Ecology Rachel Carson
by
David K. Hecht
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0083

Introduction

Rachel Carson (b. 1907–d. 1964) was an American nature writer whose books played a major role in shaping and popularizing the modern environmental movement. Carson was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, in the southwest corner of the state, near Pittsburgh. She attended college at the nearby Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College). She moved east for graduate school, earning a master’s degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University. After financial circumstances forced her to abandon plans of obtaining a PhD, she worked for the Bureau of Fisheries (which later became the United States Fish and Wildlife Service). She rose steadily through the organization’s ranks throughout the latter half of the 1930s and the 1940s, eventually becoming the editor-in-chief of the service’s publications. During this time, she also began a career as a freelance writer, publishing frequently in magazines. Carson quickly garnered a reputation for having a rare combination of scientific expertise and an ability to render that knowledge in eloquent and engaging prose. Her full-time employment made it difficult to find time to write, but the nature of her work provided both contacts and material. Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, was published in 1941 to critical acclaim but limited commercial success. Her next book, The Sea around Us, published in 1951, met a very different fate. It became a best seller, and Carson’s increased fame allowed for a reissue of Under the Sea-Wind the following year to reach the best-seller charts as well. Her newfound success gave her sufficient financial means to resign from her job at the Fish and Wildlife Service and devote herself to writing full-time. In 1955 she published a third best-selling book on the sea, The Edge of the Sea. She was thus a well-established nature writer when, in 1958, she began research on her fourth book, Silent Spring. It is difficult to overstate the impact of this book. In it, Carson offered both a pointed critique of the overuse of chemical pesticides and a compelling advocacy of ecological principles. Published in 1962 to immediate fanfare and controversy, Silent Spring has reverberated through decades of political and cultural debate. Largely through this book, Carson has become one of the central figures in the history of American environmentalism. A large scholarly and popular literature has emerged to wrestle with the legacy of her life and work.

Carson’s Books

Rachel Carson was a prolific author, writing frequently for magazines throughout the 1940s and 1950s. A complete list of her work can be found in Linda Lear’s 1997 biography of her, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (see Lear 1997 under Biographical Treatments), pp. 585–587. Carson is remembered today primarily for her books—most of which had been serialized in some manner in magazines prior to publication. Carson 1962, her most famous work, was actually her fourth book, preceded by three best sellers. It was published less than two years before her death. Her fifth book, Carson 1965, appeared posthumously. For readers who know Carson only through Silent Spring, recognition of this broader professional context is crucial. Carson was a trained scientist who excelled as a communicator of science and as an advocate for both nature and for ecological thinking. These themes run throughout her work, and by 1962, she had already achieved significant fame and adulation. This history is crucial for understanding her impact as a writer and as an environmentalist. Carson was deeply invested in conveying a holistic sense of the natural world—for example, in demonstrating the fallacy inherent in any attempt to view human beings as somehow separate from nature. She sought to convey the beauty and intricacy of nature, always aiming to expose the interconnectedness of the environment and its inhabitants. These are themes that informed her work well before Silent Spring. In fact, one needs to understand this point of origin in order to grasp the entirety of Silent Spring, which was not simply a critique of pesticides but also part of her broader agenda of advancing a holistic and ecological perspective of the world. Listed in this section are the four books she published during her lifetime: Carson 1941, Carson 1951, Carson 1955, and Carson 1962, as well as two posthumously published works, Carson 1965 and Carson 1998.

Biographical Treatments

Biographers of Rachel Carson are faced with the challenge of a subject whose historical legacy is largely defined by one moment—the publication of Carson 1962 (cited under Carson’s Books)—but who in fact led a full, significant professional and intellectual life that was not wholly defined by that moment. One common theme of the works discussed below, therefore, is the recognition of Carson biographers that Silent Spring is but one episode—albeit a very important one—in her life. (The popular impression of Silent Spring as the defining piece of Carson’s legacy has no doubt been facilitated by her early death, at the age of fifty-six, less than two years after the book’s publication.) Carson’s biographers have explored her other professional work and have posited important connections between her earlier writing and Silent Spring. They have also situated her career in several important historical contexts, notably those of the Cold War and a rising environmental consciousness. Also important has been a richer understanding of Carson herself. Carson does not prove to be an easy subject to grasp, largely because of her carefully guarded privacy. The relative dearth of personal information she allowed into the public sphere helped facilitate an image of her—during and after her lifetime—as a shy, quiet woman and very much a “reluctant crusader.” In fact, Carson seems to have been a much more self-assured and confident person—while certainly private—than such images suggest. Also emergent is a nuanced picture of the challenges facing a woman in science in mid-century America. Exemplary in all these regards is Linda Lear’s work. Lear 1997 is the definitive account of Carson’s life and provides the starting point for any exploration of the subject. Lear has also remained active in preserving, promoting, and explaining Carson’s legacy. Listed in this section is Lear 1997, as well as a shorter article, Lear 1993. Also cited are two other biographies, Brooks 1972 and Lytle 2007, a collection of letters (Carson and Freeman 1996), and the work of two scholars who are particularly conscious of weaving biographical material into their analyses, Herron 2010 and Howarth 2005.

