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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,059

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This is the grave of Loren Eiseley.

Born in 1907 in Lincoln, Nebraska, Eiseley grew up pretty poor. His father sold hardware but made little money. His mother was deaf and probably suffered from mental illness as well, while also being a pretty good painter. It was an unhappy marriage. They lived on the outskirts of town and did not see many people. So it’s not real surprising that Eiseley spent a lot of time outdoors alone. He also became a reading addict. These are pretty normal responses to a tough childhood. He went to public high schools in Lincoln and already had interest in becoming a nature writer. He then enrolled at the University of Nebraska. He was a great student, got involved in archaeological digs, and wrote for the university’s literary journal. However, he also came down the great scourge of tuberculosis and had to drop out.

Eiseley recovered from the consumption and returned to the University of Nebraska. There he triple majored in English, Geology, and Anthropology. These three fields, all so different from one another, would coalesce perfectly in Eiseley’s brilliant mind. He published his poetry during these years and also joined fossil expeditions to the rich fossil deposits of western Nebraska. While out there, he also was on archeological digs for indigenous artifacts as well. He was a man who really wanted to understand the past in all of its forms. In fact, he was so consciously human that he moved away from some parts of anthropology in part because he found the idea of disturbing Native burial sites wrong and disturbing, which let’s just say was not super common for the American of the late 1920s. He ended up preferring deep anthropology than the digging up Indian graves style of anthropology that was then pretty common.

After graduation, Eiseley went to the University of Pennsylvania for graduate school, completing a dissertation in Anthropology considering deep time. He got a job at the University of Kansas after that, but didn’t stay long. In 1944, Oberlin hired him to chair its Sociology and Anthropology department. I never really have understood why these two very different fields are joined together in the same department so often, but so it is at my institution as well. Then in 1947, he returned to Penn to head its Anthropology program. So this was a star on the rise. Eiseley stayed at Penn for the rest of his career, including serving as provost for a couple of years. He taught and he administered, but mostly he began to write. A lot. He began to publish insightful essays in leading magazines that got national attention. Students wanted to take his courses, which was somewhat ironic because he was a terrible teacher, a man with very real social anxieties that stemmed from his hard raising and he was a lot more comfortable with the pen than the conversation. His essays though….these were genius. They were deeply personal and literate essays that combined all of his interests in a way that perhaps no one had ever written before. Of course, all of this made many of his colleagues dislike him, as he was a polymath in a world of specialization. I love this about him. As someone who has avoided specialization as much as humanely possible while still surviving in academia, I see somewhat like Eiseley as a model. In fact, I became a labor scholar and writer because…I wanted to. I have zero academic training in American labor history. Never had a class on it as the undergraduate or graduate level. I am no Howard Eiseley, not even close, but I do see him as an inspiration.

Eiseley became one of the great science and nature writers in American history. In my view, he’s equal to Aldo Leopold, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, and Edward Abbey in this, yet he is less known than any of them. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of him until the Library of America released its two-volume set of Eiseley’s writings several years ago now. Curious, I ordered them and found a new author to fall in love with. In 1957, he published The Immense Journey, which I happen to be rereading this week. This is really a fascinating book, a series of essays, many of which he had published elsewhere, that ponder evolution and the journey of the Earth through time. Eiseley was an outstanding writer, which of course he needed to be in order to have success. But that’s not what really makes him great. It’s that Eiseley was just as much a humanist as he was a scientist. He writes all of this from a specifically humanist perspective. He quotes poetry. He references the classics. He considers the role of humans in nature. He lays out scientific debates with precision and great understanding of the people who made them, even if those people were discredited by the 1950s. This is missing from so much of our science and popular science writing today in the era of STEM fetishism. Take someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson, perhaps the most famous scientist today and a great publicizer of science. Tyson is openly contemptuous of both the humanities and social sciences. Typically of this type, he also has shown a tendency for creepy personal behavior and a misunderstanding of the role of science in society. He could learn a lot from Eiseley. The Immense Journey sold over one million copies, an astounding number for a science book. It made Eiseley famous.

As Ray Bradbury said of Eiseley, “he is every writer’s writer, and every human’s human.” This is a great description and his combination of interest in science, human origins, evolutionary theory, and what it means to be a human being continued to lead to best sellers. He quickly moved on his popularity to become the leading interpreter of science in the United States. Darwin’s Century followed in 1958. I haven’t read that one. I have read his 1960 book The Firmament of Time. This was an attempt to give people hope to live with science in an era of such astounding advances that it threatened human beings, particularly nuclear science. 1969’s The Unexpected Universe continued along these themes of getting people to understand the world around them in terms of deep time and their place in it. With the rise of the space program, Eiseley turned his attention to this as well, with 1971’s The Invisible Pyramid, which combined his vague memories of seeing Halley’s Comet in 1910 with the moon landing, but also encouraging people to stop focusing so much on outer space and instead focus more on our fragile little planet where we live. He continued writing throughout the rest of his life, though I am less familiar with his later books.

One thing that does ring sour in Eiseley’s later writing is his disgust at the cultural changes of the 1960s. Of course, it’s also important to remember that the excesses of the late 60s and early 70s were pretty real and do not age well at all. There’s plenty of reason to hate the hippies, a point on which any good American could agree. But Eiseley, like many commenters of time, couldn’t see the larger positivity of the era’s changes. So his asides about this in his book ostensibly about the natural world are a little rough to read. Well, we all have our weaknesses and blind spots.

In 1977, Eiseley underwent surgery. But during it, he suffered cardiac arrest and died. He was 69 years old.

Loren Eiseley is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

If you would like this series to visit other science writers, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Carl Sagan is in Ithaca, New York and Richard Feynman is in Altadena, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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