Featured Author: Rachel Carson

Rachel CarsonRachel Carson (1907–1964) is so closely identified with Silent Spring (1962) that it surprises many readers to learn of her earlier literary successes. As one of the first female professionals at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she published a trilogy of books about the oceans in the 1940s and 1950s. All were successful, and one—The Sea Around Us (1951)—won the National Book Award and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for a then-record 86 weeks. Think Jacques Cousteau, but in print—it would have been more than a good life’s work to introduce so many Americans to the glories of marine ecology.

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But history had larger plans for Carson. She had been following reports of problems with the wonder-pesticide DDT almost since its introduction in the wake of World War II. Had the chemical been used in small doses for localized control of pestilent mosquitoes (as it currently is across much of the developing world), it might never have become a problem. Instead, American farmers were using as much as two pounds of the poison per acre on crops like cotton, and its effects were showing up throughout the food chain, especially in birds. Carson collected the data, and in a great imaginative feat put it together in her stunning metaphor of a spring gone silent. The book was serialized in The New Yorker prior to its publication, and despite a huge assault from the chemical industry, much of it predicated on the idea that a lady writer was likely to be hysterical in her reactions, she carried the day. Not only did the U.S. move to restrict the chemical, thus saving our national symbol, the bald eagle, but more importantly, the idea had been firmly planted that perhaps modernity was not as problem-free as we might have imagined. From that notion sprang most of what has followed for environmentalism.

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