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Rachel Carson, considered one of America’s premiere writers on science and nature, is often credited with beginning the environmental movement in the United States with the publication of her book Silent Spring (1962). Her nonfiction works were timely and provocative, pressing readers to consider the beauties of nature, the interconnectedness of all living creatures, and humanity’s impact on natural systems.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An Important Bond
Carson was born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, a town near Pittsburgh, in the valley of the Allegheny River. The family lived on a farm, but Carson’s father, Robert Warden Carson, made his living as an electrician and an insurance agent. He also speculated, without much success, in real estate, subdividing the family’s land into building lots, most of which went unsold. Her mother, Maria McLean Carson, is generally credited as one of the most important influences on Carson. Although Carson was the youngest of three siblings, she eventually assumed responsibility for her ailing mother and for her older sister’s daughters and grandson as well.
Carson was a bright student in elementary and high school, though she was often absent because of illness and her mother’s concern about contagious diseases in the schools. Carson was a solitary child who spent much of her time outdoors, but her frequent school absences helped her develop a firm bond with her mother, who often walked with her around the family’s farmland, pro viding natural-history instruction for her daughter.
Working in the Natural Sciences
Carson wanted to be a writer from an early age. She began publishing at the age of thirteen with a series of short stories in St. Nicholas, a magazine that had built a reputation for discovering adolescent authors, among them William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although Carson had intended to study English at the Pennsylvania College for Women, her interest in the natural sciences led her to change her major to biology despite her advisor’s warning that writing afforded women greater opportunities.
After graduating in 1929, Carson briefly worked at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, and in 1932, earned an M.A. from Johns Hopkins University. She was subsequently hired by the United States Bureau of Fisheries, where she wrote and edited pamphlets, booklets, and radio scripts and eventually, in 1949, became the editor in chief of publications for the Fish and Wildlife Service. During her tenure with the government, Carson began publishing articles as a freelance writer to supplement her income. The success of “Undersea,” a short piece which appeared in the Atlantic in 1937, prompted her to write her first book, Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life (1941). In 1952, after writing five more books, including the National Book Award-winning The Sea Around Us, Carson left the Fish and Wildlife Service to devote herself full time to her own writing.
A Pioneer of Environmentalism
Although Carson was only able to publish two more books before her death in 1964, she produced, during this time, her most famous work, Silent Spring. The book was an immediate sensation that brought both critical praise and attacks from the chemical industry; it focuses on the harmful effects of pesticides, used frequently in agriculture, on both wildlife and humans. This book has since been widely acknowledged as one of the most important founding works of the modern environmental movement, and in 1980, President Jimmy Carter recognized Carson’s contributions to the environmental movement by posthumously awarding her the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many of Carson’s books remain in print, and she continues to receive critical and scholarly attention.
Works in Literary Context
An influential figure in the environmental movement, Car son is best known as the author of Silent Spring, a controversial study of pesticide misuse, and as a crusader in the fight for conservation and ecological awareness. A marine biologist and conservationist who emphasized the interconnectedness of all creation in her writings, Carson attempted to educate readers by instilling in them her own love of nature. Although primarily recognized for the scientific accuracy of her nonfiction, Carson also employed such literary devices as metaphor and allusion in her work, leading some critics to classify her as a participant in the naturalist school of literature.
Literary Technique in Scientific
Works Carson has been noted for using imaginative techniques to bring her scientific works to life. Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, which focused on the dynamics of the marine world as experienced by a salmon, a migratory waterfowl, and an eel, employed creative anthropomorphism that enabled Carson to create an emotional bond between readers and her wildlife protagonists. Another of her works on sea life, The Sea Around Us, which won the National Book Award for nonfiction and became the basis for an Academy Award-winning documentary, made use of literary allusions, analogies, and occasionally a first-person plural point of view to ease readers into what was, for many, unfamiliar material. The National Book Award judges called The Sea Around Us ”a work of scientific accuracy presented with poetic imagination and such clarity of style and originality of approach as to win and hold every reader’s attention.” Likening her descriptions of the sea to those of Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville, reviewers asserted that Carson’s use of color, sound, and an objective tone convincingly evinced the sights, rhythms, and cycles of the underwater world. Her best known work, Silent Spring, also made use of literary technique, opening with a fable and taking its title from a poem by John Keats.
