Trained as an anthropologist and paleontologist, Loren Corey Eiseley (1907-1977) became one of the foremost essayists of his generation to interpret science for the layman.
Of Scots-English and German pioneering stock, Loren Corey Eiseley was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, on September 3, 1907. His father, Clyde Edwin Eiseley, had been an itinerant semi-professional actor in his youth and later worked as a hardware salesman. His mother, Daisy Corey, had artistic ambitions and was a painter of some talent. These interests undoubtedly influenced Eiseley's literary sensibilities. A far more significant aspect of his childhood, however, was his mother's deafness and her paranoid, neurotic behavior which led to marital tensions and conflicts. The strangeness of his home life and frequent moves in and around Lincoln caused young Eiseley to have, to a large extent, an isolated, lonely childhood. The fugitive-outsider imagery that is found in his work resulted, in part, from this silent, solitary youth.
Perhaps to compensate for his mother's unusual behavior, his father, although he worked long hours, was consistently kind and understanding; in addition, his uncle, William Buchanan Price, offered support and assistance. He not only introduced Eiseley to the fossil collection at the University of Nebraska Museum, thus inadvertently guiding him into his eventual career, but also helped him pay college tuition after his father died.
After attending local schools, Eiseley entered the University of Nebraska in the fall of 1925. His college career was not smooth, however, and it took him eight years to graduate. First, struck by restlessness, he dropped out to "ride the rails" and spent many months as a hobo. Next, his father's painful death from cancer caused extreme emotional and financial difficulties. He and his mother moved in with Uncle "Buck" Price, and Eiseley took a job as a night watchman in a chicken hatchery to help with expenses. About that time he developed the insomnia referred to in The Night Country (1971), which was to plague him for the rest of his life and, shortly thereafter, tuberculosis, which forced him to spend a year recovering in the Mojave Desert. These early years are described in detail in Eiseley's autobiography, All the Strange Hours (1975).
Eiseley finally returned to college and graduated in 1933 majoring in both English and sociology with emphasis on anthropology. While at the University of Nebraska he showed an interest in and talent for writing and had prose and poetry published in the Praire Schooner, the campus literary magazine of which he became an editor. He also developed an increasing interest in paleontology and spent five summers from 1931 on with various groups searching for fossils of early man. Anecdotal descriptions of these experiences appear in The Night Country and throughout many of his other writings.
Finally choosing science over literature, he enrolled in the doctoral program in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. From 1933 to 1937 he worked on his Ph.D. with the guidance of the department chairman, Frank Speck, whose unconventional humanistic approach to anthropology no doubt encouraged the mystical, meditative qualities that Eiseley's later work often displayed. After receiving his degree he taught at the University of Kansas for seven years. During this time he married Mabel Langdon and also continued to send money to his mother. In 1947 he was asked to return to the University of Pennsylvania to replace his ailing mentor as professor of anthropology and chairman of the department. He was later named Curator of Early Man at the university museum and was appointed to a chair as Benjamin Franklin Professor of Anthropology and the History of Science.
While still an undergraduate Eiseley published poetry. In graduate school and at the University of Kansas he published several scholarly articles, and at the same time he began writing natural history essays. His biography is important because of the kind of essays he wrote. They generally followed a common pattern as personal essays which combined biographical information or literary references with scientific fact. Watching Halley's comet with his father in "The Star Dragon," floating down the Platte in "The Flow of the River," or hunting fossils in "The Relic Men" all served as rhetorical devices to introduce the reader gradually to the scientific facts or hypotheses at the heart of the essays. In what Eiseley referred to as the "concealed essay," the personal anecdote or reminiscence established the tone and masked the purely scientific with the more engaging personal. In a similar way he drew upon his broad literary background and used allusions and quotations to clarify his themes. Citing writers ranging from Bacon to Benedict, Coleridge to Cocteau, Shakespeare to Stevenson, Eiseley enlightened his readers and strengthened the thematic ties between science and literature.
Eiseley's major theme and personal obsession was time. Time was the main concern in his first volume of essays, The Immense Journey (1957), and continued to be significant as even the titles of his later works indicate. The Immense Journey, perhaps his best known and most enduring work, focuses on the evolution of the universe and of man. The book has multiple interwoven themes—the evolutionary "journey" and possible extinction of the individual, mankind, and the universe and time past, present, and future—which run throughout his other work. The Immense Journey follows another of Eiseley's common practices: the essays were first published separately in diverse journals and magazines and then collected, rewritten, and organized around a unifying theme.
While still working on The Immense Journey Eiseley began a far more scholarly project—an intellectual history of Charles Darwin, his predecessors, and the development of the theory of evolution. Darwin's Century: Evolution and the Men Who Discovered It appeared in 1958 and was followed 21 years later by Darwin and the Mysterious Mr. X: A New Light on the Evolutionists (published posthumously). Both books reflect Eiseley's lifelong interest in evolution and his concern with time.
Another major figure admired by Eiseley and intellectually closer to him than Darwin was Sir Francis Bacon; his interest resulted in Francis Bacon and the Modern Dilemma (1962), which he later reworked as The Man Who Saw Through Time (1973). Originally presented as lectures, these essays emphasized much that Eiseley and Bacon shared—a total, visionary, and perhaps prophetic view of science with an imaginary sense of its ends rather than its more practical means.
Through The Firmament of Time (1960), The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Invisible Pyramid (1970), and The Night Country (1971), Eiseley continued his personal evolution as a thinker and a writer. He did publish four volumes of poetry, but his most lyric writing was in his prose. He was a scientist, but his most significant contributions were as a humanist.
Eiseley wrote in the tradition of the 19th-century essayists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, observing and recording nature and stressing the contemplative rather than the factual. His work was similar to that of Jacob Bronowski, Joseph Wood Krutch, and Rachel Carson; it inspired the next generation of scientific popularizers, including Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan.
Further Reading on Loren Corey Eiseley
Eiseley's autobiography, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life (1975), offers an impressionistic account of his life and illuminates his other writings. A variety of articles are available in scholarly publications, and three full length works have appeared. One of the most accessible is Andrew J. Angyal's Loren Eiseley (1983), which contains detailed biographical information and a sound appraisal of all his work. Fred E. Carlisle's Loren Eiseley: The Development of a Writer (1983) is another comprehensive study, and Gerber and McFadden's Loren Eiseley (1983) provides additional criticism and interpretation.
Additional Biography Sources
Christianson, Gale E., Fox at the wood's edge: a biography of Loren Eiseley, New York: H. Holt, 1990.
Heidtmann, Peter, Loren Eiseley: a modern Ishmael, Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1991.