On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” she and her writings are largely forgotten, but at the time that they appeared, they were translated into several languages and widely read. “Silent Spring” was tremendously influential and in some ways, was the beginning of the environmental movement. William Souder’s biography of her is a timely reminder of all she accomplished and how she influenced what we do today.
Souder tells us that she was born into a poor family in a poor town near Pittsburg, Pa., in 1907. He also lets the reader know that she started writing articles for a children’s magazine at age 11.
After graduating high school, she went to the Pennsylvania College for Women in Pittsburg, where she first majored in English but then switched to biology because she was greatly influenced by her biology teacher. After graduating, she spent her summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., where she came to know and love the sea and the life in it. She earned her masters at Johns Hopkins and started working on a PhD but did not finish.
In 1935, she began working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) as a field aid. Her job consisted of writing and editing publications at the Baltimore office, where she eventually became editor-in-chief. During this period, on her own time, she began writing for newspapers and magazines, as well as working on books. She quit her job in 1952 because she felt able to support herself as a writer.
Her second book, the first book to make it big, “The Sea Around Us,” appeared in 1951, which led to a re-issuing, in 1952. Her first book, “Under the Sea Wind,” published in 1941, did not sell well. She was able to write two more books, both best sellers, “The Edge of the Sea,” in 1955 and the most famous of all, “Silent Spring,” in 1962, before dying of breast cancer in 1964.
Such are the basic facts of Rachel Carson’s life. William Souder makes her come alive to us in his nearly 400-page biography, “On a Farther Shore.”
She put great effort into developing a style of writing on scientific topics that made them available and enjoyable to the popular reader. As a result of this demanding, somewhat poetic style, she often took a long time to produce anything and missed a lot of deadlines, for which her publishers had to forgive her. They knew it would be worth the wait. Souder includes a few quotations from her work so we can see her style for ourselves.
The arts, including writing, are very difficult to enter into and in which to make a living. Although Carson had done a lot of scientific writing for the government, she had difficulty in establishing herself as a popular writer. Souder tells us of her efforts at making contacts, the rejections that she received and the many people she had to work with to get anything published. After she had published “The Sea Around Us” and was famous, she still had to hassle with editors and others in the publishing houses. Each person had his or her own idea of what was needed and how to do it.
Her three best selling books, “The Sea Around Us,” “The Edge of the Sea,” and especially, “Silent Spring” had great influence. She won prizes, was given honorary doctorates and was much in demand as a speaker.
However, she did not answer many of those calls because she was both a very busy and very private person.
Souder spends about one-third of his book telling us about the writing, publishing and reception of “Silent Spring.” The book served as a wake up call about the environmental dangers from the misuses of and the lingering, pervasive influences of DDT. She was both lauded and viciously attacked for what she said about this pesticide. In the end great changes resulted from her book, including the banning of DDT.
For reasons that Souder does not and probably cannot tell us, Carson apparently decided when she was an undergraduate that she was not interested in men and marriage.
As a result, she lived her whole life as a single woman and put her whole self into her writing. Despite its satisfactions, writing was a lonely existence. After she left USFWS, she spent her summers on Southport Island, Maine, where she met Stanley and Dorothy Freeman in 1952.
She and Dorothy became truly intimate friends almost immediately and remained so until Carson died.
Souder quotes excerpts from their correspondence, some of which are almost embarrassing to read in the way that they opened their souls when they spoke to each other.
While “On a Farther Shore” tells us about Carson’s life before her second book was issued and became an over-night best seller, it tells more about it after she became well known.
He shows us her personal and professional lives and her influences on people’s thinking and actions. Through it all, she comes alive as a thinking, caring person who put most of her life into her writing.
She had little intimate social contact except for Dorothy Freedman to whom she opened her soul. William Souder’s biography of Rachel Carson is well researched and written. It is an interesting and enjoyable read.