get him there. When he arrived he had no idea of what the shootin’ was all about. He thought he had been invited to dine and spend the evening with Stern and Dreiser. Instead of which he found himself cast for a role that might appall even a strong head. He had to sit and listen while he was described as one of the great men of all time, to hear it said that his work was the biggest thing that had happened in Dreiser’s life, that it was the opening of a new world concept. During all of which he looked patiently and meditatively at his cigar and sipped ginger ale.
Personally he seemed to be a mild, simple and very engaging personage. He has a strong gift of humor, but he does not shoot it off unprovoked like a small boy with a rifle. Apparently he has no affectations. He listened to the glowing appraisals of himself without protest but also without beaming.
Charles Fort’s position is unique in the domains of thought and letters. He is the one man who can unite all scientists. Their unanimity, to be sure, is one of suppressed fury. But that is quite something to have achieved. While Sir James Jeans may be heard to titter and tut-tut at Professor Eddington, while there are savants who shake their heads at Einstein and others will tell you--not to be quoted by name--that Millikan is a sublimated publicist to the field of astrophysics, they will all as one man scowl as the mention of Fort’s name. To the scientist he is the arch-heretic.
The Forteans, on the other hand, will cheerfully admit that their prophet is a heretic. But, they say, why don’t the scientists answer him?
Fort’s doctrine, in brief, is that science is absurdly cluttered up with dogma. Away with all dogma! Scientists today are high priests of a superstition compared to when Greek mythology was a plausible body of thought.
‘We hear much of the conflict between science and religion,’ he says, ‘but our conflict is with both of these. Science and religion always have agreed in opposing and suppressing various witchcrafts. Now that religion is inglorious, one of the most fantastic of transferences of worships is that of glorifying science as a beneficent being. It is the attributing of all that is of development, or of possible betterment, to science. But no scientist has ever upheld a new idea without brining upon himself abuse from other scientists. Science has done its utmost to prevent whatever science has done.
‘Resistance to notions in this book will come from persons who identify industrial science and the good of it with the pure or academic or aristocratic sciences, that are living on the repute of industrial science. In my own mind there is distinguishment between a good watchdog and the fleas on him. If the fleas, too, could be taught to bark there’d be a little chorus of some tiny value. But fleas are aristocrats.’
We should not, he says, ‘firmly believe’ anything. Belief is an impediment to development. The only way to facilitate development is to accept temporarily.
‘Scientists, in matters of our data, have been like somebody in Europe before the year 1492 hearing stories of lands to the west, going out on the ocean for an hour or so in a rowboat and then saying: “Oh, hell! There ain’t no America.”’
For twenty-six years Charles Fort has been gathering ‘a procession of data that science has excluded.’ When certain actual and provable phenomena do not fit into the scientists’ explanations they throw them out, ignoring or denying their existence. He continues piling them up, inviting the savants to invent new dogmas to account for them or interpret them by old formulae. Hitherto none of the fraternity has answered him. Admirers of Fort who have tried to extract a reasoned reply tell me the learned doctors and professors grow annoyed at the suggestion and, if one of his books is thrust into their hands, chuck it indignantly across the room.
All of which adds to the gayety of nations, if not to the good digestion of pundits.
It was Dreiser who procured the publication of Fort’s first opus. The manuscript of ‘The Book of the Damned’ had gone the rounds and met with unanimous editorial sniffs. Dreiser read it and promptly became both proselyte and missionary. He took it to Liveright, who originally was as shy as his rivals. Finally Dreiser insisted, threatening to take his own books to another firm, and Liveright capitulated.
The purpose of the Fortean Society, in addition to making propaganda, will be to help Fort collect more data and to establish a fund for the preservation of the notes and references he has compiled.”
Found the New York Herald Tribune review of Lo! by Burton Rascoe in The New York Herald Tribune. It is essentially the same as what Thayer reprinted in Doubt--with the exception that all the references to "the books" are actually references to Lo! I have no idea if Rascoe gave Thayer permission to make the changes.
There is also one misspelled word in Doubt and a paragraph missing from the edited version--probably because it suggested that Fort was still alive.
