Until The Library of America announced that they were releasing a boxed set of his work, I had never heard of Loren Eiseley, who, during his tenure in the Anthropology Department of the University of Pennsylvania, produced a body of science writing so poetic Publisher’s Weekly rightly referred to him as “the modern Thoreau.” Now, though still thumbing my way through The Library of America’s 1,000+ page set, I’m confident that this set will make my annual year-end favorite reads list. It’s scientific writing, yes (and astute and interesting and wonderfully crafted as such), but it’s also a work of philosophy. So far, this is a profound body of work that, while exploring and reveling in the beautiful mysteries of the earth and the universe, touches on my own fascination with existential concerns.
Eiseley was born in Nebraska in 1907. His fascination with nature started young. While in high school he already wanted to be a nature writer. It would take some time to find success — he was just a month shy of fifty when he published his first collection, The Immense Journey, though the earliest essays were originally published nearly a decade earlier — but when success came it was huge: this debut of science writing sold over one million copies. Over the next twenty years, Eiseley continued to publish works that found a large audience and critical acclaim.
The two volumes in this set go through Eiseley’s output mostly in chronological order, starting with The Immense Journey and going to The Star Thrower, which was published posthumously in 1978, the year after Eiseley’s death. These are not his complete works, skipping, for example, Eiseley’s second book, Darwin’s Century. Not having read any of the works not collected here I cannot offer any opinion on their merit or lack thereof. I’m just happy with what we’ve got.
Volume 1 contains three books and a selection of uncollected prose.
As I mentioned above, Eiseley’s debut was the collection of essays called The Immense Journey, first published in 1957. In it, we quickly get a sense of Eiseley’s supreme skills as a raconteur, one filled with wonder at the story he’s telling. It begins with — naturally — an epigraph from Thoreau:
Man can not afford to be a naturalist, to look at Nature directly, but only with the side of his eye. He must look through and beyond her.
The second epigraph, from William Temple, when combined with the one from Thoreau, gives us a solid sense of how Eiseley is approaching his work:
Unless all existence is a medium of revelation, no particular revelation is possible.
Eiseley is an advocate for “seeing,” a concept that comes up often when one talks of Thoreau (indeed, I brought it up in my review of An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard, another disciple of Thoreau). In the first essay, “The Slit,” Eiseley takes us through the prairie on horseback to a slit in a sandstone wall where he comes to an animal skull. Yes, he looks closely at the skull itself, but he looks through it:
The creature had never lived to see a man, and I, what was it that I was never going to see?
This moment, imagining what it was he himself was never going to see, is fascinating as it also represents a moment of “seeing”; indeed, it encourages a lifelong quest to see, both the object and through the object. Not seeing has emboldened him to imagine, to overcome, and to see so much more than most of us will with our eyes alone. He encourages us to do the same:
Once in a lifetime, perhaps, one escapes the actual confines of the flesh. Once in a lifetime, if one is lucky, one so merges with sunlight and air and running water that whole eons, the eons that mountains and deserts know, might pass in a single afternoon without discomfort.
The next book, The Firmament of Time (1960), a finalist for the National Book Award, examines how different ways of “seeing” have influenced mankind. On the one hand, he shows how much we have changed to see the world more from a natural perspective than from a supernatural perspective.
The human generations are short-lived. We have difficulty in visualizing the age-long processes involved in the upheaval of mountain systems, the advance of continental glaciations or the creation of life. In fact, scarcely two hundred years have passed since a few wary pioneers began to suspect that the earth might be older than the 4004 years B.C. assigned to it by the theologians.
Still, Eiseley argues, mankind can never give up its belief in “unseen nature.” He’s not talking about this from a theological perspective but rather from a deeply humanist perspective. It’s looking through things again, not becoming complacent spectators, simply accepting the world as it appears to be at any given time. And science, he says, has a way of opening up “vaster mysteries to our gaze.”
Or, if not always mystery then beauty and power:
Time and raindrops! It took enormous effort to discover the potentialities of both those forces. It took centuries before the faint trickling from cottage eaves and gutters caught the ear of some inquiring scholar. Men who could visualize readily the horrors of a universal Flood were deaf to the roar of the invisible Niagara falling into the rain barrel outside their window. They could not hear it because they lived in a time span so short that the only way geologic change could be effected was by the convulsions of earthquakes, or the forty torrential days and nights that brought the Biblical Deluge.
Things get a bit bleaker with The Unexpected Universe (1969), which was also a finalist for the National Book Award (in the “Philosophy and Religion” category). This retains much of the wonder and poetry of the first few books, but this books turns a bit more toward humanity, and Eiseley seems a bit terrified of what we will do with our potential. Ultimately, though, this is a hopeful collection. I’m still in the middle of it, and this is where I’ve really come to love what Eiseley is taking on. I think that Sebald read Eiseley.
The final bit of this volume is a selection of previously uncollected prose. I haven’t read any of these yet, but it’s a nice way to round out this volume.
I’ve only thumbed through the selections in volume two, so I can’t say exactly what each adds to Eiseley’s work, though I’m as excited to read them as anything else.
At the beginning of The Invisible Pyramid (1971), Eiseley seems to reiterate some of his ambivalence toward humanity, with hope perhaps winning out: “But I dream, and because I dream, I severally condemn, fear, and salute the future.” The collection ends with The Night Country (1971) and then a selection of essays from the posthumously published The Star Thrower (1978).
An essay from The Star Thrower is the most recent “Story of the Week” from The Library of America: “The Fifth Planet” (see here). Once again, all I can say is that I think Sebald read Eiseley. This strange story begins so innocently but with its final paragraph has us looking at the dust of our civilization.
It’s a tremendous collection, a delightful surprise for someone like me who knew nothing of its contents or of its author until a few months ago but who now feels changed foreve.