Influence on Environmentalism
Carson is often credited with playing a seminal role in the formation of the modern environmental movement. One commentator notes that Silent Spring ”may have changed the course of history,” a declaration echoed by the Internet site of the United States Environmental Protection Agency. The book is regularly included at or near the top of lists of the most influential environmental texts of the twentieth century. This influence was recognized at the time of publication, not only in the positive public reaction to the book but also in the extraordinary efforts of the chemical industry to discredit it. The regard in which Silent Spring and its author are held has not diminished in the years since her death. Craig Waddell, in the introduction to his critical anthology And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Silent Spring (2000), assembles an impressive list of testimonies to the importance of Silent Spring as the seminal text of modern environmentalism.
Works in Critical Context
Carson has generally been praised by reviewers and scholars for both the solid factual basis of her works and the literary merit of her writing. Many of her works sparked controversy, which is evident in the diverse reactions to the messages of her books. However, critics tended to accept that Carson’s writings were both provocative and timely.
The Edge of the Sea
The Edge of the Sea (1955), which focused on the tidal zones and shallow waters of the United States’ eastern seaboard, was a sequel of sorts to Carson’s National Book Award-winner, The Sea Around Us. While some critics deemed the book of lesser literary value than its predecessor, others cited Carson’s use of imagery, repetition, alliteration, and rhythm as evidence of the work’s merit. Carol B. Gartner, who has compared Carson to Henry David Thoreau, noted that the opening passage of the book can be read as a poem: ”And so in that enchanted place / on the threshold of the sea / the realities that possessed my mind / were far from those of the land world / I had left an hour before.” Like Car son’s other books, The Edge of the Sea emphasizes the interdependence and sanctity of all forms of life; Charles J. Rojo observed: ”To Miss Carson, the edge of the sea conveys a haunting sense of communicating some universal truth as yet beyond our grasp; a sense that through this region, in which Life began, we can approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.”
Carson is best known for Silent Spring, the last of her books to be published in her lifetime. Silent Spring,an expose of the dangers of pesticides, has been compared to such works of social consciousness as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Sinclair Lewis’s The Jungle (1906). The book’s greatest achievement, however, was in alerting international audiences to the dangers of pollution. Loren Eiseley called Silent Spring a devastating, heavily documented, relentless attack upon human carelessness, greed, and irresponsibility—an irresponsibility that has let loose upon man and the country side a flood of dangerous chemicals in a situation which, as Miss Carson states, is without parallel.” Representatives of pesticide companies and other industry-related interest groups denounced Silent Spring and questioned Carson’s credibility, but Carson’s findings were substantiated by other scientists, including the Science Advisory Committee appointed by President John F. Kennedy.
- Archer, Jules. To Save the Earth: The American Environmental Movement. New York: Viking, 1998.
- Brooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.
- Gartner, Carol B. Rachel Carson. New York: Ungar, 1983.
- Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Holt, 1997.
- McKay, Mary A. Rachel Carson. Boston: Twayne, 1993.
- Ravage, Barbara. Rachel Carson: Protecting Our Environment. Austin, Tex.: Raintree Steck-Vaughn, 1997.
- Sterling, Philip. Sea and Earth: The Life of Rachel Carson. New York: Crowell, 1970.
- Waddell, Craig, ed. And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Silent Spring. Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000.
- Brooks, Paul. ”The Courage of Rachel Carson.” Audubon 89 (January 1987): 14-15.
- Wareham, Wendy. ”Rachel Carson’s Early Years.” Carnegie (November/December 1986): 20-34.
- Graham, Frank, Jr. Rachel Carson. Retrieved October 14, 2008, from http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/perspect/carson.htm.
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