  • Brooks, Paul. 1972. The house of life: Rachel Carson at work. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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    One of the earliest biographies of Carson. The book combines biographical information with excerpts from her first four books. It was written by her former editor and close friend at Houghton Mifflin. Published in 1972 at the culmination of the battle to ban DDT.

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  • Carson, Rachel, and Dorothy Freeman. 1996. Always Rachel: The letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964. Boston: Beacon.

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    Partial correspondence between Carson and Dorothy Freeman, edited by Dorothy’s granddaughter Martha Freeman. Carson did not write an autobiography, and these letters with Dorothy—her closest friend during the final decade of her life—provide a revealing window.

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  • Herron, John P. 2010. Science and the social good: Nature, culture, and community, 1865–1965. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Uses Carson as one of three case studies exploring the interaction between scientific investigation and notions of the social good. Argues that these concepts were intertwined in Carson’s thinking from the outset of her career and should be regarded as fundamental to her work, not incidental to her particular subject choice in Silent Spring.

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  • Howarth, William. 2005. “Turning the tide: How Rachel Carson became a woman of letters.” American Scholar 74.3 (Summer): 42–52.

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    Biographical sketch that aims to complicate the Rachel Carson of popular memory. Follows the basic trajectory sketched out by Lear and other biographers, but offers readings of several aspects of her personal life that differ in small but significant ways from the scholarly consensus.

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  • Lear, Linda. 1993. “Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring.’” Environmental History Review 17.2 (Summer): 23–48.

    DOI: 10.2307/3984849Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Biographical sketch published by Lear several years prior to the full biography. Excellent introduction and overview. Would work very well in the classroom.

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  • Lear, Linda. 1997. Rachel Carson: Witness for nature. New York: Henry Holt.

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    The definitive biography. Provides extensive and accessible information about all aspects of Carson’s life and work: childhood, education, and early professional career in addition to her writing. Particularly valuable for its attention to Carson’s early works, the labor involved in writing Silent Spring, and the way that Carson’s social and professional lives overlapped.

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  • Lytle, Mark. 2007. The gentle subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the rise of the environmental movement. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Elegantly written and compact (yet thorough) biography that aims to set Carson and her life in the context of the emergent environmental movement. Excellent introduction to the subject for both scholars and general readers, and would also work very well in the classroom.

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Carson as Ecologist

Scholars have generally considered Carson’s writing to be characterized by an ecological sensibility. Most of their work on her focuses on Silent Spring; owing to this book’s political impact, this scholarly attention is not surprising. However, it is important to understand Silent Spring as being only one iteration of ideas that had long dominated her writing. Included in the subsections below are authors who focus on various stages of Carson’s career, as they explore the nature of the ecological themes she addressed. Although some scholars have questioned whether this ecological perspective is developed consistently throughout Silent Spring, it is clearly present in her other books. Moreover, Silent Spring contains—at the very least—some grounds for interpreting it ecologically. And there is little doubt that many of her readers saw it that way—and that much of her legacy is attributable to this interpretation of it.

Rhetorical Analyses

Scholars have taken a variety of approaches to examining Carson’s place in the history of ecology. One category is the “rhetorical analysis.” Examinations of this type are certainly cognizant of other writers and of the development of ecological thinking across the 20th century. But they are nevertheless focused on analyzing Carson’s work itself. Most of the biographical treatments cited above contain such analysis, as do other scholars. Bratton 2004 focuses on Carson’s pre-1962 work, while Garb 1996, Hynes 1989, and Waddell 2000 focus on Silent Spring, and Lear 1997 and Norwood 1987 focus on both. All, however, address this ecological perspective. Also included are the Rachel Carson Papers—an extensive collection of material relating to Carson’s life and work.