Here it is:
“My expression is (to use the phrasal reservation of Charles Fort) that this book may or may not be one of the great books of the world, and that, since at the moment I am convinced that it is,it is high time (to use the Fortean formula of skepticism) for me to begin to doubt it. For, says Charles Fort, ‘I cannot accept the products of minds as subject matter for beliefs.’ But I accept ‘with reservations that give me freedom to ridicule the statement at any other time,’ that Charles Fort has engaged in investigations which make Einstein’s seem piddling and that Lo! is the ‘De Revolutionibus’ and the ‘Principia’ of a new era of discovery where in there will be an entirely new arrangement of our patterns of thinking. Though where did I get the idea that the ‘De Revolutionibus’ and the ‘Principia’ were important, or comparatively important, or of an importance equal to this book or that it might annoy somebody for me to mention the ‘Principia’ and Lo! in the same breath? And where did I get the idea that it would be salutary to have a new era of discovery or a new arrangement of our patterns of thinking?
You will excuse me, but I cannot keep up the pretense of pursuing the Fortean process of really rational thinking of the attitude of mind which makes Charles Fort so singularly provocative a challenger of our sluggish, almost amoeba-like method of arriving at somatic death through an interval of accepting buncombe, from the cradle, as wisdom and scientific knowledge. I must frankly revert to type and to the species journalist. A Fortean of Forteans, willing to make the requisite gesture of shaking my finger at Charles Fort at any time I feel like doing so, and willing also to distrust whatever he says that seems too reasonable and full of common sense, because all the fallacies in the world are founded on reasonableness and common sense, I must yet, until I break up old habits of acceptances by habits of doubt, remain a journalist awed, impressed, fascinated, amused by what I consider one of the most amazing (a very good and handy journalistic word, ‘amazing’) books I have ever read.
If I did not think that Charles Fort might suddenly go in seriously for teleportation, and upon reading this endeavor by process of thought to transfer me teleportatively to frigid Mars, the House of Representatives or a peak in Darlen, I should describe Charles Fort’s thinking as fifth-dimensional. But he would shake his head sadly at that.
You can read Lo! in almost any way you like or in any mood your temperament dictates and whatever way you read it, it is my expression that it is a great book. You make take it as pure fantasy and you will find it gorgeous stuff, full of poetic imagery, eloquent in the grand manner, beautiful to read. You may take it as an intellectual hoax and still you must admit it is a marvelously contrived one, satirical, subtle, full of laughs at the expense of the big-wigs of science. You may take it as a sort of pseudo-divine revelation with Charles Fort as a mere ‘agent’ of a higher force seeking to impart knowledge to us, and you will have to admit that Charles Fort opens up new, magic casements upon resplendent vistas.
Charles Fort gives us a great new list of thinkables while at the same time showing us the absurdity of things we have been thinking or rather accepting without thinking. Not many years ago it was thinkable that I might talk to someone in Europe without moving from my chair in Larchmont, but there were certainly not many who would have agreed then that such a thing was thinkable. Charles Fort suggests that it is thinkable that when and if we know more about what he calls teleportation, a merchant in London might transfer almost instantly a carload of oranges from California to his warehouse in Limehouse simply by taking thought, ‘wishing’ the event. He entertains the notion that people have been transferred from one region to another; that the celebrated Casper Hauser, whose mysterious history the Encyclopedia Britannica admits science has been unable to explain, may have been a visitor from another planet, that the mystery of Dorothy Arnold might be explained by teleportation, that the miracle of the stigmata is a fact and not a hoax, pious fraud of hallucination, that frogs and snakes and snails and crabs and periwinkles have rained out of clear skies, that the Children of Israel not only were nourished by ‘manna’ that fell from the heavens but that in our own time ‘manna’ or an edible plant of unknown origin capable of being ground into excellent flour has fallen upon the same arid plains in Asia Minor.
