Although I found this memoir by the famous anthropologist hard going at first, I have to say that the book rewards persistence. At first the book's structure seemed based on free association. While loosely chronological, Eiseley skips around in time, jumping decades forward or back to recount a meeting with some colorful character. He admits that this hopping about makes the book difficult for the reader to follow, but obviously it was up to me to adapt or stop reading. Eventually I began to recognise how carefully he'd constructed each chapter and the way his tales spiral back with enhanced meaning.
The other aspect that hindered my reading is the tone. Although only in his late 60s, Eiseley refers to himself as old and in fact did pass away two years after this book was published. Here he is summing up his life as he prepares to leave it, with the thought of death and the insignificance of life permeating every reminiscence. He writes of returning to a childhood place where he had carved his name in the sandstone “deep against the encroaching years” only to find that the stone has been worn smooth. Sometimes he comes across as a cranky, dissatisfied old man, railing against the students of the 1960s, for example, or complaining about his insomnia. Incidents that another writer might present in a self-deprecating or even amusing tone are offered as gloomy evidence that there is no achievement that lasts; we live only to die. Yet as the book goes on, he finds the value of one's time on earth, describing the wonders of this life, the dogs who accompany us, the work that inspires us. He says, “all we are quickly vanishes. But still not quite. That is the wonder of words. They drift on and on beyond imagining.”
Eiseley certainly had a hard early life, with a deaf and seemingly unhinged mother and an elderly, ineffectual father who begged him to protect and make allowances for his mother. After his father's death, Eiseley enters a long period of illness and poverty, coincidentally during the worst of the Depression. I enjoyed his descriptions of how to hop trains, his chance acquaintances, hostile brakemen and the body's betrayal. His account of these years is a lesson in how easy it is to fall into poverty and how hard to climb out. He calls this period a prison “in that I could not get outside the ring, the ring of poverty. Like a wolf on an invisible chain I padded endlessly around and around the shut doors of knowledge.”
Only timely help from his uncle enables him to go to college and then graduate school. He writes brilliantly of the professor he studied under, Frank Speck, a man who learned Mohegan from his Indian foster mother and was more comfortable in the woods or pine barrens than in a classroom. Speck tells him of a story by Algernon Blackwood of a man “whose soul was stolen by the past”, a fitting image for these two men, changelings in a way.
I was fascinated by Eiseley's fluid sense of time, even though it made the text a bit confusing. He talks about his sense of the past and future existing simultaneously. He says that being on the road, “People were always appearing from some other century, entering and exiting, as it were, at will. You never knew whether your companions were from the past or the future.” He speaks of the intersection of the two, finding objects “hidden in arroyos” that had been remade by Indians from “the discards of white civilization”, such as iron arrowheads ground from hoes or scrapers from fragments of glass. “Here under the timeless High Plains sunlight, the primitives had tried to reshape the new materials of another age than their own into forms they could comprehend.”
As an anthropologist, he notes physical characteristics of people he meets, such as the 6'5” sailor with fingernails like claws. He ponders human differences and “all that difficult entangled thread that produces successive generations.” This meeting provides another interesting moment, as the man invites Eiseley to sign on with his ship. Eiseley is tempted to abandon graduate school and take to the sea and the freewheeling life he once knew riding the rails and working odd jobs.
Thus does our personal past, not just the world's past, spiral around and return to us. Tripping over my past self as I have been these last few weeks, losing myself on streets I've known all my life, I agree and finally come around to praising this book as the intensely moving experience it has been for me.