Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Experiments conducted during World War II gave rise to the chemical pesticide industries. As a result of the widespread use of these pesticides, widespread destruction has been wreaked upon the earth, the atmosphere, the water, and all the inhabitants thereof, including man. Rachel Louise Carson’s Silent Spring is the story of that destruction.

Carson, a trained biologist and a member of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (now the Fish and Wildlife Service) from 1936 to 1952, was well equipped to write the story that she knew had to be told. She had been concerned about the use of pesticides since the 1940’s, at which time she tried to interest the editors of a magazine in an article on the effects of DDT. She was aware of the intense dissatisfaction and controversy over the Department of Agriculture’s program to eradicate the fire ant in the South. She had followed with interest court cases in which citizens struggled to protect their environment—for example, the Long Island case in which the plaintiffs sued to prevent the spraying of their lands with DDT to control the gypsy moth. In the decade prior to the publication of Silent Spring, Carson had realized that an undercurrent of distrust regarding federal and state pest-eradication programs was gaining momentum. Finally, Carson received a letter from a close friend, Olga Huckins, who was outraged that spray airplanes had destroyed a private bird sanctuary on her property in Duxbury, Massachusetts. At that point, Carson became aware that what she had originally conceptualized as an article was rapidly becoming a book.

The following four years (1958 to 1962) were devoted to a massive research task: Carson perused thousands of scientific papers and articles and corresponded with scientists and medical doctors in both the United States and Europe. By 1962, the material had been amassed and awaited only the writing and rewriting that would produce a finished manuscript. That was no easy task, for the subject matter consisted of a welter of scientific details which would have to be made accessible to the layman.

Finally, the complete book was published by Houghton Mifflin Company on September 27, 1962. Attractive in format, including drawings by Lois and Louis Darling, it contained 297 pages of text, with an additional fifty-five pages that listed Carson’s principal sources.

Silent Spring is a scientific work written for the general reader. Its seventeen chapters fully detail the effects, both immediate and long-range, of pest-eradication programs conducted in post-World War II America. Chapters 1 and 2 set forth the rationale for the book, concluding with these words of Jean Rostand: “The obligation to endure gives us the right to know.” Chapter 3 provides background on the discovery, manufacture, and widespread use of chemical pesticides. Synthetic chemicals with insecticidal properties are products of World War II, an outgrowth of the development of the agents of chemical warfare. Prior to World War II, pesticides had been developed from inorganic chemicals, principally arsenic. With the impetus given to synthetic chemicals in the 1940’s, however, two large groups of synthetic insecticides became widely used. One group, known as the chlorinated hydrocarbons, includes the familiar DDT; the other consists of the organic phosphorus insecticides.

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 examine the way in which these chemicals have contaminated particular areas: “Surface Waters and Underground Seas,” “Realms of the Soil,” and “Earth’s Green Mantle.” Man seems to have forgotten, Carson laments, that the earth’s vegetation is a part of the whole of life and that there is a delicate and intricate balance among all living organisms. Furthermore, in the pollution of his environment, man has subjected himself to the risk of the contamination of public water supplies with poisonous and cancer-producing substances.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 extend the analysis of the pesticides’ lethal effects on the life surrounding the “target” pest. Entire populations of certain species of birds and fish have been annihilated in sprayed areas. Chapter 10, “Indiscriminately from the Skies,” examines the massive devastation which ensues when aerial spraying is conducted over extensive areas. Two campaigns whose effects are analyzed in detail are sprayings of DDT to eradicate the gypsy moth in the Northeast and the fire ant in the South. Chapter 11, “Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias,” presents evidence for the pervasiveness of poisonous substances in the human environment, including chemical residues on food.

In chapters 12, 13, and 14, Carson directs her investigation to the effects of chemical poisons on the tissues and organs of the human body. She projects the possibility of genetic changes in cellular organization and describes, further, the way in which normal cells turn into cancer cells. In chapter 14, she establishes a direct link between chemical pesticides and cancer in man.