  • Bratton, Susan Power. 2004. Thinking like a mackerel: Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind as a source for a trans-ecotonal sea ethic. Ethics and the Environment 9.1 (Spring): 1–22.

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    Uses Aldo Leopold’s work as a starting point and compares Carson’s sea ethic to a more familiar “land ethic.” Finds many similarities, but emphasizes the important difference of spatial relationship, as the sea is by nature more foreign to human observers than land is.

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  • Garb, Yaakov. 1996. Change and continuity in environmental world-view: The politics of nature in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In Minding nature: The philosophers of ecology. Edited by David Macauley, 229–256. New York: Guilford.

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    Insightful article setting Silent Spring in the context of Carson’s rhetorical choices. Garb is particularly interested in the way that Carson presents “nature” in the book. This article explores how Carson presents her argument in a manner that underplayed several of its more radical implications. This choice both broadened its appeal and introduced some logical tensions within the book.

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  • Hynes, H. Patricia. 1989. The recurring Silent Spring. New York: Pergamon.

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    Perceptive and important analysis of the ecological underpinnings of Silent Spring. Hynes’s book is particularly notable for weaving together this analysis with insights from feminism and feminist theory.

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  • Lear, Linda. 1997. Rachel Carson: Witness for nature. New York: Henry Holt.

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    Among the many strengths of Lear’s biography is her analysis of Carson’s ecological perspective and her development of this theme in relationship to her entire body of work.

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  • Norwood, Vera L. 1987. The nature of knowing: Rachel Carson and the American environment. Signs 12.4 (Summer): 740–760.

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    Explores thematic continuities between Silent Spring and Carson’s other books, particularly in regard to the problem of how human activity affects the natural world. The article is an especially good source for examining the ways that Carson advanced a novel epistemology; it thus brings her in line with other changes in the history of science more generally, during and just after mid-20th century.

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  • Rachel Carson Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, CT.

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    Contains many book reviews of Carson’s books—Silent Spring, as well as those preceding it. These reviews often contain perspectives that differ from those found in the New York Times, Washington Post, and other widely accessible and digitized papers.

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  • Waddell, Craig, ed. 2000. And no birds sing: Rhetorical analyses of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Carbondale: Univ. of Southern Illinois Press.

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    Edited collection examining the way that Silent Spring works rhetorically, whether in historical context or with reference to particular literary traditions Carson engages with.

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Comparative Analyses

Another scholarly approach has to been to consider Carson’s ecological contributions through direct comparison with other intellectual and/or activist figures. Three of the examples discussed in this section highlight the relationship between urban and rural visions: Kinkela 2009, Rowan 2010, and Goddard 2011. One explores the politics of ecology (McCord 2008), one focuses on the aesthetics (Dunaway 2005), and one analyzes literary strategies (Corbett 2009). The particular orientations of these scholars vary, as some give equal time to the figures they compare, and others weigh one or the other more heavily. All of them, however, shed light on Carson as an ecological thinker by comparison with another related but distinct contributor to the same intellectual tradition.

  • Corbett, Steven J. 2009. Environmental (and audience) friendliness in Rachel Carson and Devra Davis: Where ecocriticism and rhetoric meet. Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 16.3 (Summer): 487–515.

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    Compares the way that Carson and the epidemiologist Devra Davis mix scientific and literary strategies in their attempts to communicate technical information. Is also interested in the way that Carson’s particular narrative strategies do not foreground personal experience.

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  • Dunaway, Finis. 2005. The ecological sublime. Raritan 25.2 (September): 78–97.

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    Article on Charles Pratt, whose photographs appeared in Carson’s posthumously published work, The Sense of Wonder. Dunaway’s principal subject is Pratt. But the article is useful for Carson scholars as well, for its insightful analyses of The Sense of Wonder and its helpful situating of both Pratt and Carson as invested in promoting the interdependence of humans and nature, rather than of nature as a thing apart.

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  • Goddard, Joe. 2011. Virginia Lee Burton’s little house in popular consciousness: Fuelling postwar environmentalism and antiurbanism? Journal of Urban History 37.4 (July): 562–582.

