On A Farther Shore|
The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
Crown Publishers, 512pp, 2012, $30
It's hard to believe that Rachel Carson's most politically powerful work is now 50 years old...but that's what the sales medallion on the dust jacket of this weighty biography announces: "published on the 50th anniversary of SILENT SPRING."
Born in 1907, Rachel Louise Carson grew up poor on a 60 acre farm in western Pennsylvania and graduated from high school in 1925 at the top of her class. Encouraged by her teachers, she attended Chatham University (then Pennsylvania College for Women)--majoring in English because of her interest in writing. Discovering that she had no flare for imaginative fiction...she switched her major to biology "so she would have something to write about".
She graduated Magna Cum Laude, took a summer course at the Marine Biological Laboratory (Woods Hole) and in the fall of 1929 continued her studies at Johns Hopkins, earning a MA in zoology in 1932. There were precious few jobs for a female biologist so she took a teaching position.
When her father died suddenly in 1935 she was further pressed financially and through the encouragement of a college advisor landed a part time job at the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries in Washington where she wrote radio copy for a weekly educational series focused on aquatic life.
In 1936 she outscored all other applicants on the civil service exam and became the second woman to be hired full-time at the Bureau. Her title was "junior aquatic biologist." The next year, her then boss, Elmer Higgins, asked her to "write something of a general sort about the sea". She wrote an elegant essay called "The World of Waters". Higgins, to his credit, told Carson that the piece was too good for a "minor government production" and suggested that she submit it to the Atlantic Monthly. After some procrastination, she did. Retitled "Undersea" the piece describes a journey along the ocean floor, from an aquatic creature's point of view. Simon and Schuster was impressed and suggested she expand the article into a book. During the next three plus years she juggled work, supporting her mother and two nieces after her sister died, and writing and research. Under the Sea Wind - A Naturalist's Picture of Ocean Life was published in 1941. It was well-reviewed but sold anemically. Clearly, the reading public had more pressing business that year.
Her second book, The Sea Around Us was excerpted in the New Yorker Magazine and Published by Oxford University Press in 1951and won the National Book Award among many others. The book's success meant that finally she has enough income to resign from government service to write full time. In the spring of 1952 she bought land on Southport Island in Sheepscot Bay, Maine where she would build a cottage and spend summers writing and exploring the tidal waters she could see from her window. When she revised Under the Sea Wind and published it as The Edge of the Sea, it was another best seller.
But the book she would be most remembered for is Silent Spring, warning against the over-use of DDT (developed during World War II was DDT to protect U.S. troops fighting in tropical climates). After the war it was used enthusiastically on food crops and woodlands all over America. Consequences were unexamined for 15 years. Then woman who brought the idea of ecological relationships...that all life was interconnected and interdependent...wrote the book that would eclipse all her other work. In 1962 Silent Spring was published and her private life of research and writing was a thing of the past. The book produced an uproar and in 1963, Carson (already cancer-riddled) was called to testify before Congress, not once but twice. She died in 1964.
William Souder's biography is exhaustive in its detail. Ninety-nine pages of acknowledgements, notes and indices follow the almost 400 pages of text. Souder paints his subject with a broad brush when he is dealing with Carson's personal life and extravagant detail when addressing her career--no doubt the difference between the public record which he has mined and the ephemeral nature of a passionate life. Not always an easy read (the book demands stamina), Souter has, nevertheless, done factual justice to one of this country's courageous female pioneers.