Charles Fort, by gathering and investigating curious data of earthly phenomena which science excludes or ‘explains’ rationalistically, opens up new worlds of speculation. He says that he does not ‘believe’ a thing in his book, he merely offers the data; but then he does not believe the astronomers and physicists and geologists and paleonthologists [sic], who also, by the way, do not believe one another. Dr. R. A. Milliken, who believes in Cosmic Rays and a Creator and that new energy is always being created, finds himself at odds with Jeans and Eddington--of whom one believes in a Creator and the other doesn’t, neither believes in Cosmic Rays, and both agree that the universe is running down like a clock.
But it is not so much the strange data that Charles Fort offers of unexplained phenomena or the world of mystery he leads us into--the suggestion of teleportation and of the nearness of other planets to our own, of visitations from other planets and the dealing of death and plague by process of thought--that stimulates and delights me most in his books. It is his inveterately inquiring mind, his truly scientific skepticism, his showing up of the complete absurdity of common processes of deduction and of the dogmas we have all more or less accepted. He shows us, for example, that there is no such thing as a law of cause and effect, of supply and demand, and so on. He shakes up all of our complacencies; he gives a rude jolt to our articles of faith. He spares no one, not even himself. If you are a materialist or a mechanist, he gives aid and comfort to the enemy, the religionists and the mystics. But if you are a religionist or a mystic, he gives aid and comfort to the enemy also. I can well imagine H. L. Mencken and Bishop Manning reacting in the same degree, if not in kind, of fury at some of the ‘suggestions’ of Charles Fort. But, on the other hand, whoever heard of a stranger collection of bed fellows united under the same banner than Booth Tarkington and Ben Hecht, Harry Leon Wilson and Tiffany Thayer, John Cowper Powys and Louis Sherwin, Gorham Munson and myself, all of whom see something portentous [misspelled in Doubt] and exciting in the curious delvings and speculations of a quiet, enigmatic, humorous-minded man who lived almost like a hermit in the Bronx?
Alexander Woollcott was listed among the founders of the Fortean Society. However, I haven’t seen anywhere that he actually wrote anything about Fort. There’s nothing in either Damon Knight’s or Jim Steinmeyer’s biography of Fort. And when Tiffany Thayer profiled Woollcott in The Fortean Society Magazine he reprinted nothing from Woollcott (while he had from Powys, Hecht, Tarkington, and Harry Leon Wilson), only saying that he often encouraged people to read Fort and handed out his books.
So, this article, reprinted below, counts as a find, I think.
Woollcott wrote it for McCall’s June 1931 issue. It was part of his usual column on new and noteworthy books. The column came out several months after the Fortean Society’s meeting, delayed, perhaps, because Woollcott spent the early part of the year in Japan and China.
There are a number of issues that should be highlighted.
First, Woollcott says that he was introduced to Fort by Tarkington in the mid-1920s; this means Tarkington likely inspired two of the founders, the other being Harry Leon Wilson.
Second, Woollcott makes it clear the Fortean meetings were supposed to be on-going--the one in January was the first annual. Later, he would say it was a one-shot exercise. He also suggests that the press was there of their own accord, rather than--as was the case--invited by Thayer and Aaron Sussman.
Third, he has Fort visiting libraries in Paris, which no one else, including his biographers, report.
Fourth, he actually grapples with the very different personalities of the Fortean Society founders--which is interesting, even if his evaluations do not always ring true. He sees Thayer as merely interested in stirring trouble; there’s no doubt that Thayer enjoyed throwing rocks at hornet nests, but Woollcott does him a disservice by playing down just how much Thayer did respect Fort, and Fort’s ideas. After all, Thayer was the one to keep the Society going.
Woollcott is probably closer to the truth when it comes to Dreiser, whom he portrays as a naif--the naturalism of his writing covering his Midwestern roots. Dreiser had his naiveties. But as Louis J. Zanine has shown (Mechanism and Mysticism: The Influence of Science on the Thought and Work of Theodore Dreiser) Dreiser was not all woo-woo. Yes, he was intrigued by mystical thought and alternative medical theories. But, like others of his generation so inclined, he tried to reconcile these with a belief in materialism. Fort offered a possible means for making that connection, by suggesting that there was a higher power--forces X or Y--controlling human development.
