Best known as the poet-scientist who wrote hauntingly of time and evolution, Loren Eiseley turned to the popular essay in mid-career, gaining widespread recognition with The Immense Journey (1957). He wrote over 75 essays, along with scientific articles, reviews, and science-fiction sketches, many of which were later incorporated into his books and his autobiography, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975). A respected anthropologist and expert on evolutionary history, he preferred to write for the general audience, blending scientific insights with moments of wonder and delight. His persona of the compassionate scientist appealed to many readers. A master stylist, Eiseley was a writer of grace and eloquence whose finest essays extend the tradition of American meditative natural history writing.
Eiseley’s career as a popular essayist began with a series of science articles he wrote for Harper’s and Sdentific American during the 1940s. These articles came to the attention of editor John Fisher, who invited Eiseley to rework them in book form. Eiseley spent over eight years preparing the manuscript, which became The Immense Journey.
His subsequent books were generally assembled from previously published essays, often revised and adapted for their new context.
Eiseley’s mastery of the personal essay developed gradually. His “concealed essay” blends personal anecdotes with thoughts of a more scientific nature. He structured his essays with a kind of “reenactment through memory,” in which a dramatically intensified account of past experiences leads the reader to unexpected insights. Memory, landscape, and metaphor combine to shape many of Eiseley’s most powerful passages. The “concealed essay” often begins with a vivid reminiscence (“The Slit,” 1957) and gradually expands it in a scientific or contemplative direction. The subject matter of the essay is framed or “concealed” by the personal approach (“The Judgment of the Birds,” 1957). The “concealed essay” became for Eiseley an elaborate form, combining personal anecdotes, literary allusions, quotations, multiple themes, and a contemplative perspective (“How Natural Is ‘Natural’,” 1960). Eiseley’s later essays evolved toward a more impressionistic, almost surrealistic style (“The Star Thrower,” 1969), which depicts the limitations of a strictly scientific world view.
Eiseley’s familiar essays often blend the ordinary and the exotic, or point to the miraculous in the commonplace. Beginning with a specific setting or thematic description, sometimes in a remote time or place, his essays create a series of dramatic incidents to illustrate a theme (“The Brown Wasps,” 1969). Often there is a touch of the gothic sensibility in Eiseley’s use of nocturnal imagery (“Instruments of Darkness,” 1971), insomnia (“One Night’s Dying,” 1971), painful childhood memories (“The Gold Wheel,” 1971), bizarre or grotesque events (“The Relic Men,” 1971), physical deformities (“The Last Neanderthal,” 1969), or grotesque fantasy (“The Dance of the Frogs,” 1978).
Through the personal essay, Eiseley was able to connect ideas that seemed quite disparate. Beginning with a specific setting or thematic description, such as the bleak uplands of western Nebraska (“The Slit”), he takes the reader on a metaphoric journey backwards in time, accentuated by his vivid descriptions of a primitive mammal’s skull embedded in a sandstone wall. His essays create a dramatic situation, such as a chance encounter on a beach in Costabel (“The Star Thrower”), or take readers on an intellectual journey (“The Ghost Continent,” 1969) and bring them back with new insights. Along the way, Eiseley maintains the voice of informed conversation on a common theme, sharing a range of intellectual interests in literature, science, religion, philosophy, and biography.
Eiseley conveys his musings with vivid, arresting images rather than abstract theories.
His essays feature a variety of fossilized and living mammals, birds and plants set in past and present dramatic landscapes. They range through topics as diverse as the miracle of water (“The Flow of the River,” 1957), the appearance of flowering plants (“How Flowers Changed the World,” 1957), the mechanisms of evolutionary adaptation (“The Snout,” 1957), and the mystery of the rapid emergence of the human brain (“The Dream Animal,” 1957). Several themes unify these speculations: an antimaterialistic bias, an opposition to scientism, and a desire to recover the past by using imagination to transcend temporal restraints.
Central to Eiseley’s personal essays is a distinctive voice that appeals to public misgivings about the ideology of science. Eiseley’s persona combines the insights of a disillusioned scientist with a distinctly romantic, often pessimistic sensibility. Skeptical of the claims of science and technology, he insists on the uniqueness of the individual and the need for compassion (“The Chresmologue,” 1971). We are mysteries to ourselves, he observes (“Strangeness in the Proportion,” 1971), part of the unaccountable strangeness and novelty of the universe. Evolution holds no favorites, he warns, and there are no guarantees for our future (“The Spore Bearers,” 1970).
Dissatisfied with the restrictive, value-free orientation of modern science, Eiseley turned to the personal essay as a form through which he could articulate his sense of the mystery and wonder of life. For some time he had been disillusioned with the “religion of science,” with its rigid assumption that every natural event in the universe could be measured, analyzed, and explained by prior events. He disliked the scientific detachment that would not permit imaginative or aesthetic response to his study of nature.
With this change of orientation, Eiseley placed himself in a long, distinguished tradition of English and American natural history writing—including Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies,W. H.Hudson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, John Burroughs, Ernest Thompson Seton, and Aldo Leopold. Like these earlier writers, Eiseley recorded his impressions of nature in a precise, distinctive, personal style.
Eiseley’s natural history essays gain vividness and accuracy from the influence of empirical science. His style is both personal and factual, blending objectivity with delight. Eiseley recognized that the study of nature could be both factual and contemplative. He believed that description and analysis alone could not provide a full understanding of the natural world; there is also a need for contemplative natural history, an approach that “contains overtones of thought which is not science, nor intended to be, and yet without which science itself would be poorer” (“The Enchanted Glass,” 1957).
