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The Anthropologist as Poet THE LOST NOTEBOOKS OF LOREN EISELEY edited and with a reminiscence by Kenneth Heuer; sketches by Leslie Morrill (Little, Brown: $24.95; 280 pp., illustrated)

September 06, 1987|Solomon H. Katz | Katz, who was a student, colleague and ultimately a close friend of the late Loren Eiseley, is professor of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Krogman Growth Center.

In one sense, historians, literary critics and admirers of the prose and poetry of the late anthropologist Loren Eiseley will be greatly rewarded in reading this, his final book. Eiseley's great genius for the art of the word coupled with a poetic insight into the connection between science and humanism shines through in page after page of this book much as it did in his 14 previously published books of prose and poetry, which included, among others, "The Immense Journey," "The Invisible Pyramid" and "All the Strange Hours." Overall, this new book provides an opportunity to trace the genesis of his ideas during the various phases of his life and their relations to his later finished works.

Nevertheless, rewarding as it is to read this last of Eiseley's works, I, for one, am uncomfortable with the manner in which the material for this book was obtained and published. Reading these "Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley" filled me at various times with guil1948279155inner workings of this man's journal of ideas, reflections and tremendously personal comments that he would have never allowed me or anyone else to see in his lifetime. Not that Eiseley had hidden many of his personal thoughts; his autobiographical "The Night Country" attests differently. However, we are told in the introduction that during Eiseley's last illness, he had asked Mabel, his wife, to burn his notebooks.

Eiseley was amazingly meticulous about his published work. Every word and image he used was selected carefully and even agonized over until he let it go into the final work. Once, discussing his then recently published book, "The Unexpected Universe," he remarked to me that he maintained total editorial control on every word and was willing to challenge any of the editors who thought that they knew his intentions better than he. Kenneth Heuer, Eiseley's last editor, convinced Mabel to break her commitment to destroy these journals, but the author himself had clearly said "No," and Mabel was only persuaded otherwise by Kenneth Heuer during the long illness preceding her death more than a year ago. Thus, in reading this fascinating book, one has to judge, much as Eiseley must have done with the materials he wrote in the journals and then decided not to publish, whether exposing these half developed and never fully implemented thoughts is worth breaking his deathbed wish.

There is no doubt that Heuer means well in editing and publishing this book. For Heuer to participate in its incineration as Eiseley wished, or to refrain from its publication is, as Eiseley probably would have said, "not in our nature." The book is a kind of Rosetta stone of the inner unfinished Eiseley, comprising three periods of his life. Eiseley sets out the logic of these periods in a letter to his friend Hal Borland in 1969, and Heuer, wisely recognizing this, divides the book into three parts. The first part deals with his youth and the origins of "The Night Country," which grew out of the darkness, silence and abject solitude of his household and the austerity of his wanderings in the Depression; the second, with his life as a sophisticated anthropologist and academic leader building and creating within the scientific paradigm, and the third with a man in his twilight years prophetically set free by previous success to follow his haunting poetry and prose prolifically through the few remaining years of his life.

Although this book is unfinished Eiseley and not Eiseley as he would have wanted us to see him, it does put into context a number of important insights about him. For instance, it reveals his strong affinity for Henry David Thoreau and makes public his interesting correspondence with the poet W. H. Auden. In retrospect, it becomes evident that Eiseley, perhaps more than any other American writer since Thoreau, has achieved a modern synthesis between science and humanism. Auden, I surmise, recognized this when he dedicated the poem entitled "Unpredictable but Providential" to Eiseley. Auden reveals in a letter to Eiseley another private 1953068140to confirm the contrast that Auden also saw in the early 1970s between the typically sharp 20th-Century scientific reductionism and coldness embodied in Nobel laureate Jacques Monod's newly published book, "Chance and Necessity," and the rich, natural bridging between science and humanity that was so much a part of Eiseley's insights.

Elsewhere in the book, sandwiched between its pastiche of partially finished thoughts, beginnings without endings and endings without beginnings, are some of the most arresting ideas and images that Eiseley ever penned. For example, in another letter to Hal Borland in 1970, Eiseley wrote, ". . . What I really fear is that man will ruin the planet before he departs. I have sometimes thought, looking out over the towers of New York from some high place, what a beautiful ruin it would make in heaps of fallen masonry, with the forest coming back. Now I fear for the forest itself."

In summary, this is a book that will be read and quoted and whose pages will grow thin with wear from hands in continued search of new meaning within its words and images. I recommend that you read it with care, knowing that you were not meant to. It may help tie together the strands of Eiseley's life and work, but more than that, if you read it for all it tells us about ourselves, you may do justice, after all, to Eiseley's last wishes.

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