"One Measures a Circle, Beginning Anywhere": Henry Miller and the Fortean Fantasy

By Buhs, Joshua | Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal, Annual 2016 | Go to article overview

"One Measures a Circle, Beginning Anywhere": Henry Miller and the Fortean Fantasy


Buhs, Joshua, Nexus: The International Henry Miller Journal


Toward the middle of Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch, while complaining about all the mail he receives, Henry Miller says, "Perhaps I attract people who are given to experimentation. Perhaps I attract individuals who are struggling manfully to pierce the hocus-pocus which envelops and obstructs our march through life. People are constantly supplying me with startling facts, amazing events, incredible experiences--as if I were another Charles Fort. They struggle, they rebel, they experiment, they get glimpses of truth, they are raised up by spasmodic gusts of self-confidence--and yet they are hopelessly enmeshed." (1) He tosses out Fort's name lightly, and never returns to it--even as he spends the last chapter complaining, again, about the abundance of his mail. No scholar has ever worried over this reference. Perhaps it seems a passing fad, or it reflects Miller's inclination toward occultism and kooks. Kenneth Rexroth noted in his introduction to Nights of Love and Laughter that Miller was "likely at times to go off the deep end about the lost continent of Mu or astrology of the 'occult"' at a moment's notice. (2) Those who even recognized Fort's name probably chalked the allusion up to this tendency. Since Miller never mentioned Fort again in any of his writings, personal or published, why bother to investigate?

Charles Fort, though, wasn't just another crank--or, rather, he was, maybe, just another crank, but one who attracted attention from some interesting thinkers. Ezra Pound also made passing reference to Fort--in

his Pisan Cantos. (3) John Cowper Powys found Fort stimulating and mused on his work in the early 1930s. (4) Theodore Dreiser was a patron and a friend; he absorbed Fort's thoughts into his own philosophical system. (5) And Fort was a favorite of the San Francisco Bay Area bohemians who supported and befriended Miller after he moved to California. Perhaps there was something modish about Miller's reference to Fort; but it is also true that tracking the citation, expanding on it, opens some doors on Miller's California circle, and his own writing, showing how confessional, even mystical, writing, and left-libertarianism bonded the community, were reflected in Miller's writings, and helped his ideas to spread--giving them an influence beyond what their banning and small print runs 'would otherwise seem to indicate.

Charles Fort (1874-1932)

Telling such a story depends upon a close reading of Fort and Miller, as well as a reconstruction of the Bay Area Bohemian milieux based on a survey of the writers active at the time; there is also evidence of Fortean activities in sources far from those usual to the Miller story: science fiction fandom. As told here, the story falls into five acts. The first briefly examines Charles Fort and his ideas, and how they became the subject of a Fortean Society. The second looks at how Fort's ideas took root in northern California, supporting--and being supported by--the artistic tenor of the time and place. The third section moves to consider how Miller was exposed to Fort's ideas. A fourth section teases out relationships between Miller's ideas and Fort's, noting their mutual reinforcement. Finally, a concluding section looks at the way the works of the two authors--Fort and Miller--intermingled among bookstores and readers, the two aiding each other as they passed on to future generations.

The Fortean Fantasy:

Charles Fort was born 6 August 1874 in Albany, New York, son of a tyrannical grocer who inspired a puckish insouciance in his son. (6) Once, working in his father's store pasting the family label on cans of food, Fort "had used all except peach labels. I pasted the peach labels on peach cans, and then came to apricots. Well, aren't apricots peaches? And there are plums that are virtually apricots. I went on, either mischievously, or scientifically, pasting the peach labels on cans of plums, cherries, string beans, and succotash. …

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