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May/June 2012
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The Outcast Manufacturers, by Charles Fort (1909)

IN THE BOOKS for which he is remembered, Charles Fort wrote sublimely about the ridiculous. Earlier he wrote short stories for magazines edited by longtime friend Theodore Dreiser. Although ten years later Dreiser demanded his publisher print The Book of the Damned, when The Outcast Manufacturers came out in 1909, Dreiser opined that in the author's first book and only novel "the art of luring your readers on" was not in evidence.

Set on the West Side of Manhattan—partly Hell's Kitchen, partly the neighborhood destroyed to build Penn Station—The Outcast Manufacturers tells of the Birtwhistle family, their neighbors, and their tenement-run mail order scheme, the Universal Manufacturing Company. A cheerful, naturalistic tale of period slum life related almost entirely in dialect-free dialogue, the book is rich with wit and the benevolent skepticism found throughout Fort's later work. In the first paragraph is a fine example of his facility for the unexpected image: "A dead horse lying in the southside gutter; boys jumping on it, enjoying the elasticity of the ribs."

But, Dreiser is right. For two thirds of the book Fort's magic with language cloaks the fact that absolutely nothing happens. Then the characters are evicted from their tenements and thrown into the streets—and nothing much happens after that, either. Gratifyingly, chapter sixteen sounds like an outtake from Lo! with a full-throated depiction of Paddy's Market: "a night parade of flagellants shrieking with self-inflicted torture…flagellants scourging themselves with their arms, beating their breasts only to keep warm—to rid themselves not of sin, but of cauliflowers and beets."

Concluding his foray into book-length fiction, Fort headed to the library, putting the blame where it belonged: Astronomers.

—Jack Womack

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