Hecht is a more difficult character--his changed a lot. Woollcott makes him out to be something of a populist, but certainly as he aged this aspect of Hecht’s personality dried up. The impression that I get is less that he was worried too many people believed in science as a matter of faith than that Hecht was the stereotype Woollcott drew of Thayer--someone interested in stirring things up.
I would have liked him to explain further exactly why he thought Tarkington was such a big fan.
At any rate, here’s the column:
Alexander Woollcott, Fair, Fat and Fortean McCall’s, June 1931, 8, 59.
(Part of on-going column, “What’s Going on this Month” with Woollcott writing the “Reading and Writing” bit.)
Or, to be more precise, fat, forty-four, Fortean, and only fair. That might be accepted, with reservations, as a dirty thumbnail sketch of your shrinking correspondent. Unlike some matrons of my acquaintance, I have not been forty-four long. But I have been a Fortean ever since Booth Tarkington took me firmly aside, some six or seven years ago, and sat me down before a startling and ominous trumpet blast called The Book of the Damned. It was by one Charles Fort.
Ever since, I have been full of enthusiasm for the works of this singular man. That enthusiasm makes strange bedfellows. For example, such distinctly improbable associates as Theodore Dreiser, John Cowper Powys, Ben Hecht, Tiffany Thayer, and myself, all eyeing one another a little sheepishly, are now united with Mr. Tarkington in a society organized for the spreading of Charles Fort’s gospel among our comatose contemporaries.
Our ardor is no whit dampened by the mere circumstance that reporters, nosing around the first annual dinner of the Fortean Society in New York this year, were unable to find any of the directors quite clear as to what the gospel was. We grew evasive and referred them haughtily to his new work, which had just been published.
Indeed, the dinner was held in honor of its advent. It is called Lo! I trust that gluttons for stories about poor Indians will not thereby be deceived into buying it. They would be so cruelly disappointed. For the implied subtitle is And Behold. It is a book of wonder.
Charles Fort is a venerable and crochety [sic] recluse who sits scornfully in a tiny hide-away in the Bronx, entirely surrounded by home-brew and data. It is his contention that whenever, in any age, there occurs a puzzling phenomenon that does not happen to fit into the picture of the world then being held in the temple of orthodox science, the high priests blandly wave it aside it and forget it. Thus it vanishes into the now crowded limbo of the inexplicable. But Fort does not forget it. All his life he has been collecting what he calls the damned data of science, carrying on a furious correspondence with witnesses in a score of countries, spending unrewarded years of patient dredging in the file of newspapers and scientific journals in the libraries of London, Paris and New York.
One dark spring night, as the British steamer Patna was sailing up the Persian Gulf, there suddenly appeared on each side of it, to the stupefaction of crew and passengers, an enormous revolving wheel with luminous spokes, each close to three hundred years in length. [Turn to page 59]
This has not yet been explained . . .
A girl named named Dorothy Arnold stepped into a New York taxicab in 1910, and has not been heard of since . . . The once celebrated Casper Hauser had reversed this process by appearing suddenly on tis earth as from another planet . . . On a May day in 1880 in the fields near the English city of Worcester, tons of periwinkles and hermit-crabs fell from the skies . . . In December of last year, a lethal fog spread through the valley of the Meuse, poisoning hundreds of Belgians, scores of them mortally . . . One hot summer afternoon, years before the era of aviation, there fell into a meadow near Tarbes, in France, an exactly rectangular stone, sheathed in ice . . . Jet-black snow . . . Pink snow . . . Blue hailstones . . . Orange-flavored hailstones . . . Falling manna . . . Showers of frogs . . . Cities seen in the sky . . . Inexplicable footprints . . . Poltergeist phenomena . . . Bleeding statues . . . Stray indices of visitors from other (and not too distant) planets . . .
Of such, variously attested, is the grist that comes to Master Fort’s mill. Clasping these damned data to his bosom, he executes a war dance calculated to freeze the blood of the most offish spectator.
