FOX AT THE WOOD'S EDGE

A Biography of Loren Eiseley

By Gale E. Christianson

Henry Holt. 517 pp. $29.95

TUCKED AWAY in my files and growing a little tattered by now from repeated handling is a letter from Loren Eiseley I received early in 1976. I had written him in praise of his autobiography, All the Strange Hours, telling him that he was like one of those technicians attending the huge radar discs that tune in to the sounds of the universe -- in his ears, I said grandiosely, was the conversation of stars. "The trouble with my radar discs," he replied, "is that I cannot tune out the individual howls of agony that go into them. I wish I could. I try. I will try harder because of your letter and because we all need to try harder. Or, on the other hand, if everyone would just listen a little more maybe some of these howls and whimpers could be eliminated."

It was the only letter I ever had from him, and for years I have treasured it as a kind of icon, one that demonstrated the Delphic wisdom and largeness of spirit of a man I truly believed was perhaps the greatest of that rare and always endangered species: the poet-scientist. It was with a certain pain, then, that in my reading of Gale E. Christianson's splendid, sad biography, I discovered quite another man from the one whose existence I had largely conjured out of nothing more substantial than his published works and that one haunting letter.

The Eiseley that Christianson reveals was no less richly gifted as a poet and probably will remain this century's most lyric and memorable practitioner of what the 18th and early 19th centuries called "natural philosophy." The five collections of poetry, especially those gathered in The Innocent Assassins in 1973, and the greatest of his other 12 books -- among them his epic history of evolution, The Immense Journey in 1957, and the posthumous anthology, The Star Thrower in 1977 -- established him as a master in that arena in which mere words are translated into experience, and experience into epiphany. On this achievement his reputation will safely rest. And it is just as well, for in the realm of pure science and in that even more demanding place where human character is acted out, he was a good deal less than successful.

Born in 1907, he had survived an abysmal Nebraska childhood as the only son of a persistently unsuccessful traveling salesman and a deaf and clearly deranged mother, but it left him emotionally pinched and dreadfully insecure, pathologically devoted to his own privacy on the one hand and determined to make his mark in the world any way he could on the other. These contradictory compulsions kept him at the edge of paranoia for most of his life and, among other things, drove him to fabricate much of the personal material on which he built some of his most telling parables. "For a man to be remembered," Christianson writes, "he must have done memorable things or, failing that, create the impression of having done them. Eiseley's compulsion to fictionalize was a means of scratching his initials more deeply than others."

AS A SCIENTIST, he made a notable career in anthropology, with major excursions into the realms of archeology, paleontology and the history of evolution. But as Christianson makes clear, while it may be too much to say that a good deal of Eiseley's scholarship was slipshod, the fact remains that the drudgery of careful research had little appeal for him ("A lover of libraries but not of archives," the author says) -- and, what was more, he had a tendency to leap to conclusions before all the evidence was in. Hence his thoroughly discredited theory that Charles Darwin had plagiarized much of the material for his Origin of Species from the earlier work of Edward Blythe.

"I have become," he said once, "my own fox at the wood's edge." Like that shy, cunning creature, Eiseley was reluctant to venture beyond the comfort of the familiar, in his case the dark country of his own mind, where the fear of failure was always present and where the knowledge of death held residence so firmly that it might have been memory more than prophecy. The saving grace of this troubled, complex man's unhappy passage through the world was that his work as a writer ultimately transcended the walls his personality placed before it -- and it is the triumph of Christianson's melancholy but impeccably fair biography that we are never tempted to forget it.

T.H. Watkins is editor of Wilderness magazine, and the author of a forthcoming bioraphy, "Righteous Pilgrim: The Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes, 1874-1952."