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.