Critical Context (Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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Paul Brooks, former editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin and biographer of Rachel Carson, believes that Silent Spring “may have changed the course of history.” Whatever may be its future claims to greatness, the work stands today as one of the most influential books of the twentieth century: It was pivotal in launching the environmental revolution and in making “ecology” a household word.

Silent Spring was Carson’s fourth book. Some critics were quick to note that Silent Spring lacked the beauty and grace of The Sea Around Us (1951). One feels quite certain, however, that if Carson could choose one of her works as her legacy that work would be Silent Spring. That choice would be based not on the book’s polemical character but on its transcendent message: Man must reexamine his relationship to nature and reaffirm the interdependence of all living organisms. It is the same theme which was clearly articulated by Carson when she was named the recipient of the Schweitzer Medal of the Animal Welfare Institute on January 7, 1963, four months after the publication of Silent Spring. An excerpt from her acceptance speech, reprinted in Paul Brooks’s The House of Life (1972), expresses her deepest belief:Dr. Schweitzer has told us that we are not being truly civilized if we concern ourselves only with the relation of man to man. What is important is the relation of man to all life. This has never been so tragically overlooked as in our present age, when through our technology we are waging war against the natural world. It is a valid question whether any civilization can do this and retain the right to be called civilized. By acquiescing in needless destruction and suffering, our stature as human beings is diminished.

The sustaining beauty and power of Silent Spring derives from Carson’s moral conviction and tone. Silent Spring is not merely a “who’s who of pesticides,” written in clear prose for the general public. It is not, as a few may have initially feared, a bludgeon to smash the chemical pesticide industries. The book does address itself to the destruction wrought by dangerous chemical pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, but the implicit message throughout is simply a love of all nature. Carson, a very shy, unassuming, private person, had the great courage in the last years of her life to step forward as nature’s advocate to plead for the survival of the earth.

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