Nature writer and marine biologist Rachel Carson (b. 1907–d. 1964) shared her passion for the natural world through her written works. She always knew she would be a writer and her scientific knowledge became the subject of multiple works. Her best known book, Silent Spring, appeared in 1962 and questioned the idea that human beings could control nature. The book sparked enormous controversy, some of which focused on Carson’s gender, but also brought positive attention to a government employee who had enjoyed success in her poetic descriptions of the sea. Carson took the growing concerns about chemical pesticides and made an eloquent polemic against the unfettered use of such chemicals. Born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, Rachel Carson spent time outdoors, graduated at the top of her high school and college classes, and attained a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. Carson abandoned plans to get a PhD when she needed to work to support her family. She joined the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries as an analyst and staff writer, only the second woman to be hired by the bureau. While there, Carson continued to write freelance articles, one of which led to her first book when publishing house Simon & Schuster encouraged her to turn the essay into Under the Sea Wind (1941). Carson spent several years trying to transition to a full-time writing career, publishing a second book about the sea in 1952. The Sea Around Us achieved major success. In 1952 it won the National Book Award and the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. It prompted the re-release of Under the Sea Winds which also became a bestseller. Carson then quit her government position and committed to writing full time. The Edge of the Sea (1955) completed her sea trilogy and was well received. The next project would be an examination of synthetic pesticides. The publication of Silent Spring attracted a great deal of attention and controversy. Members of the scientific community split between those who supported Carson’s warning and those who challenged both her cautious concern and status as a scientist. The chemical industry reacted quickly and vehemently. But the book addressed the anxieties of many members of the public as they saw the increasing hazards of chemical use around them. The book did more than just bring the potential problem of chemicals to the general public’s attention. It also changed understandings of the natural world. Here, Carson’s work popularized ideas like ecological systems, trophic chains, and biological accumulation. She appeared on CBS Reports with Eric Sevareid in “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” in April, 1963. Carson testified before Congress that summer. She died of breast cancer just a little more than a year after her television appearance. Carson’s careful research and gifts as a writer meant that Silent Spring would be a clarion call to the emerging environmental movement, and a source of inspiration to other scientists.
Works by Carson
Although Rachel Carson did not write many books, their impact was significant. Her “sea trilogy” of Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea established her as the preeminent nature writer of her time. They reflected her profound love of the sea and helped a larger audience discover its joys as well. The Sense of Wonder, initially published as a magazine essay, was published in 1965 posthumously as a small illustrated book that instructed parents on how to engage their children with the natural world. Silent Spring was a departure from Carson’s previous work as a nature writer. With this book, Carson invoked scientific data in order to make an overtly normative argument about the dangers of indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides. The book also spoke more universally to human attempts to dominate nature, and in doing so, inaugurated a new way of thinking about the moral significance of the natural world.
Carson, Rachel. 1941. Under the sea wind: A naturalist’s picture of ocean life. New York: New American Library.
Explores the inner world and life cycles of sea and shore creatures. The book sold poorly, due in great part to the United States’ entry into WWII. The book showcases Carson’s ability to present the natural world through the eyes of other life forms. It was later reissued and is now considered an exemplar of nature writing. Still in print as a Penguin Nature Classic.
Carson, Rachel. 1951. The sea around us. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Carson’s first best-selling book. It sold over a million copies, inspired a documentary, and received the National Book Award and the John Burroughs Medal. Explores the mystery and beauty of the seas, conveying information in tones of deep reverence. It marked the beginning of her relationship with literary agent Marie Rodell, who would become Carson’s literary executor after Carson’s death and launched Carson’s career as a nature writer and conservationist.
Carson, Rachel. 1955. The edge of the sea. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
A Guggenheim fellowship allowed Carson to write the final book in what became her sea trilogy, The Edge of the Sea. Explores life at the shoreline, including coral reefs and tide pools of the eastern seaboard. The book has a slight field guide flavor with drawings that helped bring to life the many marvels of life at the sea’s edge. This marked the first time Carson worked with illustrator Bob Hines, a former colleague from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Paul Brooks, chief editor at Houghton Mifflin. The book was well received, although not as successful as The Sea Around Us.
Carson, Rachel. 1962. Silent spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Carson’s most famous and controversial work focuses on the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides and the impacts on human health and the natural environment. Carson stressed the interconnectedness of the natural world and argued for a holistic understanding of nature, the use of biological rather than chemical control of insects, and a general orientation of humility. Like her other works, it conveyed scientific understandings of chemical accumulation, but in lyrical and evocative language. Frequently credited with inaugurating the environmental movement as well as environmental legislation.
Carson, Rachel. 1998. Lost woods: The discovered writings of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon.
Biographer Linda Lear compiled a selection of Carson’s previously unpublished writings. These include her speeches, letters, journal entries, and essays, all of which provide the context for understanding her development as a writer. The collected writings show her range of subjects, her core values, and her artful intermingling of science and poetic prose.
Carson, Rachel. 2017. The sense of wonder. New York: Harper Perennial Reprint Edition.
Published a year after Carson’s death, The Sense of Wonder began as an essay that appeared in a women’s magazine in 1956 (“Help Your Child To Wonder.” Woman’s Home Companion [July], 24–27, 46–48). It was intended as a guide to parents seeking to introduce their children to the natural world. The book is also a statement of the nature study philosophy Carson learned as a child. Carson stresses the importance of sensory and emotional engagement with nature as the basis of enduring love and concern for the environment. Both the original book and a later edition feature stunning nature photography.
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