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2: The Hermit of the Bronx
3: Descriptions of Fort
4: Biographical Sources about Fort
Annotated bibliography of Fort's writings
CHARLES FORT: A Chronology
CHARLES FORT: The Hermit of the Bronx
Charles Fort was born into a fairly prosperous family of Dutch immigrants who owned a wholesale grocery business in Albany, New York State. He was the eldest of three brothers - the others being Clarence, and the youngest, Raymond. Their mother died within a few years of Clarence's birth and Fort's father married again during Fort's teens.
Beatings by his tyrannical father helped set him against authority and dogma, as he declares in the remaining fragments of his autobiography Many Parts. Escaping home at the age of 18, he worked as a reporter in New York City before hitch-hiking through Europe "to put some capital into the bank of experience." In 1896, aged 22, he contracted malaria in South Africa and returned to New York where he married Anna Filan (or Filing), an English servant girl in his father's house.
Fort and Anna settled down to a life of dire poverty in a succession of tiny apartments in the Bronx and Hell's Kitchen quarters of New York City. He took odd jobs between infrequent sales of his stories (most of which are now lost) to newspapers and magazines. At times things were so bad the Forts had to use their furniture for firewood. Where Anna "knew all her neighbours' affairs", Fort himself had very few friends. He virtually lived as a hermit, chasing references at the library until it closed and writing up his notes at home, pottering over them into the night. Were it not for Anna's insistence that he accompany her to the movies most evenings and the visits from Thayer and Dreiser, he had no social life.
His books are full of little asides that shed light on his daily life; for example, in Lo! (Ch.18) he says has cut down on smoking and almost given up drinking his home brewed beer because it went flat so quickly. His concentration was quickly soured by doubt, which was rare but drastic when it occurred, plunging him into a depression. Twice, he burned his collection of tens of thousands of notes because "They were not what I wanted." Undaunted, he would begin his exhaustive reading and note-taking all over again, but in a new direction.
In 1921, the Forts set sail for London, where he and Anna lived close to the British Museum (at 39A, Marchmont Street). For eight years, he undertook his 'grand tour' of the Museum's holdings several more times, at each pass widening his horizons to new subjects and new correlations. He began to think that space travel was inevitable, sending letters to the New York Times on the subject and even speaking on it at Hyde Park Corner.
Fort returned to New York in 1929, striking up an acquaintance with Tiffany Thayer, with whom he had corresponded. Thayer, a young and ebullient novelist, often visited the Forts, talking into the night, lubricated by home-brewed beer, surrounded by Fort's collection of mounted specimens of giant spiders and objects said to have fallen from the sky and the great wall of shoe boxes where Fort's notes roosted.
Fort grew progressively blind. On 3rd of May 1932, he was admitted to hospital suffering from "unspecified weakness". He died within a few hours, apparently of leukemia. He took notes almost to the end - the last one said simply: "Difficulty shaving. Gaunt places in face." After Fort died, Anna lost her interest in living and survived him by only five years.
Several times in his books, Fort refers to poltergeist-like events in their apartments in the Bronx and in London; inexplicable noises would be heard and pictures fell off walls. Dreiser once interviewed Anna after Fort's death and asked her if she had had any further strange experiences. She told him of rapping sounds and voices and then said ... "One afternoon [..] his aunt came over and she annoyed me terrible about this money. She said I had no right to it. I went to bed crying and in the night I thought he was sitting on a little bench or couch [..] He said: 'Hello, Momma,' and I was never so glad to see anybody in my whole life."
Charles Fort is buried in the family plot in a cemetary in Albany, New York.
DESCRIPTIONS OF FORT
We have very few descriptions of Fort. He was a complex and private man, dedicated to his work. His autobiographical fragments, Many Parts , reveal a turbulent childhood through which he stumbled and brawled, resisting parental authority and any other imposition he thought unjust or foolish. Yet the key elements of his later brilliance are all in place: his powers of observation, his creative imagination, his facility with words and descriptions, and even his compassion for people who did not have his own inner strength.
Fort was not averse to making his size work to his advantage. Mr X found a letter by Raymond, Fort's youngest brother, written sometime after 1937. Raymond recalls Fort telling him of having to fight a duel with a Frenchman in South Africa. As he knew nothing of swords or pistols, Fort chose to fight with his fists. Raymond wrote: "The Frenchman was pretty well battered up as my brother knew how to use his fists and possessed unbounded courage."
For Tiffany Thayer, Fort was a jolly giant with "the most magnificent sense of humour that ever made life bearable for a thinking man." In his exuberant introduction to BOOKS1 (1941), Thayer describes Fort as nearly six feet tall, fair, and built like a walrus with a matching moustache and spectacles as thick as bottle-ends. "He was an anachronism in modern dress," thought Thayer who mentally placed Fort in the era of swashbuckling Musketeers.
However, Thayer's Fort, "roaring at his subject" and "packing a belly laugh in either typewriter hand", is at odds with the "shy and introverted" hermit seen by others, including Theodore Dreiser, Fort's oldest friend. They first met in 1905 when Dreiser was editor of Smith's Magazine , and Fort was selling some of his stories. Dreiser, an older and more established writer, likened him to Oliver Hardy - "that unctuous, ingratiating mood, those unwieldy, deferential, twittery mannerisms were Fort's."
One of Dreiser's friends, Marguerite Tjader, remembered Fort as "a low-set man, dark with a greasy complexion, [with] scant black hair brushed over a round dynamic head. His hands were fat and protruded from filthy shirt-cuffs under a dark nondescript suit. In spite of all this, there was something fascinating about him; he seemed utterly alive, carefree and all-knowing as he talked."
Fort's biographer, Damon Knight, says Fort was "an utterly peaceable and sedentary man [who] lived quietly with his wife." By all accounts, Fort and Anna were an odd couple, but they were devoted to each other. According to Thayer, Anna lamented her husband's unsocial bent, knew all her neighbours' affairs, and organised their daily life with "skill and imagination", in effect freeing Fort to follow his star. Thayer said she never read Fort's books, nor "ever dreamed what went on in her husband's head".
Aaron Sussman, then a young advertising executive who became fast friend to the elderly Fort in his last years, told Damon Knight of his visits to the Forts' apartment in 1930. He recalled Anna as a "bustling little hostess" who had "a lovely way of speaking to you [making you] feel she was honored and grateful that you had taken the time and trouble to come and see her." To Sussman, Fort was "one of the most innocent innocents I have ever met [..] a gentle man, inveterately polite, very tender toward Anna." With his deep voice and booming laugh, he gave Sussman the impression of a great mind that had withdrawn from the world, and yet "He always made you feel wanted; he was delighted to see you, no matter how busy he was."
BIOGRAPHICAL SOURCES ABOUT FORT
There are only two substantial sources of biographical information about Fort.
Most of the facts recounted in these pages come from these sources.
Jump to annotated bibliography of Charles Fort's writings.
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