Chapters 15 and 16 review the way in which “nature fights back.” Pest insects continue to thrive, abundantly, because chemical spraying has often created unfavorable imbalances in the populations of the insect world. Planners of modern insect-control programs have not considered that nature itself, in its precarious balancing of living organisms, has already established an effective control of insects. This control is lost, however, when the destruction of natural enemies greatly enhances a species’ ability to reproduce. Moreover, the ability of the insect population to develop resistance and immunity to the sprays is astounding and has created grave concern not only in agriculture and in forestry but also—and especially—in the field of public health.

The final chapter, “The Other Road,” presents a choice which involves either continued destruction or the setting of a new direction based on preservation. This preservation requires alternate methods of pest control. Man should employ biological rather than chemical solutions, solutions which will not destroy the balance of nature. Carson affirms, “The choice, after all, is ours to make.”

Silent Spring

(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

The Work

During the late 1950’s, a proliferation of the manufacturing and use of chemical agents as insecticides and herbicides seemed to stimulate the agricultural industry. Initially, these chemicals provided relief to farmers who could now control and obliterate insect pests and weeds from cropland. Insufficient testing and monitoring of the use of these chemicals, however, led to widespread contamination of water and land, resulting in the destruction of a great variety of animals and plants. The popular book Silent Spring aroused public awareness of a sinister development in which streams and springs became silent as birds, frogs, fish, and other organisms died from the toxic chemicals used in adjacent fields. Ethically, the realization that humans can quickly and easily pollute and blight large regions through the careless use of chemicals illustrated the necessity for good stewardship of natural resources. As an alternative to control insect pests, Carson suggested the use of nonchemical methods that were more environmentally wholesome. Carson’s landmark book led to the formation of numerous environmental groups that have committed themselves to protect natural resources.

Bibliography

Anderson, Lorraine, ed. Sisters of the Earth. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. A collection of women’s works of prose and poetry about nature that reflect many of the same issues Rachel Carson raised in Silent Spring. The women’s voices in this volume express a caring rather than a controlling relationship with nature. Contains a thirty-seven-page annotated bibliography of selected works by women about nature.

Hynes, H. Patricia. The Recurring Silent Spring. New York: Pergamon Press, 1989. A work that explores the struggles Carson faced and examines the social and political ramifications of her work. This book examines the new hazards of technology that Carson alluded to in her final chapter.

Inter Press Service, comp. Story Earth: Native Voices on the Environment. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1993. This collection of essays gives voice to non-Western cultures and their relationship between humankind and nature. Unlike Western culture, which has sought to subdue nature, the traditional societies examined in this book view it as sacred.

Wallace, Aubrey. Eco-Heroes: Twelve Tales of Environmental Victory. Edited by David Gancher. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1993. A series of twelve portraits of environmental activists from around the globe. Thinking globally but acting locally, these eco-heroes have received the Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the Nobel Prize for environmentalists. The essays in this collection explore the stories behind their victories.

Silent Spring Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Silent Spring begins with a fable: “There was once a town in the heart of America,” Rachel Carson writes, “where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” a place teeming with wildlife and natural beauty. Then, a “strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change.” The town became lifeless, the ultimate effect of “a white granular powder” that had fallen on the community weeks before. “No witchcraft,” Carson continues, “no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.” Carson explains that although this town is fictitious, “it might easily have a thousand counterparts,” for each of the effects described “has actually happened somewhere.” Silent Spring, she concludes in this initial chapter, is an attempt to illustrate the forces that have “already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America.”

In the sixteen chapters that follow, Carson describes both in general and in great detail the methods and effects of the carbon-based synthetic pesticides, which, she says, should be called “biocides.” In the second chapter, “The Obligation to Endure,” Carson expresses the book’s central thesis that human intervention into natural processes can undo “the built-in checks and balances by which nature holds the species within bounds.” While conceding that she is not calling for an outright ban on the use of pesticides, she states here the book’s chief claims: that pesticides have not been thoroughly investigated and thus are used by persons “ignorant of their potentials for harm”; that chemicals are too often applied to the landscape indiscriminately and with an inadequate regard to consequences; and that not only wildlife but also “enormous numbers of people” are being unknowingly exposed, often repeatedly, to these poisons. In this key chapter, she poses the haunting question driving the book: “How could intelligent beings seek to control a few unwanted species by a method that contaminated the entire environment and brought the threat of disease and death even to their own kind?”