‘Char me,’ he says, ‘the trunk of a redwood tree. Give me pages of white chalk cliffs to write upon. Magnify me thousands of times, and replace my trifling immodesties with a titanic megalomania--then might I write largely enough for our subject.
I submit this fair sample of his style to suggest why Tarkington speaks of Fort’s pen as ‘a brush dipped in earthquake and eclipse,’ and of The Book of the Damned as one which Doré should have illustrated, or even Blake. Tarkington’s enchantment is easy to comprehend. So is Dreiser’s. For the author of An American Tragedy is one of the great innocents of this world, and it would ever be his way to sit open-mouthed and saucer-eyed at the feet of any teller of old wives’ tales, touched by the dancing firelight.
Hecht, I suspect, draws up his chair in a different mood. He is an urchin spirit. I would venture to guess that Hecht’s favorite character in literature is the disconcerting little boy who, when the King paraded in the imaginary robe, cried out: ‘But he hasn’t got anything on!’ Hecht probably grows fretful when the average man of today accepts the pronounciamientos from the cloud-wrapped temple of science as uncritically, as abjectly, as the people of ancient Egypt obeyed the high sign from the priests who professed to be in the confidence of Isis. If you doubt this, consider the spectacle of all America recently prostrate before the figure of Herr Einstein. There are not fifty men in this country capable of grasping just what it is that this German mathematician’s calculations and intuitions have brought him to. The rest of us have been told that it is something prodigiously important and profound and we accept that fact. I merely wish to suggest in this context, that when we accept it, we do so by a simple act of faith--accept it, that is, in exactly the same spirit that the medieval peasants did the story that the priest told them about Jonah and the whale.
So the age of science needs its own skeptics. And therefore begets them. Small wonder that, when a Charles Fort is minded to throw down the gage of battle, so essentially a mutinous a fellow as Ben Hecht should come forward and offer to hold his coat. You may think of Tiffany Thayer as holding the sponge, not so much as a convert, perhaps, but as one wishing to see any fight from close range.
So much for Lo! So much, indeed, that there is room left only to name a few of the real treasures I have come upon among this year’s new books. Please note that any nursery is defrauded which hasn’t a copy of The First Picture Book; that China Seas, by the late Crosbie Garstin, is the best adventure story in many a moon; and that, above all, I commend to you a little volume packed to the brim with pain and beauty and courage. It is called The Whistler’s Room.
A review of Donald Hensley's critical biography of Burton Rascoe:
This is a slight biography of Burton Rascoe, a man about whom very little has been written. Hensley makes a convincing case that Rascoe should be better known. Since this book was published in 1970, though, history seems to have decided otherwise.
Rascoe was a writer, much more importantly, a literary critic. Born in 1892, his family moved Kentucky to Oklahoma and, from there, Rascoe went to Chicago. He was at the University for a while but dropped out to be a journalist--and journalism would define his particular version of literary criticism: "As a critic, he is a wonderful newspaper man," one commenter said. "If he goes down in history at all, it will be an an encourager of new talents. He semlls them out not by their artistic fragrance but by virtue of as a keen a nose for news as ever anyone was gifted with." (87) (It's worth noting here that when Rascoe started writing journalism while at the University of Chicago, he frequently read through academic journals for ideas and material 21). He was in the windy city during its literary Renaissance and then--moving back and forth between Chicago and New York--was an important advocate for emerging literary voices from the late 1910s into the early 1930s, before fading into irrelevance and crotchety conservatism (writing for Human Events). He died in 1957.
As reviewer, chief reviewer, and eventually literary editor for the Chicago Tribune Rascoe opened the paper to the literary renaissance then on-going. He reviewed Ben Hecht's early work, and praised the incorporation of Nietzsche into American letters. He championed Dreiser's work and, most famously, James Branch Cabell. He also sought to bring to the attention of America's reading public work being done in Europe, particularly France--Rascoe said he wrote about Proust four years before he was translated into English (24). He derided the criticism of Stuart Pratt Sherman, an influential literary critic of the time who held a torch for Victorian literature. He was an important interpreter of Mencken, praising his style but later chastising him for his poor appreciation of literature (72).