    DOI: 10.1177/0096144211403087Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Focuses on the popular mid-century children’s author Virginia Lee Burton. Goddard uses Carson as a point of comparison to argue for Burton’s role in shaping modern environmentalism. Identifies each with a skepticism of urban life and suggests that they both helped such skepticism become a salient feature of environmentalism.

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  • Kinkela, David. 2009. The ecological landscapes of Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs. American Quarterly 61.4 (Winter): 905–928.

    DOI: 10.1353/aq.0.0115Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares seminal works by Carson and Jacobs for their similarities in ecological perspective. Kinkela argues that these parallels are quite salient despite the “nature” focus of the first and the “urban” focus of the second. Addresses both the achievements and limits of their shared ecological vision.

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  • McCord, Peter A. 2008. Divergences on the left: The environmentalisms of Rachel Carson and Murray Bookchin. Left History 13.1 (Summer): 14–34.

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    Provides further depth on the Carson/Bookchin comparison suggested by Garb 1996 (cited under Rhetorical Analyses). McCord and Garb are in general accord, although their articles are somewhat different: McCord’s is more comparative and more oriented toward political rather than intellectual history.

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  • Rowan, Jamin Creed. 2010. The New York school of urban ecology: The New Yorker, Rachel Carson, and Jane Jacobs. American Literature 82.3 (September): 583–610.

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    Like Kinkela 2009, Rowan utilizes a comparison between Carson and Jacobs to explore the notion of ecology at mid-century. Both scholars see the two as intellectually compatible; Rowan’s analysis focuses more on Carson’s earlier works and is particularly interested in exploring the role of the New Yorker in helping mediate urban ecology.

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The Silent Spring Controversy

By 1962 Carson had achieved considerable fame and influence. Silent Spring, however, eclipsed these prior works. There are many reasons for this. Factors include the quality of the book itself, the timeliness of the issue, the skill of Carson and her agent at marketing, and the extensive, vitriolic counterattack mounted against it. In fact, it is possible to identify six distinct news events that kept Carson and Silent Spring in public—and hence political—view between 1962 and 1964. These events consisted of the serialization of excerpts from the book in The New Yorker (Carson 1962); the publication of the book itself in September 1962; a CBS Reports episode (see McMullen 1963) on pesticides in April 1963; the release of President’s Science Advisory Committee 1963 on pesticides the following month, which was followed shortly by congressional hearings at which Carson testified. Finally, Carson’s death in April 1964 occasioned a round of editorials (see Leonard 1964) and testimonials in which both she and her legacy were again considered and debated.

Book Reviews

Book reviews constitute an excellent source for studying the Silent Spring controversy. Owing to the political nature of both the book and the cultural discourse it inspired, most reviewers offered an opinion on the accuracy of Carson’s claims about pesticides. But the reviews are interesting for reasons well beyond the matter of “keeping score”—i.e., of tallying how many people agreed and disagreed with her. Certainly, it is interesting and important to get a sense of the relative levels of support and criticism Silent Spring received. But the reviews also weigh in—sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly—on a range of issues about ecology, scientific authority, conservation, and the interplay between local and expert knowledge. Listed in this section are two examples of the many critical reviews written by scientists connected with, or sympathetic to, the chemical pesticide industry: Baldwin 1962 and Stare 1963. Critical reviews also appeared in major magazines, as evidenced by Time 1962. Silent Spring received many positive reviews as well, such as Atkinson 1962 and Bates 1962. Another important source is the Rachel Carson Papers, which contains many more reviews—mostly supportive, and frequently from smaller-circulation newspapers.

  • Atkinson, Brooks. 1962. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” is called “The Rights of Man” of our time. New York Times, 2 April, 44.

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    Supportive review that sides with Carson and also criticizes her detractors for being too extreme. Illustrative in this regard, as many reviews not only discuss the book but also reference the debate about it.

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  • Baldwin, I. L. 1962. Chemicals and pests: Man’s use, misuse, and abuse of the products of science determine whether these valuable assets are also harmful. Science 137.3535 (September): 1042–1043.

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    One of the most prominent reviews attacking Carson, although not as personal or one-sided as many of the others. Acknowledges that misuse of pesticides has occurred but feels that Carson has overstated her case and argues that much of the authority of Silent Spring derives from her rhetorical skill, not her science.

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  • Bates, Marston. 1962. Man and other pests. The Nation, 6 October.

