The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Membership in the Fortean Society

May 28th, 2013 · 10 Comments

The activities of the Fortean Society, apart from Tiffany Thayer’s magazine Doubt, are somewhat unclear.  Perhaps that was intentional; as Thayer said, with his usual bravura, “Many details of Fortean endeavor are necessarily surreptitious, because any activity with the avowed intention of causing men to think for themselves and to cherish self-respect is opposed in this world by very powerful interests.”

But we have here an excerpt from a brochure, published to promote the society in 1956 or 1957, that gives a few details on the membership structure, and specifies some of the people in it.  The organization is rather complicated, including Corresponding Members, Life Members, Accepted Fellows, Honorary Founders, Founders, and Non-Member Named Fellows.

Many famous and intriguing names appear on the rolls, but it’s always been equally unclear how many actually joined, and how many were drafted.  The Non-Member Named Fellows seem to fall into the latter camp: people whose work Thayer simply stamped with his seal of approval.  H. G. Wells and H. L. Mencken were probably listed against their will; Dreiser sent them both copies of Fort’s books, and they wrote back to protest.

But here it is, a peek into the Society in the late ’50s.

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(Posted by Doug Skinner)

Tags: Ephemera · Forteana

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Win // Jun 2, 2013 at 10:00 pm

    What a fascinating and provocative snapshot of its time, Doug.

    It’s especially intriguing to see that J.B.S. Haldane was being asked to fill an Honorary Founder vacancy. One of the weirder, more incendiary publications in my possession is a slim volume entitled Callinicus: A Defense of Chemical Warfare, published by Haldane in 1925. Why it still sits on my shelves many moons after every work by Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky and Mao has been dumped at the buyer’s counter in Strand is beyond my ability to excuse at this moment.

    In any case, this invitation would have been made right around the time Haldane upped stakes and moved to Calcutta to protest Britain’s folly over the Suez Canal. In that regard he shared a socialistic, indeed anti-imperialist bent with quite a few other names on these pages and I suppose he merits applause for that. But it’s somewhat dismaying to note how many people either willingly or unwittingly joined to the Fortean cause in this brochure were at least for part of their lives cozy with totalitarian or terroristic ideologies. Haldane was still an admirer of Stalin in these years, for instance. There are several others with equally dodgy political credentials listed here (De Valera, the 12th Duke of Bedford and Justice Greenberg, to name three). It’s a rogues gallery so unsavory one wants to paraphrase Groucho Marx – I wouldn’t wish to join a club that had these fellows as members.

    I’ve always admired the principles underpinning Fortean endeavors and understand that there were probably all sorts of worthy reasons why many of these people became associated with the society in one way or another, but still, on this evidence old Tiffany seems to have been comfortable with some genuinely unsound political notions. I’m sure you must have shared your opinion on this topic before now, so forgive me if this is redundant, but is this a good place to ask how, on the whole, you think Fort was served by Thayer – well, ill or indifferently?

  • 2 Doug // Jun 3, 2013 at 12:25 am

    It’s certainly a mixed bag, isn’t it? I’m not sure why you latched onto the negative, rather than to Norman Thomas, Garry Davis, Buckminster Fuller, Bertrand Russell, et al. There were certainly plenty of pacifists on board. Of course, many members, like many people, were themselves a mixed bag: Morris Ernst co-founded the ACLU and defended Ulysses — but also supported Hoover’s red-baiting.

    I don’t know why you had such trouble with the comments; I’ve deleted the epic, but you’re welcome to reinsert what you will… Your comments were not deleted initially, by the way, but just went into a holding pen, for some reason.

  • 3 joshua buhs // Jun 4, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    My comments also seemed to disappear into the ether.

  • 4 joshua buhs // Jun 4, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    Oh! Thanks. But I had put a comment on this topic here. Let me see if I can recreate it:

    I can shed some light on the membership categories.

    Corresponding members mostly paid, although Thayer carried quite a few gratis if he like them for one reason or another. (The FS definitely cost TT more than it made him.)

    Honorary Founders did have to agree. TT had a heck of a time finding Haldane, whom he mostly wanted because he was a big name scientist, and who eventually did agree. But they didn’t have to do anything, and, indeed, TT disliked some of Ajax Carlson’s statements after being named an Honorary Founder.

    Accepted Fellows, as the name suggests, also had to accept, but did not have to otherwise participate in the Society, and most (all?) did not.

    Life and Honorary Members were either TT’s friends–L B Dilbeck–or did something significant for the society: Cornell was the Society’s lawyer for a while, and Barley and Vail both donated material to the Society’s archives.

    Named Fellows were nominated by TT and members, then voted on. I haven’t seen any information that proves the members vote was the same as what was announced, but Thayer certainly did not always agree with the nominees.

    Founders are harder to specify, since almost all resigned in the late 1930s or early 1940s. Thayer respected some of these (Woollcott) for a time, shrugged off others (Dreiser), and fought members who wanted to oust still others (Hecht).

  • 5 joshua buhs // Jun 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm

    I wonder if there’s a size issue going on. I’ve tried to submot my comments twice, and each time it has disappeared. Shorter version:

    Corresponding members mostly paid, though Thayer carried many gratis (I’ve counted almost 600); most founders bailed in the late 30s, early 40s, though TT was inconsistent in how he responded; honorary founders and accepted fellows both had to accept, though few were active; life members did something significant for the Society, though, again, few were active; Named Fellows were nominated and voted on by the rest of the membership: their consent was immaterial.

    I can give further information on specific questions, if you have them.

  • 6 Doug // Jun 4, 2013 at 9:53 pm

    Some members seem to have been more active, judging from their participation in Doubt: Eric Frank Russell, for example. By the way, have you, or anyone else that you know of, checked into the Don Bloch papers in the NYPL?

  • 7 joshua buhs // Jun 5, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    I’ve got copies of all the Bloch papers related to the FS. Only Thayer’s side of the correspondence. They’re helpful, but not as meaty as the EFR papers in Manchester (which also just has the TT side of things).

  • 8 Mamie // Jun 30, 2013 at 11:59 pm

    I dig the new calendar proposition myself.

  • 9 Win // Jul 2, 2013 at 11:35 pm

    Time certainly has a way of elapsing in large chunks, but I just wanted to say that the drift of my initial comment on this post was very much a function of the level of my knowledge/ignorance rather than a bent toward the positive or negative aspects of Thayer’s stewardship of Forteanism in the 1950s. I was already aware of the affiliation of people like Russell and Fuller but not of chaps like Haldane or the Duke of Bedford. And I felt I had something of interest, however slight, to say about Haldane, whereas I doubt that I could add much about Russell, for instance, that wasn’t already familiar to the group.

    Be that as it will, thanks very much for kindly deleting the rambling and ranting fragments I posted in response to the sequestration of my original comment.

    Joshua, thanks to you too for those details about the various categories of membership.

  • 10 Doug // Jul 3, 2013 at 9:40 am

    Well, Thayer certainly had unsavory associates; I haven’t even broached such figures as Harry Elmer Barnes and George Sylvester Viereck. Then again, he seemed proudest of Clarence Darrow’s affiliation, and even touted it on his stationery. Then again, he gives many indications of simply being barking mad.

    I don’t know why the site ate your comments back then. I ratcheted up the spam controls; maybe that was it…

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