Rachel Carson was born in 1927 and by the 1950′s was the author of several bestsellers, a national hero for her lyrical, literary, scientifically accurate books about the ocean. She also published myriad magazine and newspaper articles, both as a government employee and as a freelance writer. In 1962 she published a somewhat different kind of book. Silent Spring retained the literary style for which she was well loved, but its subject – while still the natural world – took a different tone. Carson wrote about the then-widely-used pesticide DDT and its sinister effects, not just on the insects it claimed to target, but on wildlife generally including many fish and birds (hence the title) and even human life.
The immediate reaction to her book was mixed. Critical reviews were more positive than negative, but the government (to varying degrees) and the pesticide industry (predictably and totally) offered less praise. Carson came under attack as a hysterical nature faddist and Communist sympathizer, even as Silent Spring topped bestseller lists and initiated federal investigations. Today, the ecology and environmental movements credit Rachel Carson and Silent Spring with helping to establish what is now a central issue of our times.
William Souder’s new biography of Carson, published on Silent Spring‘s 50th anniversary, begins with the conjecture that Carson’s name is now “unknown to almost anyone under the age of fifty.” There are a few of us, of course (although I confess my personal poll may not constitute a random sampling), but his point is well taken: in 2012, Carson is less on our minds. But even if DDT is no longer sprayed on kids playing at the beach and the rivers we catch our fish out of, environmental issues are among the most pressing of our day. (I am thinking of climate change, overpopulation, water tables, land use, urban sprawl, species extinction…)
That’s 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 character; he doesn’t give us his own impressions (unless you delve into the Notes at the back of the book, on which more is coming in a later post). I am a fan of the newer style of “creative nonfiction” exemplified most recently at pagesofjulia by Soundings, but that doesn’t mean the straightforward sort of biography is necessarily dry, either.
Souder brings his subject to life. His plentiful research (again see those Notes) clearly and exhaustively outlines Carson’s background and personality, and enigmas. For instance, he notes the weekend in college when she went one two dates with a boy from another school, and then as far as we can tell, never dated again. He writes eloquently of her strange single-mindedness, for example in reading Henry Williamson for his nature writing (which she loved) while totally ignoring his frank Nazi sympathies.
I will mention one angle that I noted as absent: there is nothing in Souder’s book about Carson suffering for her sex in the field of science. This seemed like a natural obstacle for her to have faced as a science writer in the 1950′s and 1960′s, and I wonder at its absence, particularly in comparison to Soundings, where Tharp’s professional limitations as a woman are one of the central issues. Did Carson not feel that she was held back? Did Souder miss something? His work feels thorough. I am hesitant to think he missed such an important angle, but it makes me wonder. There are a few references by her contemporaries to her status as a “spinster,” but even these don’t feel particularly biting. And apparently her critics entirely missed the lesbian question. Carson had a very close female friend for the final 10-12 years of her life with whom she exchanged ardent letters. Whether they had a sexual relationship is not known, although Souder makes the case that it’s unlikely; but that’s irrelevant in looking for contemporary criticism of her for it. It seems like such an obvious way for her detractors to attack her. I just wonder.
Despite my questions about the role sexism might have played in Carson’s career, this biography feels well-researched, thoughtful, and finely wrought. It can also serve as a fairly good quick introduction to the history of ecology, environmentalism, and nature writing: Aldo Leopold, John Muir, and Teddy Roosevelt all get put into context. In fact, context is one of its strengths (again, see yesterday’s post). I feel like I know Carson much better now, which is of course what I was looking for, but it was also an enjoyable read. I recommend On a Farther Shore, because Rachel Carson is every bit as relevant today as ever.