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    Strong defense of Carson’s book, and a good example of how support for her message was based in both awareness of pesticides and of the larger ecological picture she develops.

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  • Rachel Carson papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

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    As with Carson’s earlier books, the Rachel Carson Papers at Yale archive has an extensive collection of reviews. This is perhaps the best source for accessing public discourse about Silent Spring at the regional and local levels. The bulk of the reviews are supportive—either agreeing with her outright, or at least validating Silent Spring as a worthwhile contribution to an important debate.

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  • Stare, Frederick J. 1963. Some comments on Silent Spring. Nutrition Reviews 21.1 (January): 1–4.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1753-4887.1963.tb04671.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Another prominent attack on Silent Spring. Much more dismissive than Baldwin’s review. Stare provides an excellent example of a scientist who unabashedly advocates pesticides as a relatively unproblematic technological boon. He thus represents a visible group of Carson detractors who not only disagreed with her on the specific issue of pesticides but also with her underlying assumptions about technology and the impossibility of controlling nature.

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  • Time Magazine. 1962. Pesticides: The price for progress. Time, 28 September.

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    Another highly visible and highly critical review. A good example of the personal and often misogynist nature of the attacks on Silent Spring; it aims to challenge not only the points Carson raises but also her authority to speak on the subject at all.

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Reception Studies

Much good work exists on the reception of Silent Spring. The intense public debate about the book—as well as on the general matter of pesticides—was influenced by a range of factors: the contested nature of scientific authority, concerns over nuclear fallout and Cold War expertise, a rising environmental consciousness, gendered language and assumptions, questions over what constitutes proof, adjudication of what (and who) defines the public interest, and the complicated roles of industry, regulation, and profit in influencing decisions and discourse. Because of this extensive and wide-ranging significance, reception studies of Carson are compelling both for what they reveal about her life and work, as well as for their function as a window onto public discourse at a crucial moment of renegotiation in the relationship among science, politics, and the public. Listed in this section are the relevant chapters from Lear 1997, which cover a very complete account of the chronology as well as the nature of reaction to Silent Spring. Also of note are two articles that explore the significant role of gender in shaping the political dynamics around the book—Hazlett 2004 and Smith 2001. Mart 2010 and Murphy 2005 trace some of the consequences of the book, and Corbett 2001 and Hecht 2011 explore how images of Carson herself played into the discourse surrounding Silent Spring. Kroll 2001 analyzes the dynamics of image dissemination, tracing the specific mechanisms by which the book reached different audiences.

  • Corbett, Julia B. 2001. Women, scientists, agitators: Magazine portrayal of Rachel Carson and Theo Colburn. Journal of Communication 51.4 (December): 720–749.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.2001.tb02904.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Compares the portrayal of Carson and Theo Colburn, author of Our Stolen Future (1997). Is particularly interested in the way that gender and outsider status shapes, and is shaped by, the reception of their books.

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  • Hazlett, Maril. 2004. “Woman vs. man vs. bugs”: Gender and popular ecology in early reactions to Silent Spring. Environmental History 9.4 (October): 701–729.

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    Excellent analysis of the ways that notions of gender and ecology helped shape, and were reshaped by, the reception of Silent Spring.

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  • Hecht, David K. 2011. Constructing a scientist: Expert authority and public images of Rachel Carson. Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 41.3 (Summer): 277–302.

    DOI: 10.1525/hsns.2011.41.3.277Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the way that Carson emerged as a scientific icon through debates over Silent Spring. Argues that through defending her legitimacy as a scientist, supporters helped create a new, more democratic model of scientific authority.

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  • Kroll, Gary. 2001. The “silent springs” of Rachel Carson: Mass media and the origins of modern environmentalism. Public Understanding of Science 10.4 (October): 403–420.

    DOI: 10.1088/0963-6625/10/4/304Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study of the initial dissemination of Silent Spring. Argues that exploring the different formats Carson’s book was presented in is central to understanding its impact. Traces the different images that appeared in (1) the June 1962 New Yorker serialization, (2) the September 1962 publication of the book, and (3) the April 1963 CBS Reports episode on pesticides (see Silent Spring Controversy).

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  • Lear, Linda. 1997. Rachel Carson: Witness for nature. New York: Henry Holt.

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    Excellent description of the reaction—supportive and critical—to Silent Spring, as well as the myriad factors that ensured continuing debate.

