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Loren Eiseley: Collected Essays on Evolution, Nature, and the Cosmos, Volume One (slipcased edition)

To read Loren Eiseley (1907–1977) is to renew a sense of wonder at the miracles and paradoxes of evolution and the ever-changing diversity of life. At the height of a distinguished career as a “bone-hunter” and paleontologist, Eiseley turned from fieldwork and scientific publication to the personal essay in six remarkable books that are masterpieces of prose style. Weaving together anecdote, philosophical reflection, and keen observation with the soul and skill of a poet, Eiseley offers a brilliant, companionable introduction to the sciences, paving the way for writers like Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, and Neil deGrasse Tyson. Now for the first time, the Library of America presents his landmark essay collections in a definitive two-volume set.

Eiseley’s debut collection, The Immense Journey (1957), displays his far-reaching knowledge and boundless curiosity about the mysteries of the natural world. Here are vivid accounts of prehistoric ecosystems, the origins of consciousness, the search for “living fossils” at the bottom of the sea, and the complexities of our evolutionary inheritance. Here too are literary qualities and aspirations that led many to hail Eiseley as a “modern Thoreau”: his quest for the ultimate meanings and cosmological significance of natural phenomena, along with his immense expressive gifts.

The Firmament of Time (1960), a lyrical and meditative tour de force, looks back at the many ways in which the sciences have been shaped by the changing cultures in which they developed. Examining the role of metaphor in scientific thought, anticipations of scientific discoveries in the works of poets and novelists, and the “unconscious conformity” of scientific theory to prevailing orthodoxies, Eiseley argues provocatively for the ongoing relevance to scientific progress of dreams, the imagination, and the irrational.

In his wide-ranging collection The Unexpected Universe (1969), Eiseley turns to the theme of the voyage of discovery: accounts of the mythical and historic journeys of Odysseus, Captain Cook, and Darwin frame his own more modest wanderings in the environs of Philadelphia. Sometimes he travels no farther than the local dump: and yet, like Homer’s hero or these great explorers, he continually finds a universe “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

As an added feature, this volume presents a selection of Eiseley’s uncollected prose, including early autobiographical sketches, vivid and haunting entries from his private notebooks, and his 1957 lecture “Neanderthal Man and the Dawn of Human Paleontology.”

William Cronon, editor, is America’s leading environmental historian. A winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, he is the author of Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (1983) and Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991), and currently serves as Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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