It’s impossible to think of Rachel Carson without thinking about Silent Spring, the book that helped launch the environmental movement. Published nearly fifty-one years ago, the book captured the nation’s attention at a time when nuclear fallout was a very real concern and pesticides were being used as in alarming amounts. Of particular concern was DDT, an insecticide that was initially heralded as the chemical savior from everything from crops to would-be malaria victims (in fact, its inventor won a Nobel). When the notoriously private Carson published Silent Spring — its title a reference to all of the birds killed by DDT — the tiny and soft-spoken woman became an instant celebrity.
But before Silent Spring, Carson was already a beloved author of three books about the ocean. She had grown up poor in Pennsylvania, always a bit of a loner and happiest when she was exploring nature. She attended Pennsylvania College for Women became enamored with science and marine biology because of one of her teachers, Mary Scott Skinker, one of the few women working in that field. Carson was later accepted to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, though she had to stay at Pennsylvania College for Women longer than she had hoped because of financial difficulties. Finances would always play a big role in her choices; she did end up going to Johns Hopkins to study the new field of of zoology, but wouldn’t be able to go on to a PhD because she had to help support her family.
Instead, after graduating she went on to work as a marine biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. It wasn’t her first choice, but it was rare steady employment during the Great Depression and she was grateful to have the income. She was in charge of writing up agency reports for publication, and her literary way of describing things caught her employer’s eye. Deeming it too good for some agency report, he encouraged her to shop the article around to magazines. The rest was history; it wasn’t long before she was writing for major, well-respected national publications.
Carson’s ability to describe ocean life in such vivid terms made her a sensation, especially since her education and background gave her a unique opportunity to introduce ocean life in her unique scientific-but-literary way. Now able to support herself through her writing, she threw herself into her meticulous research and writing routines, often frustrating her publisher in the process since she always missed her deadlines. Nonetheless, they were willing to put up with her tendencies to keep pushing back deadlines: her work was superb. Though her first book didn’t sell as well as she’d hoped, her second and third books were were a success.
So far, she had written a trilogy of nature books about the ocean. The offer stood for a fourth book, but this time, it wasn’t clear what she’d write about. Stories related to pesticide use were trickling her way. Animals in and around rivers were dying or being born deformed; as the author of books about oceans, could she take a look? Actually, Carson was already aware of some of the problems, and the more she read about them, the more alarmed she became. But she didn’t think she was right for the job. And besides, her health was becoming more of a problem; writing and researching a book was an all-consuming process that took all of her energy and focus. She reached out to several prominent scientists with her preliminary research, imploring them to write a book about pesticides. They all responded the same way: she should be the one to write it. Eventually, she agreed.
Silent Spring wouldn’t be published for several more years, but when it finally was, the public was dying to read it. It hadn’t even been published, but reports of its contents had trickled out and created a media frenzy. Carson was notoriously opposed to doing publicity or accepting awards, but she was thrust into the spotlight anyway. Referred to as “unmarried but not a feminist” by Life, and a “middle-aged, arthritis-crippled spinster” by a different newspaper, the pressure was on her to defend her book and her outrageous indictments of revolutionary pesticides. For the most part, she did manage to avoid publicity events, but she was very vocal about the solid evidence that backed up her book’s claims.
Little did anyone know that she was nearing the end of her life by this point. Remarks were made about how old she looked her age, and those remarks were true: arthritis often debilitated her and prevented her from working, but unbeknownst to almost everyone who knew her, she was in the final stages of breast cancer. She would live to see all of the awards and acclaim she earned for her work, but less than a year and a half after her book’s publication, she would die at the age of 56.
I really loved this biography. In addition to being a fascinating read, Souder handled Carson’s life story spectacularly. I thought he wrote about Carson’s longtime friendship with Dorothy Freeman very well; the two became inseparable when they met, though their relationship was mostly sustained via the hundreds of letters they wrote each other. Souder doesn’t think they were Carson and Freeman (who was married) had a lesbian relationship, but their friendship was clearly close and filled with love (while I read the book, I thought of them as having something like a romantic friendship). They remained close until Carson’s death. My favorite thing about the book was how Souder contextualized everything, carefully explaining major national and global events to illustrate the atmosphere that made Carson’s work so important. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.
On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson was published in September 2012 by Crown Publishing Group, an imprint of Random House.