Writing of his birth on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, the literary naturalist Loren Eiseley cast his nativity in the language of the poet: “I was born in the first decade of the [20th] century, conceived in and part of the rolling yellow cloud that occasionally raises up a rainy silver eye to look upon itself before subsiding into dust again.”11. Loren Eiseley, The Night Country (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971). It was there, where the overwhelming vastness fuses with the midnight stars, that Eiseley’s father held him aloft one chilly night, in 1910. On the far horizon, a radiant Halley’s comet rent the firmament like a gigantic sword. After a long and reverent silence, Clyde Eiseley told his three-year-old son to remember this night above all others, for the boy had a good chance of beating the odds that he would see the celestial visitor but once in his life. “If you live to be an old man, you will see it again”, his father whispered. “It will come back in seventy-five years.”22. Eiseley, The Invisible Pyramid (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970).
Perhaps young Loren understood his father, perhaps not. But he never forgot the person in whose arms he rested, who he would always care for more than any other, and who planted in his son the sense of wonder with the world that led Eiseley to create his own genre of prose: science nested beneath the wings of the humanities.
Seeing Halley’s comet might have been cold comfort to a shivering child, but it harmonized with what Eiseley clung to in his father. Clyde Eiseley, an itinerant hardware salesman whose meager wages barely kept food on the family table and a roof over their heads, had dreamed of becoming a Shakespearean actor, indeed had once traveled Nebraska’s dust-choked byways with a company of Elizabethan players. Eiseley listened in awe on those rare occasions when his father was moved to recite a passage by the bard, such as these lines from Coriolanus:
Put on my robes, give me my crown, I have immortal longings in me.
At the opposite end of the family spectrum was Eiseley’s peculiar mother Daisey (née Corey), who was known for her flamboyant hats and razor-sharp tongue. She was constantly deriding Clyde and all he cared about, punctuating her cruel tirades with flailing arms and hands. Eiseley later wrote of her that she was stone deaf; others simply described her...