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Introduction to The Gale E. Christianson Collection of Eiseley Research Materials

This collection of materials was assembled by Gale Christianson as the basis for his biography of Loren Eiseley, published as Fox at the Wood’s Edge: A Biography of Loren Eiseley, in 1990. Christianson, a historian specializing in the history of science, was already an experienced writer and biographer when he began research on Eiseley.

Christianson was both charming and tenacious in his pursuit of informants among Eiseley’s family and friends and in the broader social, literary and scientific circles where Eiseley was known. The fact that he was able to gain the approval of Mabel Eiseley led many of the Eiseleys’ old friends to grant Christianson interviews and give him access to documents that would never have been available otherwise. An earlier effort to do an Eiseley biography failed because this cooperation was lacking. Christianson’s efforts yielded many new informants and documents that shed light on Eiseley’s life, his writing and the circles in which he moved.

The collection can be divided into categories reflecting the different sources of materials in it. This makes it easier to discuss the scope of the collection and its potential value for students and scholars interested in Eiseley.

Materials collected from archives

Eiseley filed away letters and documents he received and was generally careful to keep copies of his replies. All of his mentors in anthropology and many of his colleagues seem to have followed suit. This material eventually came into the possession of the archives of various institutions. Christianson sought and gathered copies of these materials from every institution where Eiseley studied, taught, or did research, and further sought Eiseley materials from every institution where he knew Eiseley had mentors, significant correspondents, or other contacts.

This part of the collection includes materials from the Nebraska State Museum archive, the University of Nebraska archives, University of Kansas archives, Oberlin College archives, University of Pennsylvania archives, University Museum—Philadelphia archive, the American Philosophical Society and its library, from the Random House archives now at Colombia University, from the American Museum of Natural History, from the Smithsonian Institution and others.

Examples of this material include: Eiseley’s reports to his advisors and mentors concerning his field work. Requests for letters of recommendation and letters of recommendation. Discussions of job openings and prospects. Correspondence about joint research projects and professional controversies. Correspondence with editors about publication plans and the details of book manuscripts. Fan mail, both from the general public and from colleagues and well-known writers and public intellectuals.

Fan mail was an especially large item, the more so because Eiseley diligently answered such letters. His replies were carefully considered, regardless of the status of the sender, and are often revealing.

Most of this material is correspondence, but it does include other kinds of materials, such as copies of the field notes of colleagues that worked with Eiseley.

To obtain the initial release of papers and correspondence, Christianson in some cases had to get permission from the originators or their survivors. Many of these people were friends of the Eiseleys and the fact that Mabel Eiseley approved of the project and asked friends to go ahead and permit such releases made it possible for Christianson to complete his research.

Seventy percent or more of the archival materials here come from the University of Pennsylvania, where Eiseley spent the longest and most distinguished part of his writing career. Christianson’s work was the first professional survey of the Eiseley materials in that archive.

Christianson had to go to considerable effort and expense to gather these items from widely scattered public archives. We know from several later sources, including a student and the producers of an ETV documentary on Eiseley, that some of the materials Christianson used, especially the yellow second sheets for correspondence, are decomposing fast. For someone interested in studying Eiseley, it will be useful to view all these materials in one place. Researchers who use these materials will, however, need to credit the original archive in which they are preserved, and obtain any necessary permissions from those archives. Usage notes, pointing out such restrictions, are included in the file list that serves as a finding aid for this collection.

Eiseley Estate Materials

These materials consist entirely of copies of original correspondence in the hands of the Eiseleys’ lawyer, and still there after Mabel Eiseley’s death. The originals were not donated to the University of Pennsylvania archive with the rest of Eiseley’s papers, from which they were abstracted. The original papers might be donated to an archive or, more likely, be dispersed in some way. In the original they would have commercial value. There is one thick folder of these copies in the First Series files, and the rest have been matched with other correspondence of which they were part and are scattered throughout the collection. The list of correspondents in the First Series material is distinguished, it includes Ray Bradbury, Edwin Way Teale, Hal Borland, Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Warren Burger, Howard Nemerov, and Lewis Mumford, just to skim off some of the best known. Christianson’s correspondence with the Eiseleys’ lawyer suggests that it was Mabel Eiseley’s agreement to cooperate with his project that gained him access to this material.

These Eiseley estate materials are not available to scholars in any form in any archive and are of particular scholarly value because they document important relationships in Eiseley’s literary and intellectual life. They are essential to understanding the broader world in which Eiseley moved. As the only available copies of this correspondence, the estate papers are a unique aspect of this collection.

