by Pete Mazzaccaro
On Thursday, Local columnist Hugh Gilmore says he’s going to repay a debt.
That debt is to Gilmore’s favorite writer, Loren Eiseley, a scientist, philosopher and writer who Gilmore had the good fortune to meet and with whom he was able to develop a mentor relationship.
Eiseley’s writing, Gilmore said, stopped him in his tracks and made him drop a career as a high school English teacher to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology, Eiseley’s field of expertise. After meeting Eiseley, the writer agreed to help Gilmore get in to the Ph.D. program at the university of Pennsylvania.
“He helped me when I had to go through my [anthropology] Ph.D. orals,” Gilmore said in an interview last week. “He sensed when I had trouble and told some stories to give me time. I called him later that night to thank him and he said, ‘If you think I’ve done you a favor, pass it on.’ I feel like this is me passing him on, so that’s the purpose of this.”
Gilmore will lead a tribute to Eiseley on Thursday. Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. In the Chestnut Hill Hotel’s Bombay Room, 8229 Germantown Ave. The tribute will include stories about Eiseley and readings from his work. Gilmore said he’s spoken to a number of Chestnut Hillers who plan on participating in the tribute. Many people, Gilmore learned, have a a deep connection to Eiseley.
“Instead of one event and one speaker, we’ll have a community event,” he said. “I imagine it almost like a Quaker meeting with everyone having something to say.”
When Gilmore first encountered Eiseley, it was in 1967. He was an English teacher at Abington High School. At the time, Eiseley was as famous a writer and essayist as one could be. He was well-known and well-regarded.
“I read an article in Esquire magazine,” he said. “It called Eiseley the best prose writer in America. I thought, ‘That’s ridiculous. How can a scientist be better writer than John Updike or Norman Mailer?’ I found [Eiseley's book] ‘The Immense Journey’ and I can say I’m one of the few lucky people on this earth who could read a book and have it stop me in my tracks and completely turn me around. It was a whole body of knowledge I didn’t know. I was, until then, myopic.”
Through chance and the help of one of his students who contacted Eiseley, Gilmore wrote his hero and the man agreed to come to Gilmore’s class. After that, Eiseley became instrumental in changing Gilmore’s life.
“I drove him home,” Gilmore remembered, “and he turned to me and said ‘What are you doing with your life?’ He saw something in me I didn’t see in myself. I was about 30. I said, ‘I don’t know.’ He said, ‘You’re not getting any younger. If you ever want to make a change, let me know.’
“I made a lunch with him two months later and told him I wanted to go into anthropology. I had never taken an anthropology class.
Eiseley helped Gilmore get in and changed his life. Not only had Gilmore found a new passion and a new path, his marriage was also stressed, he said, to the point of breaking. He lived in the Carribean and in Kenya. He eventually returned to Philadelphia.
Gilmore never pursued a career in anthropology. In fact, he said, it wasn’t that important to him. It was always more about a way of thinking – of looking at the world and life with fresh eyes. Eiseley has helped Gilmore do that, even now.
“Even though I’m not a kid anymore, I’m still trying to refine my thoughts and get a take on life”, he said. “I think Lauren Eiseley is the single wisest writer I’ve ever encountered, at least in the way that makes sense to me.”
For Gilmore, Eiseley’s ability to tell stories and to think penetratingly about the place of human beings in the universe is remarkable and without peer.
“He’s an evolutionist – a paleontologist,” Gilmore said. “He came out of anthropology, a field that ultimately comes back to human nature. He has a very unique ability to look at himself, to look at his hand as he’s tapping away at a fossil. He stops. It’s funny, this hand didn’t have to be made out of calcium, he thinks. But it’s made out of calcium because we came from the sea.
“I like that he’s philosophical and that his philosophy is based on biological science.”
So what does Gilmore hope to accomplish Thursday night?
“As a person concerned with books and reading but not just as a form of entertainment or a means of being au courant, I’m deeply and genuinely interested in literature and what it can do for people,” he said. “ I’m interested in writers that give you thoughts that help guide your star. … Eiseley has turned out to be more obscure now than I would have though. In a way, I’m hoping to pass him on to others.”
Thursday’s tribute will be the last in a year-long series sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Book Festival Committee. Gilmore isn’t sure who will come, but invites anyone interested in Eiseley not only to attend, but to share their experience with Eiseley with the audience. Gilmore can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.