From the Sea to Silent Spring

Science  01 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6123, pp. 1034
DOI: 10.1126/science.1232265

The 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1) has come and gone like the tide, and some of us are left wondering how this momentous event could have passed with so little fanfare. By contrast, the bicentennial of Darwin's birth saw considerably more than a year of celebrations all over the world, popular and scholarly alike. But, befitting the temperament of its author (who generally avoided the glare of celebrity), Silent Spring's anniversary caused barely a ripple.

Fortunately, writer William Souder marked the occasion with a new biography: On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson. Readers familiar with Carson's story from earlier accounts will want to know what is novel about Souder's treatment of this iconic figure in the history of the American environmental movement. Souder skillfully situates Carson's life and particularly her writing career into the context of important events in the United States and around the world. More to the point, Souder's Carson is a portrait of the writer and, significantly, her writerly influences. Finally, Souder carefully analyzes Carson's personality and relationships.


For example, Carson found inspiration in the works of English nature writers Henry Williamson and Richard Jefferies and of the Dutch-born children's author Hendrik van Loon. Souder reveals that Carson could be selective in her appreciation, praising Williamson's books on nature while ignoring his well-documented Nazi sympathies. In van Loon, Carson found an enthusiastic correspondent and supporter, and she called on the prominent author to introduce her to the renowned deep-sea explorer William Beebe. Carson also solicited van Loon's advice on the mundane details of book publishing, such as royalties and advances.

Souder plumbs the depths of Carson's personality and explains apparent tensions. Widely portrayed as quiet and shy, Carson revealed herself to be a keen judge of character and a sharp wit to her close friends. Her letters to editors and publishers display her complete confidence in her considerable skills as a writer and naturalist along with her willingness to defend and promote herself and her abilities (particularly when her finances were at stake). Carson's agent Marie Rodell became her champion and advocate in all things literary and financial. Rodell negotiated with the New Yorker on Carson's behalf, opening a long and prosperous relationship with that leading literary weekly and its editor William Shawn. To Carson's delight, Shawn published much of The Sea Around Us (2) across three issues before its release in book form. Silent Spring also made its debut in the pages of the New Yorker.

While Carson enjoyed the support of her literary colleagues, she also cultivated a small circle of devoted friends. In analyzing a series of impassioned letters, Souder delineates the extent of Carson's most intense relationship, with Dorothy and Stan Freeman. Souder argues that Carson shared with Dorothy a love of nature, the sea, music, and literature, which is to say the beautiful aspects of life associated with the highest category of Platonic love. Carson also remained devoted to her family (especially her mother, two nieces, and a great nephew) throughout her life. She became its breadwinner shortly after leaving graduate school at Johns Hopkins. After his mother's unexpected death, Carson assumed parental responsibilities for her niece's son, Roger. The tasks of supporting her relatives defined her choices in life. After the publication of Silent Spring, misogynistic attacks on its author as a "spinster" mischaracterized someone utterly dedicated to family, albeit nontraditional.

Focused on Carson qua writer, Souder shrewdly divides his account into two roughly equal parts: the sea and Silent Spring. Such a division circumvents chronological and temporal imbalances. Carson's legacy seems to be evenly divided between her writings on the sea and pesticides. Nevertheless, Souder captures the full extent of Carson's long-term interest in the unintended consequences of synthetic insecticides. He also demonstrates how knowledge of marine ecology served her larger effort to reveal the parallels between the environmental effects of radioactive fallout and indiscriminate use of pesticides. Thus, in one of many dramatic reconstructions, Souder recounts the tragic story of the crew of the Lucky Dragon in the aftermath of exposure to the fallout of nuclear testing on Bikini Atoll in the South Pacific. By tracing the development of nuclear arms during and after World War II and the parallel development of chemical insecticides across the same period, Souder foreshadows the process whereby Carson drew the most powerful analogy of Silent Spring. Her compelling comparison of pesticides to nuclear fallout captivated the minds of Americans in the early years of the nuclear age. As memories of the arms race fade, a new generation of readers should find such context clues help to explain Carson's inspiration and the profound impact of Silent Spring.

There is another sense in which On a Farther Shore constitutes a writer's biography. Souder has crafted a beautifully written account of Carson's life. Even when the stories ring familiar, his deft turn of phrase imbues them with new vitality. Thus, he offers readers a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a naturalist, author, and inspiration to the modern environmental movement.



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