Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Rachel Carson wrote two best-selling books that each were landmarks in science journalism. The Sea Around Us (1951) awakened American readers to the vast variety, beauty, and mystery of the oceans. Silent Spring (1962) warned that pesticides, if used irresponsibly, would harm wildlife and people. Neither subject was new to the public, but the depth of Carson’s treatments and her stylish writing eclipsed books that came before hers, and she became one of America’s best- known nonfiction authors.
How did such a triumph come about? What influences shaped her character and developed her writing skill? Carson’s biographers, while recognizing her talent and appeal to readers, have been disappointingly vague about these key questions. Carson came to be perceived more as an environmentalist saint than as a person.
That has changed. Linda Lear’s biography gives readers a full-fleshed, believable portrait of Carson. Lear creates this by amply supporting a simple thesis: “At the base of it all, there was a ferocious will.” Lear interviewed Carson’s surviving friends and family, closely examined her publications, and combed through many papers and letters not available to previous biographers. What emerged is not a cheery story. Given Carson’s great family responsibilities and precarious finances, it seems that only with fierce willpower could she get any writing done.
Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the youngest of three children. Her father was a rather ineffectual man who struggled to support the family. Her mother was the center of Carson’s life. Maria Carson gave up a teaching career to marry and apparently regretted the loss of intellectual stimulus. She focused her considerable intelligence on her youngest child, and her direct influence was profound and lasting. With some gaps, the two lived together until her death in 1958, just six years before Rachel Carson herself died.
The mother instilled in her daughter a deep reverence for nature during frequent walks in the woods and encouraged her talents for drawing and writing. The efforts brought early success. Like other twentieth century literary stars, such as E. B. White, Rachel Carson began publishing stories in St. Nicholas Magazine, her first at the age of eleven.
Maria Carson insisted that her daughter attend the Pennsylvania College for Women, although the tuition severely strained family resources. At college, Rachel Carson was regarded as brilliant but standoffish; nevertheless, she made several friendships and attracted two mentors from the faculty. A salient theme of Lear’s biography is Carson’s need for spiritually close friendships with women as a means of bolstering her confidence and enriching her intellect. One mentor honed her writing. The second, biology professor Mary Scott Skinker, ignited Carson’s enthusiasm for the sciences. Accordingly, Carson changed her major from English to biology, a turning point in her life.
Carson continued her studies at Johns Hopkins University, taking a master’s degree in zoology in 1932, but the need to earn a living for herself and her family scuttled her bid for a doctorate. In the meantime, however, another turning point occurred. Carson won a fellowship for the summer of 1929 at Woods Hole Biological Laboratory on the Massachusetts coast. The sea had always fascinated her; during that summer, it captivated her. According to Lear, all three of Carson’s sea books had their genesis at Woods Hole. It appears that Carson seldom loved things or people, but when she did, the attachment was extraordinarily strong.
Trying to find a college teaching job during the Depression, Carson was guaranteed to fail. Jobs were scarce, and men were preferred. Her fruitless efforts underscore another of Lear’s major themes. Carson had to fight widespread biases about women, particularly that they lacked the right sort of intelligence to be scientists—or science writers. Carson tried freelance writing with some success. A third turning point in her life came when the division chief of the Bureau of Fisheries invited her to write public service film scripts and pamphlets. The part-time arrangement led to a full-time job. Carson eventually rose to become principal editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service before she resigned in 1952. It was a demanding job, but it brought her into contact with leading marine biologists and kept her current on scientific developments.
Carson had to put in a full day of writing at the bureau. When she went home, domestic demands from her mother, sister, and nieces, whom she supported, ate up her time. Still, during late evenings and early mornings, she drove herself to pursue her own writing projects....
(The entire section is 1945 words.)
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