Charles Hoy Fort's Short Stories
Growing up in Albany, New York, Charles Hoy Fort entertained himself and his younger brothers, Raymond and Clarence, with imaginary stories; but, Charles also tried writing up some of these stories, as was recounted by his brother, Raymond:
...In the later years at high school he showed marked ability in writing and was considered to be quite a wit among his friends. While in high school he wrote numerous stories and sent them to various magazines and they were accepted and published. These stories were all based upon some actual happening, some school boy prank or an expedition in the country. He would take some little incident and embellish it and make a story of it, and then we would all have the pleasure of reading about ourselves in a magazine. He always used our real first names.
While still in high school, Charles started working as a reporter for the Albany Argus, (alias The Democrat); and, he, (alias "we"), recounted in his autobiography, Many Parts, one of the consequences of his reporting (with his father and step-mother, alias "they" and "our new mother"), and his enjoyment in writing:
...we saw in our calling the attractiveness that all but actors see in the actor's calling. Describing scenes and conditions in the park; making the weatherman the object of old-time pleasantries; finding material in the incidents in a badly paved street.
Why, at home, our new mother was afraid to speak, we turning her gossip into "copy," though trying to disguise so as to get her into no trouble.
"What was said?" We with ears wide-open. Our new mother glancing from them to us meaningly. They irritated and scornful, refusing to believe that we could write anything, thinking, when they could trace about-town gossip to us that someone else had patched it up for us.
They repeating, "What was said?" Our new mother gossiping; we with note book, scrawling on it in our pocket.
And we had a reaching-out feeling, wanting to write more important, little stories. If we could only produce something with a plot in it, and with characters that we could make speak and act, as if we had created them! There were luring and wonderfulness in this feeling of creative instinct, of which we had only desire for it; seemed god-like to take a pencil, and then let things happen.
In 1892, Fort left from Albany at the age of eighteen years to work as a reporter for the Brooklyn edition of the New York World and later as the editor of the Woodhaven Independent during its brief existence.
Fort's pursuit of a career in writing led him to make a tour of as much of the world as he could afford. From a house, which was his part of an inheritance from his grandfather, (Peter V.V. Fort), he obtained a rent of twenty-five dollars a month. Working his way when he could, paying his way when he couldn't, or, when all else failed, living the life of a tramp catching freights and sleeping in culverts, Fort saw the United States, Britain, South Africa, and ports-of-call in South America. In 1896, he returned to New York City and married Annie Elizabeth Filing, whom he had known in Albany; and, after a brief honeymoon to Maine and Newfoundland, they made their home in New York City.
Charles Fort had been raised in a prosperous home in Albany. His grandfather and father worked as grocers; and, though his brother Raymond worked in the family business when grown, Charles only worked there as a boy, with great reluctance. His life in New York City was one of poverty for the next two decades. Not until after the deaths of his father, (Charles Nelson Fort in 1912), his step-mother, (Blanche Evelyn Whitney Fort in 1913), and his paternal uncle, (Frank A. Fort in 1916), did he receive a sufficient share of his grandfather's estate to enable him to pursue his library researches and writing on a full-time basis. As Fort wrote to Theodore Dreiser, in 1916: "[Annie] insists that now I must almost always have a nice clean shirt on...I'm doomed. I must take my place among barbers and policemen and firemen and their wives, or in fact become a member of a class that in the past has been far, far above me." Fort and his wife lived in the tenement slums of New York and worked whenever and wherever they could find work. Yet, under these abject conditions, Fort gathered much of the material he would use in his short stories and his one novel, The Outcast Manufacturers (1909).
Fort wrote from his experiences and what he witnessed. Thus, his stories are based upon camping experiences he had at the YMCA camp on Lake Champlain at Westport, New York; he had been a newspaper reporter in Brooklyn; he had lived in boarding houses and had led the life of a vagabond; and, he had dwelt among the tenements of New York City and had probably blistered his hands unloading the brick barges from Haverstraw.
Fort's development as a writer of fiction was hampered by his experimentation with various styles. In Many Parts, his efforts to disguise family members, (who were still alive when various drafts were written between 1901 and 1904), with vague identities made it difficult to read. Fort also experimented in using a "visualizing curtain," of paper smudged with pencil-markings or candle smoke, to stimulate his imagination. Another method of writing involved extensive collections of notes, a vast collection of about sixty-thousand were used to write his books of strange phenomena; and, an earlier collection of notes was recounted by Dreiser:
Once he had, as I recall now, a little shelf with little boxes, pigeon holes, really. And these he filled with little pieces of paper on which were written descriptive sentences, sentences that gave descriptions of what he would see when he was out walking or anywhere else. It was amazing: the force and beauty of these sentences or descriptions in some of these packages. Once, as I recall, one slip described a night market scene in New York as resembling a torch light procession going down one side of the street and coming back the other. I got so excited over these things that I said, `Here, I'll buy these of you. They are better than any thesaurus, a new help to letters.' But he said: no, he might have some use for them sometime, maybe. But as usual with Fort, he finally wearied of them and then destroyed them."
