On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
By William Souder
496 pages, $30
By Mark H. Lytle
NEWS BOOK REVIEWER
No one could blame Rachel Carson for feeling beleaguered. In the fall of 1962 her book, “Silent Spring,” unleashed both widespread praise and bitter, sometimes savage criticism. Former Secretary of Agriculture and Mormon elder Ezra Taft Benson, explained himself mystified that a “spinster woman” found possible genetic dangers of DDT so alarming. He told reporters, “She must be a Communist.”
At the same time President John F. Kennedy had assured reporters that “since Miss Carson’s book,” officials in the Department of Agriculture were looking into the effects of the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides.
Carson, herself, suffering through the side effects of radiation therapy for rapidly spreading cancer, still managed to preserve her sense of humor. She told an audience about two Pennsylvania county farm bureau officials who were both outraged by her book: “No one in either county farm office who talked to us had read the book, but all disapproved of it heartily.”
Fifty years later “Silent Spring” and its author continue to polarize opinion. Her admirers credit her with inspiring the modern environmental movement. Her detractors deride her as a subversive whose one-sided attack on the pesticide DDT resulted in widespread suffering and millions of deaths due to malaria. Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn, accusing her of mass murder, blocked an effort to name her hometown post office in her honor. Surely, Coburn, like so many of Carson’s critics, was as ill-informed about the issues she raised as were the Pennsylvania farm bureau officials.
William Souder has marked the occasion of the 50th anniversary of “Silent Spring” with a biography that puts the controversy over Carson and her book into historical context. Earlier biographers have already given us a sense of this intensely private, though tough-minded, defender of the “balance of nature.” Souder offers readers a dual biography — of Carson on the one hand and “Silent Spring” on the other. Put another way, his book is both a biography and a history of the environmental issues that shaped Carson’s worldview and the public reception of her book.
This strategy will deeply satisfy some readers and possibly frustrate others. The biographical sections of “On a Farther Shore” do not go into as much detail as did Linda Lear, yet still offer a deep sense of Carson and her path to fame. Before “Silent Spring,” she wrote three books on the oceans, “The Sea Around Us” most notably among them. Souder is especially effective in rendering the moments that most shaped Carson and her values. Those already familiar with her life might recall her vivid memory reading Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall,” as a thunderstorm shook her college dormitory. In the last couplet Tennyson wrote, “Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, fire or snow; For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.”
At that point in her life, Carson had never seen the sea. The closing line nonetheless persuaded her that she would focus her newfound passion for science on the oceans. That is where other biographers leave the story.
Souder, to his credit, takes it further. He points out that “Locksley Hall” is “a disturbing, racially intolerant tale” in which the narrator seeks escape from a failed love affair by escaping to an empire “where he can conquer the ‘savage’ natives.” Somehow Carson managed to ignore the narrator’s torment and the darkness of Tennyson’s verse.
Souder finds this “kind of tunnel vision” as a “defining trait.” Carson had, he concludes, as many critics have charged, “a rare ability to focus only on a detail that interested her while setting the whole world of bewildering complexities.”
While this view might offend Carson’s many admirers, it does not define Souder’s judgment. He is throughout a sensitive and insightful biographer. That becomes clear when he explores the relationship Carson formed with Dorothy Freeman, an older women she met while vacationing at her summer home in Southport, Maine. “For Carson,” Souder writes, “Dorothy was the one great love of her life. To Dorothy, Carson was the person who’d opened a world for them to share, one in which birds would always sing, the rhythm of the sea would never cease, and the words for everything would endure.” No one has better gauged the relationship that provided the emotional sustenance that helped Carson endure the physical and emotional torments of her last years as cancer ravaged her body and critics assailed her.
Interspersed among the passages that explore Carson as a person are those that establish the historical and scientific context in which she conceived “Silent Spring.” These are so full that Carson sometimes seems to recede. To be fair, Souder is an excellent environmental historian and always a lively writer. So when he goes into great length to explain the background of DDT or the above-ground nuclear testing that covered the earth with radioactive wastes such as Strontium-90, he is informed and informative.
And invariably these asides intersect with Carson and her work. Worries about Strontium-90 in the food chain predisposed the public to fear other potentially toxic substances such as chemical pesticides.
Ultimately, Souder evokes Carson as a complete and compelling, if not always easy, person. He observes that her publisher had worried that the downbeat, frightening nature of “Silent Spring” would limit its readership. “Carson,” Souder comments, “had shrewdly seen that the way around this was to focus on showing ‘the futility and the basic wrongness of the current chemical program — even better than ranting against it, though doubtless I shall rant a little too.’ ”
He concludes that this attitude, “underscored Carson’s mature confidence in herself and her work — her conviction that she could take on a difficult subject and argue against the interest of powerful forces.”
Since those interests remain powerful and we still live in a world of toxic chemicals, it is no surprise that both Carson and “Silent Spring” remain vital and controversial to this day. William Souder has told this story with all the richness and complexity it deserves.
Mark Lytle is the Lyford and Mary Grey Edwards Professor of History and member of the Environmental and Urban Studies faculty at Bard College. He is the author of “The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Cason, 'Silent Spring,’ and the Rise of the Environmental Movement.”