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  • Mart, Michelle. 2010. Rhetoric and response: The cultural impact of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Left History 14.2 (Spring/Summer): 31–57.

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    Aims to both establish and explain a paradox: that Silent Spring was both a success and a disappointment. Argues that reaction to Carson’s book ultimately emphasized the less radical elements of her critique. This helps explain the fact that Silent Spring had a relatively moderate—rather than radical—impact on political and economic institutions.

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  • Murphy, Patricia Coit. 2005. What a book can do: The publication and reception of Silent Spring. Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press.

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    Provides a thorough account of the publication and reception of Silent Spring. Murphy’s particular interest lies in how the form of the argument—a book—conditioned public discourse and opened a space for debate.

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  • Smith, Michael B. 2001. “Silence Miss Carson! Science, gender, and the reception of ‘Silent Spring.’” Feminist Studies 27.3 (Fall): 733–752.

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    Thorough and insightful exploration of the role of gender in the reception of Silent Spring.

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Pesticides

Most Carson scholars recognize that Silent Spring was not simply a critique of pesticides, but a larger argument for ecological perspectives; this dimension is rarely far from any analysis of her life and work. However, Silent Spring did raise immediate policy concerns about the regulation of DDT and other chemical pesticides, concerns that could be at least nominally detached from the larger intellectual picture. The following works address these debates.

Before Silent Spring

There was an important cultural debate about pesticides, but it had been ongoing for some time before Silent Spring. Carson’s book is certainly a landmark, but it can only be understood as part (albeit a large part) of this continuing discourse. While none of the following works focus exclusively on the pre-1962 era, all devote significant space to it. Carson appears in each of these accounts to varying degrees, but neither she nor Silent Spring is the center of any of them. Instead, these accounts help provide a sense of the overall history and debate about pesticides before 1962. They thus help explain the intellectual and political contexts to which both Carson and her readers were responding. Listed below are works that address these debates. Two of them—Dunlap 2008 and Kinkela 2011—address the history and science of DDT specifically. The other four—Blu Buhs 2002, Davis 2008, Russell 2001, and Whorton 1974—are concerned with pesticides more broadly. Davis 2008 focuses on the scientific history, Russell 2001 on image making and rhetoric; Blu Buhs 2002 and Whorton 1974 are focused on pesticide policy and practice—two on DDT specifically (Dunlap 2008, Kinkela 2011), and four on pesticides more broadly (Blu Buhs 2002, Davis 2008, Russell 2001, Whorton 1974).

  • Blu Buhs, Joshua. 2002. The fire ant wars: Nature and science in the pesticide controversies of the late twentieth century. Isis 93.3 (September): 377–400.

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    Uses the controversy over fire ant eradication programs—controversy that predates Carson and that she addresses in Silent Spring—to explore the politics of pesticide use, nature, and science in mid-century America.

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  • Davis, Frederick Rowe. 2008. Unraveling the complexities of joint toxicity of multiple chemicals at the Tox lab and the FDA. Environmental History 13.4 (October): 674–683.

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    Considers Carson in the context of the history of toxicology, and particularly risk assessments and the issue of chemical interactions—a key point in Silent Spring.

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  • Dunlap, Thomas. 2008. DDT, Silent Spring, and the rise of environmentalism: Classic texts. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

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    Collection of excerpts from primary sources about DDT—both before and after Silent Spring. Together with the excellent introduction and chapter guides, this book is a very good starting point either for the Silent Spring debate (chapter 4) or the history of DDT more generally.

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  • Kinkela, David. 2011. DDT and the American century: Global health, environmental politics, and the pesticide that changed the world. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

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    History of DDT, focusing on both the pre- and post-Silent Spring eras. Particularly notable for its balanced approach, and for its placing of DDT in a global context.

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  • Russell, Edmund. 2001. War and nature: Fighting humans and insects with chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Contains a wealth of good information about the pre-Silent Spring eras of pesticide use, as well as an intriguing argument about the intertwined history of pesticide and military campaigns from the 1910s to the 1960s.

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  • Whorton, James C. 1974. Before Silent Spring: Pesticides and public health in pre-DDT America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Traces the history of pesticides not just before Silent Spring but before DDT. This is critical history toward understanding Silent Spring, as much of the faith in technological advance to which Carson responds has roots deeper than can be found exclusively in the DDT years.

