Described by Publisher’s Weekly as “the modern Thoreau,” Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) was an anthropologist and philosopher whose writing sought connections between humanity and the natural world. He spent his childhood exploring his natural surroundings in Lincoln, Nebraska before enrolling at the University of Nebraska, where he studied English, geology, and anthropology.
Eiseley’s essays and books were praised for delivering science to non-scientists. His investigations of nature were marked not by complex scientific theory, but by a personal, accessible voice that contemplated humanity’s place in the natural world. Unlike much science writing of his time, Eiseley’s work was highly readable through his employment of lyrical language, narrative arches, and suspenseful pacing.
Eiseley’s work was initially confined to scientific journals, though his first collection of essays, The Immense Journey (1957, Vintage Books), proved his mass appeal, selling over one million copies. Eiseley’s prolific career includes fifteen science books, two memoirs, and three books of poetry.
The structure of “The Brown Wasps” reflects the essay’s themes of memory and place. Through a series of personal anecdotes, Eiseley moves backwards through time and tense as he explores nature and humanity’s instinctual dependency on memories and places as a means of grounding oneself in an ever-changing world.
By flowing easily from third, to second, to first person, Eiseley invites his reader on a contemplative journey that grapples with the anxiety and alienation that results from the impermanence of time and place. To illustrate this discomfort, Eiseley employs a motif of intangibility, referring frequently to “invisible dreams,” “shadows,” and “insubstantial air.”
Though Eiseley’s nonlinear progression of anecdotes seems to suggest otherwise, “The Brown Wasps” does indeed follow a narrative arch. The essay reaches a climax when Eiseley describes his experience visiting (a now missing) tree from his childhood home. He then understands that memory, not physical place, defines him, thus allowing the previously unsettling effects of intangibility to morph into a comforting perspective, one that allows him to “take a firm grasp on an airy nothing.”
Essay’s Immediate Context
Following WWII, America had emerged as a global superpower, and in 1956 the country enjoyed a period of relative prosperity. “The Brown Wasps” appeared in Gentry, a high-end men’s quarterly that aimed to appeal the rapidly growing demographic of financially successful, culturally sophisticated men.
Gentry’s content focused primarily on clothing, wine, art, cars, and food. Its advertisements featured expensive suits (with a swatch of fabric embedded in the ad) and fine cigars (with a sample tobacco leaf included). Each issue of Gentry was marked by its high-end graphic design, including thick card stock, die-cuts, and foldouts.
In addition to its emphasis on high-end products, Gentry’s pages offered sophisticated art and literature that were essential in rounding out “the complete man.” Eiseley’s contemplative essay “The Brown Wasps” appeared in Gentry’sWinter 1956 issue, which featured cover art by Henri Matisse.
Following its publication in Gentry, “The Brown Wasps” was collected fourteen years later in Loren Eiseley’s book of essays, The Night Country (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971). The Night Country contains some of Eiseley’s most autobiographical work, and explores his personal connection to nature. In 1977 The Night Country was reprinted by University of Nebraska Press and included illustrations by Leonard Everett Fisher.
“The Brown Wasps” has been anthologized in Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan’s The Best American Essays of the Century (2000, Houghton Mifflin Company).
Brill, Naomi. “Loren Eiseley Biography.” Web. <http://www.eiseley.org/biography.php>
Eiseley, Lorne. “The Brown Wasps.” The Best American Essays of the Century. Ed. Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Atwan. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 239-245. Print.
Eiseley, Lorne. The Night Country. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1971. Print.
Eiseley, Lorne. The Night Country. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997. Print.
Kaoru, Irene. “Survival of the Bravest.” Web. <http://coilhouse.net/2009/03/survival-of-the-bravest/>
“The Gentry Man: A Guide for the Civilized Male.” Web. < <http://tweedlandthegentlemansclub.blogspot.com/2012/05/gentry-man-guide-for-civilized-male.html>
University Archives and Records Center, University of Pennsylvania. “Loren Eiseley Papers, Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania University Archives.” Web PDF. < http://www.archives.upenn.edu/faids/upt/upt50/eiseley2manuscript.pdf>
Text and images: Eric Kester