Christianson’s New Sources: Unpublished Materials Not in Archives

Christianson sought Eiseley correspondence and personal memories of Eiseley from every possible source. He began with Eiseley’s family, and moved on to early school friends, fellow students at Teachers’ College High School, and former teachers, professors and students who knew Eiseley at the University of Nebraska. He contacted all the survivors of the Wimberly circle at Nebraska. The Wimberly circle made The Prairie Schooner into a distinguished regional writers magazine in the 1930s, and strongly influenced Eiseley’s development as a writer. Christianson contacted Eiseley’s mentors—some of whom were still living—and his early colleagues from digs in Wyoming and Arizona, and colleagues and former students at Kansas, Oberlin College, and the University of Pennsylvania. As Christianson moved into Eiseley’s later career, he contacted some of the country’s most distinguished anthropologists and archaeologists, writers and public intellectuals.

In this way Christianson gained access to Eiseley’s early letters, to hitherto unknown family photographs and history, to detailed personal accounts of Eiseley by friends, colleagues and admirers, and to copies of personal correspondence not in institutional archives. Some teachers and former colleagues wrote multipage essays about their experiences with Eiseley. One sent Christianson original Eiseley letters from the early 1930s.

Christianson cultivated his informants and in many cases, his correspondence with them stretched over a period of years, eliciting a stream of new details and documents. He recorded interviews with informants, and the tapes of these interviews are included in the collection.

It would be difficult to overstate the value of these taped interviews. Christianson skillfully drew people out and got them to tell him more than they ever intended. Wright Morris, for example, wrote to Christianson in a state of panic after he realized how much personal information he had let slip in an interview. Christianson’s interviews with Eiseley’s colleagues in anthropology range over the development and funding of the whole field from the 1940s through the 1960s.

For many of the Christianson’s informants, his inquiries and interviews came at a strategic moment, when they were still lively and articulate, but knew that having reached advanced old age, they could not have long to live. These were, most of them, people who had been well connected and influential in regional or national literary and scientific circles—who now wanted to talk. Some of them led more interesting and influential lives than anyone seems to have recognized. Mabel Eiseley herself is perhaps the most poignant example of this. She evidently picked and trained the curators of the Nebraska Art Museum and later worked her way to a leading position in the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts. She seems a far more interesting character than has previously been recognized, and the interview in Christianson’s collection is the only one she ever gave.

This is the most valuable and significant part of the collection. Most of Christianson’s informants are now dead. His correspondence with them, the materials they sent to him and his interviews with them are a unique and irreplaceable archive of Eiseley material. Serious scholars interested in Eiseley and his circles will have to consult these materials.

These papers and interviews also contain essential source materials for researchers interested in regional and national scientific, literary and intellectual figures with whom Eiseley was closely associated. Regionally speaking, there are intimate accounts of the Wimberly circle by Rudolph Umland and Wilbur Gaffney, an extensive correspondence with Dorothy Thomas and reminiscences by paleontologist C. Bertrand Schultz, long head of the Nebraska state museum. These papers also document very significant relationships with Wright Morris, Ray Bradbury, and Lewis Mumford, writers and intellectuals of national importance.

This part of the collection contains some items that might be considered to be of interest simply because of their origin. Such items include a brief note from John Updike, a letter to Christianson from the writer Wallace Stegner describing Eiseley’s voice, and two letters from Ray Bradbury. It is hard not to include Rudolph Umland’s extensive correspondence with Christianson in this category, as well. The two became dear friends, and the letters, some also with drawings by Umland, are of unusual quality.

Christianson’s Notes and Manuscripts

Christianson’s notes and underlinings are to be found in almost every file in the collection. His longhand notes are often short and cryptic, but for more important source materials or subject matter, he sometimes typed both notes and summaries. His notes are important for identifying the original sources of many of the materials in the collection. His typed notes on and summaries of interviews offer additional information about the knowledge and views of participants. Since Christianson himself accidentally recorded over the first half hour of his interview with Wright Morris, his typed summary is all that remains of that portion of the interview.

The collection contains three versions of Christianson’s manuscript. A hand-written version, an early typescript, and what appears to be the publisher’s final typescript with copy-editing and printer’s markup.

Published Materials

This material includes: Photocopies of Eiseley’s own journal articles and other shorter publications. Articles and conference papers on Eiseley collected by Christianson or sent to him by authors and presenters at his request. Background materials collected by Christianson to help him better understand the technical issues of anthropology, geology and archaeology in Eiseley’s work, and biographical articles on Eiseley contacts, drawn from Current Authors, encyclopedias and similar works. These materials are scattered throughout the collection, where Christianson filed them to illuminate topics at issue in adjacent documentation of Eiseley’s activities.


This collection is a unique resource for understanding Loren Eiseley as a writer and intellectual and for understanding the wider world in which he moved. One of the principal reasons for this is that Christianson undertook his research at a unique moment. He began at the right time to gain the cooperation of Mabel Eiseley, and through her, of many of Eiseley’s old friends. As Mabel said, “its time.” Earlier efforts to gain access to this circle had failed. Christianson found the essential informants still alive, and fragile documents still preserved in the archives.

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