by Robert WeibezahlSeptember 2012
Examining the life and legacy of Rachel Carson
In 1962, an unassuming 55-year-old nature writer rocked the world. With the publication of Silent Spring—first in the New Yorker and a few months later in book form—Rachel Carson exposed the dangers of DDT to the general public, hastening a great curtailment in the use of the “miracle” pesticide, and proving a major impetus for what came to be called the environmental movement. Tying into the 50th anniversary of that classic work, William Souder has written a compelling biography of Carson, On a Farther Shore.
One could take umbrage with Souder’s sweeping claim that today “Carson is unknown to almost anyone under the age of fifty.” Carson is still taught in many classrooms, from elementary school on up. I suspect that Silent Spring and Carson’s two national bestsellers that came before it, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea, have rarely, if ever, been out of print. Still, her quietly pioneering writing may get lost in the noise of all the science that has come since (Carson died just two years after Silent Spring was published) and she certainly deserves a fine-tuned book to rekindle her legacy. Souder, who previously wrote a well-received biography of Audubon, proves the appropriate writer for the job.
As a reader of Carson’s meticulous, poetic prose might imagine, her life story is not filled with scandal or flash. Trained as a biologist in an age when few women were encouraged to pursue the sciences, she ached to be a writer. She discovered a way to combine her two passions. Working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a writer and editor, Carson wrote pamphlets about government nature preserves by day, while freelancing newspaper and magazine pieces at night. Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, came out in 1941 and was a commercial failure, but a decade later The Sea Around Us rose to the top of bestseller lists, allowing Carson to devote all of her time to traveling, studying and writing.
Never marrying, Carson had a seemingly chaste, if emotionally intense “romance” with Dorothy Freeman, a married woman who owned a summer home near the naturalist’s cottage in Maine. This 11-year friendship may constitute the sole noteworthy fact about her personal life, yet Souder does an admirable job holding the reader’s interest with his portrait of a unpretentious, likeable woman. Fully half the book chronicles the genesis of Silent Spring and the backlash following its publication. It was E.B. White who suggested Carson take DDT as her subject. DuPont and other chemical manufacturers threatened to sue the writer and her publishers. Ultimately, the government, reacting to the outcry over what Carson had exposed, began to put environmental protections in place.
Throughout, Souder gives considerable ink to nature writers who came before and inspired Carson’s vocation—notably Richard Jeffries, Henry Williamson (whose fascist sympathies Carson conveniently overlooked) and Aldo Leopold—placing her own achievement in the larger context of the genre.
What is Rachel Carson’s legacy today? “In the half century since the publication of Silent Spring, America has embraced the book’s central message unevenly,” Souder concludes. “[T]he country’s efforts to protect the environment have been a mix of progress, partisanship, and pig-headedness that Rachel Carson would find familiar.”