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Silent Spring

As with the Before Silent Spring section, the chronological divide here is not absolute, as several of these works do include material about the earlier period. But these works all shed light on the political fallout of Silent Spring. Lear 1992 and Wang 2008 focus on specific institutional responses, whereas Dunlap 1981 and Graham 1970 tell more general stories. Also included in this section are two other works on pesticides—Bookchin 1962 and Rudd 1964—that appeared at approximately the same time as Silent Spring.

The Cold War Context

Silent Spring was published at a critical moment in the Cold War, and a number of scholars have explored the connection between Carson’s book and this larger context. Perhaps the most important connection involves nuclear testing. The latter half of the 1950s saw increasing worries about nuclear fallout, worries that would ultimately lead to the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. Fallout was critically important to the shaping of modern environmentalism, as it illuminated the possibility of adverse health effects stemming from a threat that was both invisible and accumulative. Moreover, the history of official minimization of the risk of radioactive fallout helped condition audiences to be skeptical of the assertions of experts on technical matters more generally. In addition, the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded in October of 1962, just weeks after Silent Spring appeared; this was just one of several early 1960s events that had raised tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. While many studies of Carson and Silent Spring reference the Cold War context, the following works are notable for their particular focus on it. Glotfelty 2000 and Russell 2001 explore the role of military metaphors in presenting pesticides to the public. Wang 2008 discusses the role of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) in the Silent Spring controversy. Lear 1997 discusses the impact of the atomic bomb on Carson’s thinking, and Lutts 1985 analyzes the way that Carson capitalized on existing fears of nuclear fallout in making her case. Newell 2003 explores the connection between gender, science, and literature.

  • Glotfelty, Cheryll. 2000. Cold war, Silent Spring: The trope of war in modern environmentalism. In And no birds sing: Rhetorical analyses of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Edited by Craig Waddell, 157–173. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press.

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    Explores the use of war and military metaphors within Silent Spring, suggesting that it provides a significant parallel between pro- and anti-pesticide rhetoric.

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  • Lear, Linda. 1997. Rachel Carson: Witness for nature. New York: Henry Holt.

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    Lear argues that the atomic bomb was a turning point in Carson’s thinking about ecology. See, for example, pp. 310–311 and pp. 373–374.

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  • Lutts, Ralph. 1985. Chemical fallout: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, radioactive fallout, and the environmental movement. Environmental Review 9.3 (Autumn): 210–225.

    DOI: 10.2307/3984231Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Explores the way that Silent Spring capitalized on preexisting fears of radioactive fallout. By creating a parallel between fallout and the dangers of pesticide overuse, Carson increased the accessibility and emotional impact of her book.

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  • Newell, Diana. 2003. Home truths: Women writing science in the nuclear dawn. European Journal of American Culture 22.3 (October): 193–203.

    DOI: 10.1386/ejac.22.3.193/0Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Carson is one of two case studies (Judith Merril is the other) used to explore how women negotiated science and literary genres in their popular writings during the Cold War.

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  • Russell, Edmund. 2001. War and nature: Fighting humans and insects with chemicals from World War I to Silent Spring. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Russell’s book concerns the interplay between military and pesticide metaphors in the 20th century; his final chapters take this story from periods of “hot” war (World War I and World War II) to “cold.”

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  • Wang, Zuoyue. 2008. In Sputnik’s shadow: The President’s Science Advisory Committee and Cold War America. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

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    Places the history of the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) report in the history of science policy advising during the early to mid-Cold War.

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Legacy

Rachel Carson has left a considerable legacy. Silent Spring continues to frame debates about pesticides, and is not infrequently cited in discussions about other sorts of environmental risk. Additionally, both Carson and her book are often invoked in advocacy of contemporary political positions. It may be possible to view all celebrations (or denunciations) of her life and work as political in some regard, but increasingly in the early 21st century she has become a figure deployed by both pro- and anti-environmentalists to illustrate their points. The intensity of these debates shows no sign of abating, nor does Carson’s rhetorical role in them. Of the works listed in this section, two edited collections (Matthiessen 2007, Sideris and Moore 2008) are largely supportive, as are Oreskes and Conway 2010 and Weir 2007. Marco, et al. 1987 is less so, and Rosenberg 2004 is an example of a skeptical take. The Competitive Enterprise Institute and Rubin 1994 are examples of skepticism as part of political critiques.

