Loren Eiseley

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842

The son of an amateur Shakespearean actor and an untutored artist who was deaf from childhood, Loren Corey Eiseley (IZ-lee) grew up isolated and inquisitive. Reading, which he learned from his visiting half brother, became his escape from the family’s disharmony.

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In 1925, Eiseley entered the University of Nebraska and published some early poems. From 1928 to 1930, he attended sporadically, stopping to work in a hatchery and to ride the rails with Depression-era drifters. Later his essays included tales from his hobo days. Recuperating from tuberculosis in a desert cabin, Eiseley observed the behavior of the desert creatures that later appeared in his essays. Returning to the university, he did field work in archaeology. As a young man, he felt a strange kinship with nonhuman beings and archaeological relics, and he once wanted to be a nature writer.

After finishing his B.A. in 1933, Eiseley entered graduate school in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in 1937, and in 1938 he married Mabel Langdon, a former teacher who encouraged his writing. After postdoctoral study at Columbia University, Eiseley taught in the Midwest, but in 1947 he returned to chair the Anthropology Department at the University of Pennsylvania, where he remained for the rest of his career, finally serving as Benjamin Franklin Professor.

By profession a physical anthropologist and by temperament a poet, Eiseley turned in mid-career from scholarly writing to his “concealed essay,” which approached scientific subjects through personal experiences. Writing for an educated popular audience, he published in Harper’s and other magazines. The first collection of essays, The Immense Journey, was published in 1957, a year before Darwin’s Century, his acclaimed scholarly analysis of Charles Darwin’s work and its intellectual impact. The Immense Journey established Eiseley as a writer of finely crafted meditations on personal experiences in science. Going downward in a narrow crevice, he could take the reader on a journey encompassing life and humankind as well as reflecting his own personal and academic journey.

In later essays, Eiseley often extended anecdotes to explore their literary possibilities. The Firmament of Time addresses six apparently simple questions, all centered on the term “natural.” Reexamining the words “human” and “natural,” he discusses their cultural origins and the part that culture plays in what seems “natural.” Eiseley also examined the relationship between language and understanding, stressing the role of scientific metaphor.

Eiseley’s next three volumes followed a similar pattern, often using complex narratives to explore questions of science or scientific ethics. He always related personal experience to the universe, and he often addressed the instability of knowledge. In The Unexpected Universe, he treated themes of the strange and the romantic—of simulated lightning flashes from a neighbor’s attic or his own wrestling with a fox cub at dawn. Eiseley was intrigued by “unexpected” experiences in which science becomes inexplicable. The Invisible Pyramid questions the connection of science and the military. Writing of scientists’ devotion to space exploration regardless of the cost to the environment, he compared contemporary scientists with the Egyptians and the Mayas, who built pyramids in pursuit of immortality. Today’s pyramid is an “invisible” monument to technology. The Night Country projects a romantic gloom. Eiseley included tales of his “bone-hunting” days in the West and includes the memorable “Strangeness in the Proportion,” which explores the mixture of ordinary and extraordinary symbolized by an ambiguous man riding a wagon during a thunderstorm.

Eiseley’s 1975 autobiography, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life, is a collection of fragments recollected from a life in science. Although it is carefully chronological, the book subordinates personal details to Eiseley’s questioning of science and his meditations on nature. Eiseley focused less on explaining science and more on the intermingling of chance, time, and randomness in science and in life.

The Star Thrower includes essays and poems that Eiseley selected for inclusion in a representative collection. It contains some of his most memorable pieces, notably the title essay about a madman whose love of life leads him to rescue beached starfish. A posthumous collection of unfinished essays, Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists (1979), focuses on Darwin’s contemporary Edward Blyth.

Eiseley’s volumes of poetry, published between 1972 and 1979, include Notes of an Alchemist, whose poems often parallel his essays; The Innocent Assassins and Another Kind of Autumn, which include poems about archaeological experiences and Eiseley’s feelings of kinship with animals; and All the Night Wings (published posthumously), which includes youthful poems Eiseley probably would have suppressed. While his early poems observe traditional poetic forms, the later poems are in free verse and suggest Eiseley’s growing freedom from rules and his security as a poet.

Eiseley died in 1977, widely known for sensitive essays that blend science, personal experiences, literary allusions, and explorations of the ways that humans know, with emphasis on the fragile, shifting nature of culture, science, and life itself. He is remembered as a prose stylist and a thinker whose work helped to establish the popularity of reflective writing about science.

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Critical Essays