Less than a third of Many Parts has survived; and, whatever novels were written before 1905 were probably torn up and burned by Fort himself, as happened to his later novels, X, Y, and Z.
Fortunately, Fort met Theodore Dreiser in his efforts to sell some of his short stories. In 1931, Dreiser recounted this episode in an interview:
He discovered me by walking in on me when I was editing Smith's Magazine and so long ago as 1905. He was, as I thought, writing the best humorous short stories that I have ever seen produced in America. They were realistic, so wise, so ironic, and in some ways, so amusing, and in their way beautiful. I bought them for Smith's Magazine, which as I have just said I was then editing for Street and Smith in 1904 and 1905. Fort came to me with these stories; and since I had never read any like them anywhere, I decided that he was certain to make a great reputation. Some of his writings suggested mental clowning, but they had wisdom and beauty, an entirely different kind of mood and material viewpoint. I think I published six or seven or eight. And other editors did the same. And among ourselves, Richard Duffy of Tom Watson's, Charles Agnew MacLean of the Popular Magazine, and others, we loved to talk of him and his future: a new and rare literary star. But presently, he quit writing them. That was after I left Smith's and became the editor of Hampton's Magazine. That is, after I became editor of Hampton's, I sent for him and told him that now that I had moved I wanted more. Also that there I could pay him much more: one hundred or one hundred and twenty-five dollars as against twenty or thirty, or even perhaps forty dollars, which was what he used to get from Street and Smith's, and others, I presume, but no more. More, as I understood it at that time, he needed the money; for always, as I knew, he lived on about five cents a day, and I thought for him this larger price would be a great incentive and that he would give me as many stories as I wished. But imagine my astonishment, as well as chagrin, when most calmly he announced that he wasn't writing short stories anymore. No. He was working on a new book, X, and nothing could take him away from that.
"Well, then," I said, "what about those others? Aren't you going to collect and publish those?"
His answer was no, he would never let me or anyone have them published that way, since he didn't want to be identified with those stories, if you please, or if you can imagine such a thing! He was going to do an entirely different sort of thing, and so those stories could do him no good, but only harm. Imagine! Well, I was pretty mad. But the stories were his.
...Often since, I have asked him to allow me to get these stories together in a book, but he will not permit it.
The reason given by Fort to Dreiser for refusing to have his short stories published may not have been entirely straight-forward. He did not give up writing short stories. Dreiser may have found the real reason Fort did not seek to have them reprinted when interviewing Annie Fort in September of 1933, after Fort's death. Asked about what she knew of his short stories, Annie stated:
He had a bunch of them in magazines. One day he went away in a temper and told me that he was never coming back. So I threw away all his old junk; and then he came back the next morning, and asked, "Where are all my magazines?" I said I threw them all away.
The true reason, thus, may have been that Fort no longer had copies of his own stories, did not wish to confess what had happened to them, and did not feel compelled to seek them out again with his new line of writing attracting another audience.
In Chapter 24 of Wild Talents, he provides a comparison between the writings of scientists and himself:
...there is a big difference between "authoritative pronouncements"' and my expressions. It is the difference between sub-atomic events and occurrences in boarding houses. The difference is in many minds--unlike my mind, to which all things are phenomena, and to which all records are, or may be, data--in which electrons and protons are dignified little things, whereas boarders and tramps on park benches can't be taken solemnly.
Fort's wry humor continued into his later works. He portrayed some dogmatic
scientists as buffoons; but, he would also mock himself for playing the
part of a mischievous character. One deviation from this humor was in the
dark slice-of-life story "Had To Go Somewhere," published in
1910, which apparently was an experiment in style too shocking even
for Dreiser's tastes.
The short stories of Charles Fort which are collected into this book constitute most, (if not all), of those originally published between 1905 and 1907, one from 1910, and one which was found only in a copy of the typescript. These have all been identified with Fort's name as the author or from other records; but, there are titles to other stories, which may have been published anonymously or which never survived past the galley proofs. For example, Dreiser thought that one might have appeared in Everybody's Magazine, but none by Fort is to be found therein. Others, known by only by titles and not located, include: "The Cow that Passed the Regents," "His Face Now Anothers," "The Day of Two Sunsets," and "His Thanksgiving Dinner for Everybody," (which was to have appeared in the New Broadway Magazine of October 1907, but didn't). An incomplete typescript copy of "She Became Similar" was discovered but is not included.
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