Authors: Rachel Carson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American biologist and nature writer

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Sea Around Us, 1951

The Edge of the Sea, 1955

Silent Spring, 1962

The Sense of Wonder, 1965

Always Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964, 1995

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson, 1998

Long Fiction:

Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life, 1941

Biography

The biologist Rachel Louise Carson is primarily known as the author of Silent Spring, an exposé of the effects of chemical pesticides on human health and the environment that became a seminal work in the crusade for ecological awareness. Carson spent much of her childhood outdoors on her family’s land, where she was encouraged by her mother to develop an awareness of the natural world. She also loved books and from her earliest childhood assumed that she would be a writer. At the age of eleven, she published an essay in the children’s magazine Saint Nicholas. Intending to major in English, Carson enrolled in the Pennsylvania College for Women. Halfway through her junior year, however, her fascination with the natural sciences led her to change her major to biology. After graduating magna cum laude in 1928, she went on to gain an M.A. in zoology from The Johns Hopkins University in 1932.{$I[AN]9810002034}{$I[A]Carson, Rachel}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Carson, Rachel}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Carson, Rachel}{$I[tim]1907;Carson, Rachel}

Carson found employment with the United States Bureau of Fisheries, where she wrote and edited books and radio scripts. To supplement her income, she also published freelance articles. The acceptance of an article by The Atlantic prompted her to write a novel, Under the Sea-Wind, a narrative of sea and shore life told from the points of view of a shore bird, a mackerel, and an eel. Although sales were disappointing, the book earned an enthusiastic response from the scientific community.

Carson’s second book, The Sea Around Us, is a scientific examination of the ocean’s development, features, and inhabitants. This best-selling book, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction, launched Carson on the road to fame. In her acceptance speech, Carson stated that there is no such thing as a separate literature of science, since the aim of science is to discover and illuminate the truth, which is the aim of all literature. Throughout her writing career, Carson pursued this aim with a commitment to simplicity of expression and avoidance of technical jargon. She said, “My relation to technical scientific writing has been that of one who understands the language but does not use it.”

In 1952, Carson resigned from the Fish and Wildlife Service to focus solely on writing. In 1955, she published The Edge of the Sea, a guide to the tidal zones of the eastern seaboard of the United States. The book was positively received by critics, who remarked on Carson’s sensitive use of poetic devices such as rhythm and imagery and hailed her as a nature writer in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau. The book’s commercial success enabled Carson to realize her dream of owning a summer house by the sea. In 1953, she bought land in West Southpost, Maine, and built a cottage on the shore only feet from the high-tide line. In 1956, Carson wrote an article for Woman’s Home Companion called “Teach Your Child to Wonder,” which was republished after her death as the book The Sense of Wonder.

The roots of Carson’s most famous book, Silent Spring, go back at least to 1945, when she wrote a prophetic letter to Reader’s Digest suggesting an article about the dangers of the insecticide DDT, which was being used liberally in the pest control programs of the Fish and Wildlife Service. She dropped the subject until 1957, when a friend wrote a letter to the Boston Herald detailing the horrific effects of aerial spraying of DDT over her land for the purpose of “mosquito control.” Carson, feeling that a book exposing the dangers of chemical insecticides was needed, tried to interest others in taking on the project. Eventually she realized that she herself had to write it.

In Silent Spring, Carson examines how humans, animals, plants, the soil, and the earth’s food and water supplies have been affected by toxic chemicals in the twentieth century, and she establishes a link between these chemicals and the incidence of cancer in humans. She recommends more research into natural biological pest controls.

Silent Spring was serialized in The New Yorker in 1962 and caused a storm of controversy. Predictably, there was a violent reaction from the agricultural chemical industry, which responded with a massive campaign to portray Carson as prejudiced, scientifically unqualified, and hysterical. Chemicals, they said, were necessary to humanity’s survival; without them, insects would inherit the earth.

Carson stayed out of the fray, allowing her book to speak for itself. Other scientists, including the Science Advisory Committee appointed by President John F. Kennedy, substantiated her findings. Within a decade of publication, the book was hailed as having altered the course of history by changing people’s thinking about nature.

Carson died of cancer in 1964. The Nature Conservancy, a major beneficiary of her will, is preserving parts of the Maine coast known as the Rachel Carson Seashore, and the Department of the Interior named a wildlife refuge there in her honor. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her services to the environmental movement.

BibliographyBrooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. 2d ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. This biography of Rachel Carson and survey of her work was written by her editor. Based upon her private papers, Brooks’s account is primarily made up of many wonderful samples of her writings, both public and private.Gartner, Carol B. Rachel Carson. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1983. This readable discussion of Carson carefully blends her personal and public lives as well as providing a good bibliography for further reading.Graham, Frank, Jr. Since “Silent Spring.” Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970. This book provides an account of Carson’s career and how she came to devote most of her energy during her final years to Silent Spring. The author also traces the progress of the pesticide controversy through the 1960’s.Hynes, H. Patricia. The Recurring Silent Spring. New York: Pergamon Press, 1989. This work focuses on Silent Spring, providing a brief but informative biography of Carson (elegantly refuting the “lonely spinster” stereotype) before discussing the impact and legacy of Silent Spring and the state of the American physical and social environment from Carson’s time through the 1980’s. A detailed bibliography is included.Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1997. A biography of the marine biologist and author. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Lytle, Mark Hamilton. The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. An illuminating new biography, centered around Carson’s works but interspesed with personal details.McCay, Mary A. Rachel Carson. New York: Twayne, 1993. This excellent biography of Carson puts her major writings in the context of her personal development as a naturalist and analyzes her work as a part of the American naturalist tradition.Marco, Gino J., Robert M. Hollingworth, and William Durham, eds. Silent Spring Revisited. Washington, D.C.: American Chemical Society, 1987. This collection of essays includes a summary of Silent Spring, as well as an essay about Carson’s motives and the reaction to her book by a personal friend of Carson, in addition to eleven essays that explore the scientific, political, and environmental issues surrounding the use of pesticides.Norwood, Vera L. “The Nature of Knowing: Rachel Carson and the American Environment.” Signs 12, no. 4 (Summer, 1987). An illuminating essay in the genre of environmental literary criticism.Waddell, Craig, ed. And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000. With a foreword by Paul Brooks. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
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