In the remainder of the book, Carson fully substantiates her claims, marshalling evidence from scores of documented incidents and scientific findings. In chapter 3, she distinguishes between and describes the pre-World-War-II inorganic insecticides, represented primarily by arsenic compounds, and the post-World-War-II organic insecticides, represented by the chlorinated hydrocarbons (such as DDT, chlordane, dieldrin, aldrin, and endrin) and the alkyl phosphates (parathion and malathion). Carson calls these chemicals and the herbicides (such as dinitrophenol and pentachlorophenol) “elixirs of death,” not only because they succeed at killing their target but also because they often damage all life that comes into contact with them, directly or indirectly. One of Carson’s main points here and throughout the book is that although pesticides when applied “correctly” may seem inconsequential to the life around the target, the chemicals can move through time and space and sometimes combine—even transforming into more lethal poisons—to cause damage both locally and afar.

Carson then discusses in separate but interrelated chapters the water, the soil, plant life, animal life, cumulative poisoning, and “the human price.” Remaining chapters focus on a body’s cellular and molecular responses to pesticides, some of which Carson identifies as cancer-producing agents; on the ways in which insects fight back, such as developing genetic resistance to specific chemicals; and finally on alternative methods of insect control, such as ensuring that menacing insects are kept in check by competing or predatory species. Carson closes the book by reminding the reader that “the chemical barrage” that has been “hurled against the fabric of life” is driven by and reveals humankind’s “arrogant” relationship to the natural world, an attitude “born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”

Silent Spring Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Citing a letter written by Olga Owens Huckins in 1958 as her inspiration for writing, Rachel Carson begins Silent Spring with a warning: If humans do not stop their greed and carelessness, they will destroy the earth. Huckins told Carson of her own bitter experience of a small world made lifeless; Carson then goes on to reveal how her findings as a trained scientist led her to speak out against the reckless male-dominated society that poisons the world.

To lay the groundwork for her book and to explain the title Silent Spring, pioneer ecofeminist Carson begins with what she calls “a fable for tomorrow.” She sketches a bountiful American community that is destroyed by a strange blight that moves like a shadow of death across the land, eventually creating a spring without bees or birds—a silent spring. This mythical community has countless counterparts around the world thanks to what Carson calls the “impetuous and heedless pace of man.”

Continuing with a history of life on earth to show the natural interaction between living things, Silent Spring meticulously exposes the lethal contamination of air, earth, rivers, and seas. Carson draws on her research into the way in which chemicals pass from one organism to another through all the links in the food chain to illustrate the need to control products she calls not “insecticides” but “biocides.” She reminds citizens of their rights to protect themselves against lethal poisons that have increased alarmingly in the twentieth century.

Each chapter addresses one aspect of the deadly contamination process, explaining in scientific terms the chemical structure and then exposing the resulting effects on the natural habitat. Carson illustrates the cost of this negligence by examining regions, cities, and individuals across America that have suffered from the dangerous interaction of chemicals with the environment. These illustrations are carefully selected to extend the work beyond a strictly scientific observation into the realm of social criticism. For example, Carson describes housewives in Michigan sweeping granules of poisonous insecticide from their porches and sidewalks, where they are reported to have looked like snow. Within a few days after the insecticide-spraying operation that caused this deadly rain, Detroiters began to report large numbers of dead and dying birds to the local Audubon Society. Throughout the book, Carson’s actual scenarios parallel in a frightening fashion the mythical fable that begins the book.

Horrifyingly beautiful is a way one might describe Carson’s writing. Aesthetically pleasing in its sensitive descriptions of earth and its inhabitants, this 262-page work is at the same time scientifically well-documented, listing thirty pages of notes and scholarly research. While Carson remains a critical and scrupulous scientist, she makes her most persuasive appeal through her emphasis on the value and beauty of the natural world. Her criticism of a number of entities responsible for the assaults upon the environment—the narrowly specialized scientific community, the dollar-driven chemical industry, and weak government agencies—constitutes a landmark challenge to a social system in need of a warning cry. The work paves the way for extended analysis and commentary by later twentieth century ecologists and eco-feminists.

