Enemies of Reading: Your chance to join in a tribute to Loren Eiseley

Opinion September 22, 2012 0 Comments

A restaurant mural in Savannah based on a story by Loren Eiseley.

Hugh Gilmore

I’m looking for people who would like to join me in offering a tribute to Loren Eiseley on Nov. 15 as part of the Chestnut Hill Book Festival’s ongoing speaker/writer series. Anticipated time and place: 7 p.m. in the Bombay Room of the Chestnut Hill Hotel, 8229 Germantown Ave.

Interested persons may take part in the tribute in any number of ways. First: You are welcome to come and speak briefly about how Loren Eiseley’s writings have touched your heart or mind. Second: You could read a favorite passage from any of his writings. Third: You’re invited to bring an artistic painting, drawing, collage, video, photographs or sound recordings. Fourth: If you have signed copies of Loren Eiseley’s books and would like to show them to others or talk about how you acquired the book, please do so.

Please bear in mind that you need not be an “expert,” i.e., a scholar, an author, a person who once knew Eiseley, a professional speaker. The only qualification you need to attend and – if you like – participate is that you have read Loren Eiseley (or are considering it) and have something to say. Let’s call this a “people-to-people” conference.

Mind you: the amount of time you’ll get to speak depends on how many other folks want to speak that night. Be prepared to sum up your thoughts in a sentence or two and feel blessed if a snowstorm turns back all but two or three of us. Then we will be able to talk at length. If a lot of people come, think of this as a collective voice tribute.

I don’t want this affair to sound like some kind of insider’s old boys’ club, so I’ll briefly tell a bit about him to those who haven’t heard of him. Loren Eiseley was born in Lincoln, Neb., in 1907. Nebraska was much more of a western than a mid-western place then. A brief walk out of town could take you out to see the ruts remaining from the great wagon-wheeled western migrations.

Eiseley’s mother was deaf and did not speak well. Madness ran in her family. His father was a traveling salesman whose personal ambitions in life were never satisfied. Loren went to the University of Nebraska off-and-on for years, writing poetry for its famous Prairie Schooner magazine. He was a tall, rangy young man with a bad temper, a lot of imagination and a restless spirit. Through much of the 1930s he hopped freight trains, riding cross country.

He wound up at the University of Pennsylvania back in the early days of its anthropology department, back when Canadian Indians would wander down and sit in on the famous Frank Speck seminars. Eiseley’s specialty became American archeology. He went on numerous expeditions to the southwest, back in the days when the entire enterprise had an Indiana Jones air to it.

When he finished his doctorate at Penn he went to teach at a number of other colleges before returning to Penn and living out the rest of his life as a member of its faculty. He taught anthropology, archeology, the history and philosophy of science, and even creative writing. He was appointed to one of the university’s prestigious endowed chairs, a Benjamin Franklin Professorship, later in his career.

In the 1950s Eiseley started writing essays based on his archeological experiences. These essays combined his personal thoughts and experiences with his scientific work, under an original and provocative philosophy that spoke to both the eternal and the contemporary problems of mankind.

Combined with his love of nature and appreciation for even the smallest creatures, he soon developed an audience for his writing. His first essays were gathered into his first book, “The Immense Journey,” a work of such staggering depth and beauty it has never been out of print. By 1968, a writer in Esquire Magazine described Eiseley as the “the best prose writer in America today.”

Between then and 1977, when he died, Eiseley published a series of books of philosophical essays based on natural themes and two books of poetry. He became one of the few persons ever elected to membership in the national Academy of Sciences and the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Though he sat in a beautiful upper-level university office, wearing a suit and tie, he remained a warm, gentle spirit all his life. It surprised him no end during the ’60s and ’70s when shaggy-haired, hippy kids would hitchhike across the country and come to his office seeking wisdom.

Loren Eiseley is buried in West Laurel Hill Cemetery with his wife Mabel Langdon Eiseley. Their beautiful tombstone reads, “We loved the earth but could not stay.”

For further information: In addition to Eiseley’s writings, there now are two full-scale biographies and a handful of remembrances and/or scholarly analyses available. On YouTube there are also several videos, most of them, it seems, captivated by his story “The Starfish Thrower.” There’s also a Loren Eiseley Society, easily found on the Web.

Contact me via email or snail mail as soon as possible so I can organize this program. I intend to go citywide in my solicitation. If the time gets overly filled, I’ll give preference to local people, but only if you get your bid in early.

Thanks. Hope to see you there on Nov. 15.

If you want to know my connection to Loren Eiseley, go to Amazon.com and see my “A Remembrance of Loren Eiseley.” (e-book format only)

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