He disliked the Algonquin group, including Alexander Woollccott, for their pretensions (76) and was an early champion of both Eliot and Pound before becoming embroiled in fights with them--Eliot over the New Humanism, which Rascoe saw as snobbery disguised as literature, a marketing opportunity for the sale of books. (80). Pound attacked Rascoe in 1932 for only writing about established authors. Of course, that had not been true of Rascoe' early work, but by the 1930s, it was--although Hensley does not really admit this. It was a sign of Rascoe's declining fortunes as a critic. A new generation of critics--L.B. Hessler, Margaret Marshall, and most famous of all, Mary McCarthy--attacked Rascoe as an anti-intellectual, a 'bad boy' who sticks out his tongue at thoughtful literature (100-102). Rascoe was well read--in many languages--and had in fact heaved stones at Mencken for being anti-intellectual when it came to literature, but his highly subjective form of criticism left him open to such attacks. Here was a man who said one could get by without reading Virgil's Aeneid, but wrote an encomium to Charles Fort's Lo!
Rascoe's critical theory was personal, by his own reckoning. He said he liked what he liked, and proclaimed it greatly to get noticed, sometimes to the point of over-praising it (41). He also liked to pick fights in order to gain notice for authors he appreciated. (He thought Dreiser a bad writer, for example, but an interesting thinker, and so championed him; 24). Nonetheless, Hensley argues that there were certain qualities of writing to which Rascoe was drawn--so a rudimentary theory. These were a Romantic belief that reality exists only in the imagination (42): he appreciated realism, but recognized that it was still a set of conventions, and the point was to stimulate the imagination. And this was true of historical and non-fictional writing, as well--both were primarily aesthetic problems (44). He also believed that the primary duty of art was to transmit an emotional experience; political and social and intellectual points were to be secondary (49). This was one reason why he did not always approve Dreiser's writing, which could be quite ugly. He also took issue with Ben Hecht's Gargoyles because Hecht was given too much to editorial comment in the course of the story (51). Finally, he believed that criticism itself was a separate art form (53)--that it was, as Anatole France had it, the record of a soul in the presence of masterpieces. This accounted for his highly personal approach to writing about literature.
Rascoe could turn a phrase and like today's literary bloggers had a penchant for irony, parody, and satire (61); (He renamed some chapters from one of Sherman's books, for example: 'Wherein I curry favor with the boston back bay set' and 'wherein i demonstrate myseklf a superior person and a conceited prig'; 59).
Hensley has done a great deal of research putting together this book, going through Rascoe's papers at Penn and the University of Virginia as well as reading widely in the literature of the time and following Rascoe's copious output. The major complaint about the book is that, slim though it is, because of the thematic arrangement, it is highly repetitive. Perhaps, then, when it comes to Rascoe there is less to be seen than there appears.
Earlier, I had been looking for where Burton Rascoe's review of Lo! was published, noting that the citations in the biographies of Fort do not support what the text says.
It turns out that, despite the confusing citations, Steinmeyer was right: Rascoe's review appeared in The New York Herald Tribune. To be specific, it appeared on page 5 of the February 15 issue and was about 1200 words long.
I still haven't seen the review itself, though. This information comes from The Book Review Digest of 1931.
A review of Booth Tarkington's The World Does Move (1929):
Smoothly written and closely observed, the second of Booth Tarkington's semi-autobiographical accounts, The World Does move gives weight and specificity to what otherwise seems a cliche.
The World Does Move concerns Tarkington's life from around 1900 (he characterizes the beginning only as the fin de siecle) to 1928, though he is at pains to make it known that the book is not a species of 'autobiographical writing--for this is not a personal memoir.' What he hopes to capture is the changes in the eras, from the fin de siecle to the 1920s. The book lacks the anger of some of his earlier works on the changes to the Midwest (and Indianapolis, which he christens here Midland) and is more ruminative.
