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Artifacts & Illuminations: Critical Essays on Loren Eiseley by Susan N. Maher (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 413-414 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0017

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Reviewed by
Artifacts & Illuminations: Critical Essays on Loren Eiseley. Edited by Tom Lynch and Susan N. Maher. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 358 pages, $40.00.

Artifacts & Illuminations, the first comprehensive collection of new critical essays about Loren Eiseley’s work, will transform Eiseley scholarship and encourage fresh interpretations. Tom Lynch and Susan N. Maher have assembled a wide variety of critical perspectives, ranging from ecocriticism to structural, rhetorical, thematic, and place-oriented approaches. These essays testify to the scope and diversity of contemporary Eiseley scholarship. In their introduction, the editors lament the dearth of scholarship for a writer of Eiseley’s stature, suggesting that he might be a victim of the same “two cultures” split that he decried. [End Page 413] Or it may be that given his wide range of interests, Eiseley demands a unique interdisciplinary scholarship. Whatever the causes, this long overdue volume should remedy that neglect. The growing importance of Eiseley’s work reflects a new interest in science and nature writing as well as in the genre of creative nonfiction.

The fourteen critical essays in this volume highlight the diversity of new interdisciplinary approaches to Eiseley criticism. Several contributors discuss the significance of rural and urban places in shaping Eiseley’s literary cartography. One of the most noteworthy essays, Jacqueline Cason’s “The Spirit of Synecdoche” examines Eiseley’s use of metaphor to depict ecological complexity in his use of the “concealed essay” form in exploring the conflict of order and chaos in evolution (187, 208). A reexamination of Eiseley’s poetry in terms of ecopoetics finds a unique expression of “evolutionary consciousness” (136–40). Another study, Stephen Mercier’s “Epic Narratives of Evolution,” notes the similarities between Eiseley’s and John Burroughs’s use of the tropes of the journey and the road to present the complexities of evolution in nontechnical terms. Pamela Gossin’s “Lessons of an Interdisciplinary Life” examines rhetorical strategies for teaching Eiseley in the interdisciplinary classroom and shows how his work can be used to model new ways of thinking and writing. Kathleen Boardman’s “Anthropomorphizing the Essay” uses new insights from cognitive ethnology to refute charges of anthropocentricism in Eiseley’s thought. Perhaps the most unusual essay, Dimitri N. Breschinsky’s “From the American Great Plains to the Steppes of Russia,” concerns efforts to translate Eiseley’s work into Russian and its mixed reception in Russia.

A number of essays explore Eiseley’s personal spirituality in terms of Emerson, Thoreau, Dante, Jung, Whitehead, and Burroughs. New approaches to “The Star Thrower” find an “ecology of redemption” in his persona’s quest for meaning (214–15). Anthony Lioi’s “In a Dark Wood” compares Eiseley’s “dark night of the soul” to Dante’s spiritual journey in the Comedia, contrasting Eiseley’s ecological redemption with Dante’s Christian redemption. Jonathan Weidenbaum’s “Emerson and Eiseley: Two Religious Visions” shows how both writers contributed to the formation of a new “American Religion” of interior spirituality (239). Eiseley’s use of Jungian depth psychology is illustrated in concepts such as sacred time and the collective unconscious and in the archetypal symbol of the pyramid, especially in his 1998 collection of essays The Invisible Pyramid.

Eiseley’s synthesis of science and personal reflection is more important than ever as a model of a new awareness of humanity’s place in the pageant of evolution. The essays in Artifacts & Illuminations will introduce Eiseley’s work to a new generation of readers beyond the two cultures’ rift. [End Page 414]

Andrew Angyal
Elon University, Elon, North Carolina
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