A souvenir postcard, found on the web, says “Don’t think that all the gold/Is treasured in Alaska/For golden corn and Golden Rod/Enrich the state Nebraska.” Goldenrod, named Nebraska’s state flower in 1895, is a drooping profusion of gold that looks an awful lot like a sheaf of wheat. Often mistaken for ragweed, goldenrod is paradoxically the cure for ragweed allergies—a local herbalist taught me how to walk through the prairie in late summer and pick goldenrod at its peak, stuffing the stems into a Mason jar, covering them with Everclear, and letting the medicine cure for six weeks before straining it into bottles and taking a dropperful at a time, as needed. I’ve found the Nebraskan Midwessay to be goldenrod personified: understood only through its oppositional references while its author patiently undoes misconceptions. These essays on the Nebraskan Midwessay may confirm your cliches, but I’d encourage you to look closer: what appears to cause the problem is actually the solution.
When Ander invited commentary on Midwest essayists, the first writer that came to my mind was the extraordinary Loren Eiseley. When I did a quick Wiki check I discovered Eiseley “was awarded the Distinguished Nebraskan Award and inducted into the Nebraska Hall of Fame. A bust of his likeness resides in the Nebraska State Capitol.”
When Joyce Carol Oates and I edited The Best American Essays of the Century (that’s the old, rapidly-receding, 20th century), we included one of Eiseley’s most popular essays, “The Brown Wasps.” (I can’t remember now why it wasn’t “The Star-Thrower”). For readers unfamiliar with Eiseley, I’m copying the note I wrote about him for that collection.
A leading scientist and head of the anthropology department of the University of Pennsylvania from 1947 to 1962, Loren Eiseley (1907-1977) was born in Lincoln, Nebraska, into a family of original homesteaders. Eiseley survived the scars of a lonely, reclusive, anxious childhood and, after several troubled years of ‘bumming about’ the West, graduated from the University of Nebraska in 1933, receiving his Ph.D. four years later from the University of Pennsylvania.
While writing poetry, Eiseley also contributed many scholarly articles to professional publications. As he reached a wider public in Harper’s Magazine, The American Scholar, and Scientific American, he experimented with nonfiction forms, developing the ‘concealed essay,’
a creative approach that allowed him to combine both his scientific and literary goals and that led to his first essay collection, The Immense Journey (1957). Along with several volumes of poetry and studies of natural history, Eiseley’s books include the following collections of essays: The Firmament of Time (1960), The Unexpected Universe (1969), The Night Country (1971), and The Star-Thrower (1978). His haunting autobiography, composed as a sequence of essays, All the Strange Hours: The Excavation of a Life, appeared in 1975, two years before his death from cancer.
Except for a hardcover first edition of The Firmament of Time, my Eiseley library consists mostly of old and dilapidated paperbacks. Yet, his books remain in print and in 2016 The Library of America issued a comprehensive two-volume boxed set of the major books and essays.
Memories of Lincoln, Nebraska, and its environs figure often in the essays. In one of his autobiographical essays he writes:
One of the most vivid memories I retain from my young manhood is of the wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail still visible on the unplowed short-grass prairie. They stretched half a mile in width and that was only yesterday.
On Wikipedia you can also find “Loren Eiseley’s Nebraska: A Story Map.” Here’s the link.
I recommend, too, Don Lago’s lovely essay, “Loren Eiseley’s Remembrance of Things Past” (The Antioch Review, Spring 2010).
Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays, now going into its 36th edition. He is currently working on a study of Emile Zola and the literary origins of film noir. After a lifetime in the Northeast, he moved to Southern California in 2019.