At the beginning, he dwells on the way larger changes had even small effects--the replacing of gaslight with electric light, for example, ruining a common joke used in plays about people blowing themselves up with gas. He notes, too, the effect the switch of lighting had on actors--in the gaslight era, old actors could play young characters, and vice versa, because the light was so forgiving. No more in the time of electric lights. He discusses the changing geography of Indianapolis and the various effects of smoke and pollution on the city. He is not too worried about these changes in The World Does Move--and one might imagine because at this time in his life Tarkington was rather buffered from their worst effects.
He is less protected from changing fashions in art, and when he approaches them is more defensive--"In this new age of 'frankness in art' the old fashioned liberal discovered that he was now become a puzzle conservative protesting against what appeared to him a prevailing tainted ugliness, anything but frank." (207). He argues that the older generation of realists--in which he, of course, includes himself--did not ignore sex. int heir writing; it was always implicitly there, just not the focus--and then he turns the criticism around on the new generation: that 'sex' is just a euphemism for sensuality and sexuality and animalism and that the whole variety of human life has been reduced to this euphemism.
His hackles are raised by the "gay mockery" (214) critics used against the dramas and melodramas of the fin de siecle, bristled that everything except architecture had been 'invaded by sex' (220)--including science and philosophy, and harangued playwrights for only caring about shock--for building their dramas for the first night, only. SUch writers, he says, do not realize that they, too, are just part of the 'machine,' 'cycling round and round with it; they do not spin it.' (221).
He takes a veiled swipe at H. L. Mencken and his followers: 'Debunking': "On this altar, they said, everything old must be burned as incense; all believers in anything old were either fools or hypocrites and must be jeered to death. The new questioning, believing Science to be new, could therefore have faith in it--at least so long as it could be interpreted as maintaining the ancient theological theory of predestination now masquerading in the new phrase, 'mechanistic philosophy.' For, like the automobile and all the new machines men had invented for greater speed and for ease to labour, the fast-whirling universe itself must be, these new questioners argued, a machine." (236).
But, then, just before Tarkington proves himself an old fuddy-duddy, he introduces the general article, through the device of his neighbor, Judge Olds (surely a creation--and another reason Tarkington likely did not want this book labeled a memoir; 237). Judge is exercised not only by these same changes, but especially by the rise of the so-called New Woman--smoking, unchaperoned, short-haired, and frank. Tarkington--or rather, the narrator, who seems to be Tarkington--finds himself defending women, and, ultimately, all the changes.
Sure, there is a horrid fascination with sex stories--but this is just a craze, and soon the 'subject will takes its proper proportion.' (249). No, 'The ladies do not belong to us any more, and they don't all live for us and to "manage" us--not quite in the sense they used to. They've decided to live more for themselves." Yes, women spend a lot of money on their appearance, but in the eighteenth century it was men who preened--in wigs and jewelry and perfume.
This is convincing, and shows the narrator to be thoughtful--until he tries to win over the Judge by reading him a fantastic romance story about the end of Atlantis, in which it is proffered that men destroyed that fabled land rather than have women become dominant. I am not sure what to make of this--not the supposed moral of the story, but the presentation. Was this meant to be ironic, funny, satirical--of whom?
At any rate, the story does illustrate Tarkington's point--that the world moves, and it does not do so as a pendulum, but as an 'ascending spiral.' (280). Parts of the past are recycled, and new inventions made: each age its own fashions, and the narrator cannot begrudge the new generation its sense of its self, anymore than he should not have been moved by the delicious claim of the fin de siecle being the end of history. The older generation can objectively see some of what the newer has lost--the new, he could see, were no longer interested in refinement because refinement was a quality of leisure, and the world, moving faster, had little time for leisure (290)--but the new could build things the older generation could not even imagine.
His conclusion, therefore, is more subtle than the opening--or even the first three-quarters--would suggest. There is reason to be critical of the new age, for they too often forget the past altogether, but they also can create works and ideas previously unimaginable, if they attend the past, and the world can continue its upward spiral: "For every new age has at its disposal everything that was fine in all past ages, and its greatness depends upon how well it recognizes and preserves and brings to the aid of its own enlightenment whatever worthy and true things the dead have left on earth behind them' (294).