Contemplative natural history offers what Eiseley calls “a natural history of the soul” (“The Enchanted Glass”). This human response to the world is especially important, he notes, in an age that does not lend itself to contemplation. Eiseley’s familiar essays personalize science by balancing fact and knowledge with affection and emotional insight.
Eiseley’s models were the great Victorian scientists—Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, T.H.Huxley—who could express complex ideas to a general audience. In many ways, Eiseley resembles these gifted Victorians, naturalists with a literary bent, who forever changed human understanding of our place in the natural world. Eiseley had the poetic vision to perceive the natural history of life’s emergence as an epic event, a grand unfolding of living forms, capable of being cast in imaginative terms. It took a special kind of talent to accomplish this, one more akin to the Victorian naturalist than the modern specialist, someone not intimidated by the “two cultures” division or the challenge of bridging disciplines. Eiseley had long been pursuing separate careers as a poet and a scientist, with the hope of eventually combining them in some literary form, and the personal essay seemed best to fulfill that promise for him.
Despite these affinities with Victorian men of science, Eiseley’s work is neither derivative nor anachronistic. His visionary power, his animistic descriptions, and the range of his philosophical speculations distinguish him from his Victorian predecessors.
Eiseley is less optimistic about the prospects of science than either Darwin or Huxley. A strong romantic tendency reinforces his pessimistic tone, particularly in his various selfdramatizations: as the neglected child, the impoverished student, the wandering bone hunter, the midnight scholar, the weary insomniac. While this attitude is largely temperamental, it may also reflect, especially in his most melancholic or somber moods, the influence of his diverse antiquarian reading. Throughout his life, Eiseley’s favorite authors remained Coleridge, Hazlitt, De Quincey, Lamb, Poe, Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, and Sir Thomas Browne—all masters of the essay who loved obscure and arcane references, elegant practitioners of an ornate style who emphasized tone and mood in their writing. Eiseley may have learned from Bacon the habit of balancing scientific or scholarly ideas with vivid metaphors, although he is far more candid than Bacon, especially in regard to the painful memories of his childhood. Retaining Bacon’s philosophical sweep and scientific vision, Eiseley tempers it with a baroque, introspective style more reminiscent of Robert Burton, Thomas Browne, Abraham Cowley, and the later Thoreau. Like each of these writers, Eiseley cultivated the personal essay in its purest form, as a mode of personal expression.
What Eiseley accomplished through his popular essays was to create an imaginative synthesis of literature and science—one that enlarged the power and range of the personal essay. Eiseley’s “literary essay turned to scientific purposes” (All the Strange Hours) became the ideal medium for such self-discoveries as he wished to offer, modest and unassuming, tentative and speculative without appearing dogmatic. Despite changes in literary taste, Eiseley will continue to be read as one of the great modern masters of the personal essay.
See also Nature Essay; Science Essay
Loren Corey Eiseley. Born 3 September 1907 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Studied at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, B.A., 1933; University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, A.M., 1935, Ph.D., 1937. Taught sociology and anthropology at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, 1937–44, and Oberlin College, Ohio, 1944–47; professor of anthropology, 1947–61, and Benjamin Franklin of Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science, 1961–77, University of Pennsylvania; curator of early man, University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1948–77; visiting professor at various universities during summers. Married Mabel Langdon, 1938. Contributor to various journals (especially science), newspapers, and magazines, including the Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s, Scientific American, Horizon, the New York Herald Tribune, and the New York Times. Television host of Animal Secrets program, 1966–68. Awards: many, including the Athenaeum of Philadelphia Award, for Darwin’s Century, 1958; John Burroughs Medal, and Pierre Lecomte du Nouy Foundation Award, for Firmament of Time, both 1961; Joseph Wood Krutch Medal, 1976; honorary degrees from dozens of universities. Died (of cancer) in Philadelphia, 9 July 1977.
Essays and Related Prose
The Immense Journey, 1957
The Firmament of Time, 1960
Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma, 1962; revised, enlarged edition, as The Man Who Saw Through Time, 1973
Man, Time, and Prophecy, 1966
Science and the Unexpected Universe, 1966
The Invisible Pyramid, 1970
The Night Country: Reflections of a Bone-Hunting Man, 1971
The Star Thrower, 1978
Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: New Light on the Evolutionists, 1979
The Lost Notebooks, edited by Kenneth Heuer, 1987
Other writings: poetry, books on evolution (including Darwin’s Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It, 1958) and other natural history subjects, and an autobiography (All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life, 1975).
Angyal, Andrew J., Loren Eiseley, Boston: Twayne, 1983
Carlisle, E. Fred, Loren Eiseley: The Development of a Writer, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983
Carlisle, E.Fred, “The Literary Achievement of Loren Eiseley,” in Essays on the Essay: Redefining the Genre, edited by Alexander Butrym, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1989
Carrithers, Gale H., Jr., Mumford, Tate, Eiseley: Watchers in the Night, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1991
Gerber, Leslie E., and Margaret McFadden, Loren Eiseley, New York: Ungar, 1983
McCrae, Murdo William, editor, The Literature of Science: Perspectives on Popular Scientific Writings, Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1993
Pitts, Mary Ellen, “Undermining the Authority of Science: Epistemological Symbiosis in Loren Eiseley and Lewis Thomas,” Rendezvous 25, no. 1 (Fall 1989): 83–90
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