Silent Spring Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Winner of eight awards, Silent Spring is a monumental book that shocked the world with its frightening revelations about the earth’s contamination. Not surprisingly, Carson’s profound sense of urgency awakened and angered the traditionally male-dominated scientific community, business world, and government agencies. Some critics dismissed her as a hysterical woman and a pseudoscientist, although her work shows her to be neither. Others said that she was merely a recluse interested in preserving the wildflowers along the country’s roadsides. Clearly, she had a greater goal in mind. In her book, Carson calls on readers to question the masculinist philosophy and methods of controlling nature. In its boldness, her work has served as an example for ecologists and ecofeminists the world over.

Carson accepts the responsibility for the accuracy and validity of the voluminous amount of scientific research the book represents, graciously acknowledging four women who were vital to the success of the work: her three research assistants, Jeanne Davis, Dorothy Algire, and Bette Haney Duff; and her housekeeper, Ida Sprow. Silent Spring artfully translates Carson’s scientific expertise into general readers’ terms, a feat that comes as no surprise to many critics following her earlier beautifully written book The Sea Around Us (1951). The publication of Silent Spring was greeted with waves of fear by men who knew she spoke the truth, men who stood to lose power, prestige, or money through the disclosures and warnings the work contained. Carson, ironically, battled cancer herself in the final stages of writing the book, but she did not permit her personal struggle to get in the way of her goal of presenting the facts and letting the public decide.

Aside from being a concerned woman who awakened the world to the dangers in the air, earth, and water, Rachel Carson was a gifted writer who created memorable images and finely crafted sentences. She says, “deliberately poisoning our food, then policing the result—is too reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s White Knight who thought of ‘a plan to dye one’s whiskers green, and always use so large a fan that they could not be seen.’ ” Her pioneering exposé of humanity’s foolish behavior strips away those equally foolish efforts to cover up the results. The silence that humanity tried to impose upon nature was broken by this brave woman’s voice.

Silent Spring Historical Context

The Rise of Synthetic Pesticides
So influential a role did Carson's Silent Spring play in the quickening of concern about...

(The entire section is 511 words.)

Silent Spring Literary Style

Clarity
A writer's style is always at some level shaped by her purposes, and these can usually be identified without too much...

(The entire section is 753 words.)

Silent Spring Compare and Contrast

1962: Thalidomide, often prescribed for morning sickness, is suspected of causing birth defects, adding to already widespread concern...

(The entire section is 110 words.)

Silent Spring Topics for Further Study

Look carefully at the material on pesticides at the website of the Environmental Protection Agency (http://www.epa.gov/ebtpages/pesticides....

(The entire section is 174 words.)

Silent Spring Media Adaptations

The documentary The "Silent Spring'' of Rachel Carson, produced by CBS Reports in 1963, captures the mood of the times when the book...

(The entire section is 72 words.)

Silent Spring What Do I Read Next?

Before she published Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote three popular works of natural history on the ocean, the best known of which...

(The entire section is 108 words.)

Silent Spring Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Brooks, Paul, ‘‘Rachel Louise Carson,’’ in Notable American Women: The Modern Period, Harvard University...

(The entire section is 367 words.)

Silent Spring Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Anderson, Lorraine, ed. Sisters of the Earth. New York: Vintage Books, 1991. A collection of women’s works of prose and poetry about nature that reflect many of the same issues Rachel Carson raised in Silent Spring. The women’s voices in this volume express a caring rather than a controlling relationship with nature. Contains a thirty-seven-page annotated bibliography of selected works by women about nature.

Hynes, H. Patricia. The Recurring Silent Spring. New York: Pergamon Press, 1989. A work that explores the struggles Carson faced and examines the social and political ramifications of her work. This book examines the new hazards of technology that Carson alluded to in her final chapter.

Inter Press Service, comp. Story Earth: Native Voices on the Environment. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1993. This collection of essays gives voice to non-Western cultures and their relationship between humankind and nature. Unlike Western culture, which has sought to subdue nature, the traditional societies examined in this book view it as sacred.

Wallace, Aubrey. Eco-Heroes: Twelve Tales of Environmental Victory. Edited by David Gancher. San Francisco: Mercury House, 1993. A series of twelve portraits of environmental activists from around the globe. Thinking globally but acting locally, these eco-heroes have received the Goldman Environmental Prize, considered the Nobel Prize for environmentalists. The essays in this collection explore the stories behind their victories.