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.

  • Carson, Rachel. 1941. Under the sea-wind: A naturalist’s picture of ocean life. New York: Simon and Shuster.

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    Carson’s first book, and, according to Lear, her personal favorite (see the website). Carson was initially disappointed with the book’s sales, but it became a best seller upon reissue in 1952.

  • Carson, Rachel. 1951. The sea around us. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Carson’s second book, and first best seller. The Sea around Us was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and it won the National Book Award in 1952. It enabled her to leave the US Fish and Wildlife Service and become a full-time writer.

  • Carson, Rachel. 1955. The edge of the sea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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    Carson’s third book focused on the interaction between sea and land. The book was not quite the sensation that The Sea around Us had been, but it was still a best seller and a National Book Award nominee.

  • Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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    Carson’s fourth and most famous book. Serialized in The New Yorker in June 1962 and published the following September, it offered a thorough and eloquent critique of the overuse of pesticides. Though clearly more polemic in tone than her earlier books, it retains the same combination of literary eloquence and scientific authority.

  • Carson, Rachel. 1965. The sense of wonder. New York: Harper and Row.

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    Posthumously published book, derived from the previously published article “Help Your Child to Wonder.”

  • Carson, Rachel. 1998. Lost woods: The discovered writings of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon.

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    A collection of Carson’s shorter writings, mostly speeches and unpublished works, compiled by Linda Lear. Offers a more complete picture of her development as a writer, scientist, and thinker than the major books alone can provide.

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