biographies of parallel lives: Rachel Carson and Marie Tharp; and beyond

Remember when I raved about Soundings, the biography of the woman who mapped the ocean floor? I was enchanted in part by the style in which author Hali Felt evoked her subject, Marie Tharp, as a personality as well as a historical figure. I was also fascinated by the unique persona of Tharp herself, and her role as a woman in science in the 1940’s, 50’s, and 60’s.

And now I’m very pleased to have picked up a new biography entitled On a Farther Shore, by William Souder, about Rachel Carson, for the 50th anniversary of the publication of her groundbreaking book. Silent Spring exposed the tragic truth, that the widely used pesticide DDT was killing not only bugs, but birds and myriad other wildlife, and even humans. Carson is credited with playing a major role in the birth of the environmentalist movement.

These two biographies employ very different styles. Felt is a visible character in the story she tells, of Tharp’s life through the lens of Felt’s research experience, while Souder’s work so far tracks like a traditional biography, with the author invisible. But their subjects share a few obvious similarities. Both were women on the margins of scientific communities that weren’t entirely prepared to let them in, and they were more or less contemporaries (Tharp was born 13 years later than Carson). Both challenged the gender barrier and accepted understandings of their fields. I recognized these parallels when I began reading On a Farther Shore.

But I wasn’t prepared for the confluences and coincidences that came fast and thick in the opening chapters. (I’m only about 50 pages in, so this is far from a final review of Souder’s work. Although I do like it so far!) For one thing, forgive my ignorance: I knew about Silent Spring (I read it when I was a kid), but had not known that prior to that most famous of her books, Carson had been a well-loved and bestselling author of literary writings about the ocean. So, number one: both women were fascinated with the sea. And then came a comparison of Silent Spring, with its unprecedented exposure of an industry that would later be legislated and regulated largely because of the book itself, to one of my all time favorites: Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Next I learned that Carson grew up scarcely an hour’s drive away from where Edward Abbey would grow up 20 years her junior. That is a hell of a coincidence.

As I joyfully made these connections (which I know will continue, because our world is all interconnected), I mused. I remember feeling, in middle school, even in high school, that certain subjects were “work,” were chores, weren’t fun, didn’t feel like they were teaching me things I’d need to know or care to know later in life. I liked English but had less use for history. And I also remember when this changed for me, and when learning for its own sake became something I felt passionately about. The light-bulb moment was related to the interconnectedness of all things. That history, biology, political science, and literature were all the same story; that nothing happens in a vacuum, just as Gertrude Stein, mentor and friend to my main man Ernest Hemingway, was a student at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts just a few decades ahead of Rachel Carson. I don’t know about the rest of you, but learning that the world is interdisciplinary and that contemporary figureheads from a variety of textbooks lived in the same world – that Einstein’s life work and philosophy was deeply influenced by his observation of German militarism culminating in Hitler’s rise to power, that the reclusive Harper Lee and the effervescent Truman Capote were buddies, that Mark Twain and the much-younger Helen Keller were close – has been the turning point for me in appreciating so much more reading and learning than I did even 10 years ago.

Recognizing these connections has led to myriad new directions in my own reading. Some of them have been in fiction (I’ve read Gertrude Stein because of her relationship with Hemingway), and many have been nonfiction. In general, I would definitely credit this larger observation with my ever-growing appreciation of nonfiction. I’m sometimes saddened to hear from people who don’t like nonfiction, because they’re missing so much. I suspect they just haven’t met the right style of nonfiction yet; but maybe, too, they haven’t had that light-bulb moment that did it for me.

Does anybody else share this feeling that everything being connected make the world a fascinating place? Has it influenced your reading habits?

4 Responses

  1. love these contemplations!
    it is sad that our schools don’t all educate with that interdisciplinary approach, but it is also wonderful how you are piecing it together with the tools you have; and it’s a life’s journey, so you can keep doing it as long as you like!

    • Absolutely, on all counts. I think those everyday classes that kids take, and mostly don’t appreciate, could be infinitely more interesting. And then how much better the education!

  2. [...] the argument for Carson as a biographer’s subject. Now, how did Souder do? As observed yesterday, his style is rather a traditional one. Souder himself does not enter into the story as a [...]

  3. [...] There are some heavy bits here, unsurprisingly. While not exactly academic, some of it is definitely on the philosophic side of things. When Baldwin dives deeply into literary criticism, he loses me (I guess I’m rusty on literary criticism; I used to find such articles much easier to read!): “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Many Thousands Gone” nearly made me quit the collection. In “Carmen Jones: The Dark Is Light Enough,” he discusses a movie, and actors, so unfamiliar to me that I was only reading on the surface – where I rather enjoyed the essay, it is true, but where I certainly failed to understand fully what he had to say. On the other hand, “The Harlem Ghetto” struck me as intelligent, occasionally amusing, and relevant today. And as you know, I am always thrilled to make connections across seemingly unrelated books I’ve read or historical figures I’ve studied. Before I was halfway through this book, I’d seen mention of Lillian Hellman (see a recent biography, one of my favorite books of the year) and the Patterson family (another), not to mention of course threads that take me back to The Warmth of Other Suns, which is how I got to this book in the first place. Ah, the circularity of things: it amazes and thrills me. [...]

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