Education

Interest in Rachel Carson has been increasing over the past fifteen to twenty years, thanks in no small part to Linda Lear’s work. Much of the resulting research is quite accessible—Lear’s work included—and would thus be suitable for a variety of audiences: general, pedagogical, and scholarly. In addition to this research, there has been a plethora of other material produced, from films (Goodwin 1993) to plays (Lee 2009) to children’s literature (Ehrlich 2003, Locker and Bruchac 2004). Also listed in this section are Moyers 2007, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, A Book that Changed the World. All of this work both reflects, and further shapes, Carson’s iconic status.

Preservation

Since Carson’s death, a number of people have worked to preserve and promote her legacy. This has resulted in a wide range of sources and information available in diverse venues. Three of the items listed here are archival collections and of primary interest to scholars: the Dorothy Freeman Collection at Bates College, the Linda Lear Collection of Rachel Carson Books and Papers at Connecticut College, and Rachel Carson Papers at Yale University. Also of interest is an excellent website that chronicles her life, Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson; this site provides a good introduction to Carson, as well as an excellent guide for further research and reading. The Rachel Carson Homestead preserves Carson’s childhood home. Two other organizations—the Rachel Carson Council and the Rachel Carson Institute, Chatham University are involved in promoting her legacy and her goals.

Related Readings

Like many important historical figures, Rachel Carson’s life and work touches on a number of themes. This is particularly true of the debate over Silent Spring, which is relevant—at a minimum—to the history of science, environmental activism, feminism, and the cultural changes of the 1960s. The literature on each is voluminous, and each of the works cited below addresses one or more of these themes. Dunlap 2004 and Gottlieb 2005 provide histories of environmentalism. Brick 1998 provides a concise history of the 1960s. Agar 2008 provides a model for understanding the changing role of science during that decade. Egan 2007 and Moore 2008 both discuss scientific activism of the time. Des Jardins 2010 and Rossiter 1995 analyze the experience of women in science. All of these works are helpful in setting Carson’s work in larger contexts.

  • Agar, Jon. 2008. What happened in the sixties. British Journal for the History of Science 41.4 (December): 567–600.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0007087408001179Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Proposes a model for understanding the history of science amidst the social and cultural changes of the 1960s, focusing on overlapping dynamics of institutional changes, social movements, and focus on the self. Agar terms Carson exemplary of one of his “waves” of change; more broadly, his article usefully contextualizes the changes wrought by Silent Spring in the context of other developments in both science and society at the time.

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  • Brick, Howard. 1998. Age of contradiction: American thought and culture in the 1960s. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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    Mentions Carson only briefly, but provides a succinct and compelling intellectual history of the 1960s, helping to put her ecological ideas in the broadest possible frame.

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  • Des Jardins, Julie. 2010. The Madame Curie complex: The hidden history of women in science. New York: Feminist Press at the City Univ. of New York.

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    Brief but insightful treatment of Carson; useful primarily for the perspective offered on the history of women’s experiences in science both before and after Carson.

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  • Dunlap, Thomas R. 2004. Faith in nature: Environmentalism as religious quest. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

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    Excellent account of the role of religious sensibilities in the history of environmentalism.

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  • Egan, Michael. 2007. Barry Commoner and the science of survival: The remaking of American environmentalism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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    Excellent biography of Barry Commoner that makes links between its subject and Carson. Situates Commoner in the context of the science information movement, which provides important grounding for understanding the success of Silent Spring. Also traces the importance of both the Cold War and the politics of knowledge creation for the origins of environmentalism.

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  • Gottlieb, Robert. 2005. Forcing the spring: The transformation of the American environmental movement. Washington, DC: Island.

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    Includes a section on Carson in its history of the environmental movement. Originally published in 1993, the revised edition updates the history to include more recent events.

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  • Moore, Kelly. 2008. Disrupting science: Social movements, American scientists, and the politics of the military, 1945–1975. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Explores the different ways that scientists engaged in political activism in the decades after World War II. Mentions Carson only briefly, but a compelling portrayal of the larger context of socially minded scientists she was a part of.

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  • Rossiter, Margaret W. 1995. Women scientists in America: Before affirmative action, 1940–1972. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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    Second of three volumes of Rossiter’s foundational study of women scientists in the United States. This volume covers most of the years in which Carson was active as both a government scientist and science writer.

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