Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 916

Critics writing about Silent Spring when it first appeared disagreed very little about the author's literary gifts. An anonymous reviewer for Life magazine called the book vivid, a work of great "grace'' by a ‘‘deliberate researcher and superb writer.’’ Time 's reviewer echoed much of this praise; once again, Carson...

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Critics writing about Silent Spring when it first appeared disagreed very little about the author's literary gifts. An anonymous reviewer for Life magazine called the book vivid, a work of great "grace'' by a ‘‘deliberate researcher and superb writer.’’ Time's reviewer echoed much of this praise; once again, Carson was said to be a ‘‘graceful writer’’ who demonstrated considerable ‘‘skill in building her frightening case.’’ In assessing the book's claims, however, the early reviews were sharply divided.

Periodicals aimed at birders and other nature-oriented readers, who likely already knew something about dangers of pesticides, found Carson's argument unassailable. The mainstream press, on the other hand, was skeptical on the whole. Some of the resistance stemmed from a natural reluctance to accept what was, after all, a shocking proposition—the technological "miracle" of pesticides, long claimed to be safe by the chemical industry and trusted government officials, was a Trojan horse that threatened life on a global scale. For example, the reviewer for Life found much that was compelling in Carson's "amply buttressed'' argument and anxiously hoped that she had ‘‘overstated her case’’ in predicting widespread destruction.

The scenes she describes so vividly—the neighborhood where all the robins perished after eating DDT-engorged earthworms, the woman who died of leukemia after repeatedly spraying spiders in her cellar, the salmon streams emptied by seeping poisons—are all true enough. But they are isolated examples.

One can only conclude that the critic was groping for reassurance here in turning away from the obvious point of Carson's catalog of pesticide disasters, which was that the incidents alluded to were harbingers of worse, more widespread trouble. That he largely shared the author's concerns is clear enough in the review's conclusion, where he called for the very same remedies that Silent Spring urges: tougher restrictions on pesticide use and more government funding for research.

Not all of the skeptical reviews were as friendly as Life magazine's; Silent Spring was the target of a well-funded smear campaign by the chemical industry, and a startling number of the early critics align themselves with that effort in one way or another. Indeed, in a magazine as influential in the shaping of public opinion as Time, there appeared a review that so harmonized with the position of pesticide makers that its author, if he was not in fact an industry hatchet man, might as well have been. Calling Carson a "hysterical’’ woman, the reviewer employed the industry's favorite attack on her and then presented fragments of some of the harshest passages of Silent Spring in an attempt to make its author seem unbalanced. For example, he cited her ‘‘emotion fanning’’ claim that DDT is found in mother's milk and her claim that people "can't add pesticide to water anywhere without threatening the purity of water everywhere.'' Elsewhere the distortions are even more pronounced, as where he called the writer's advocacy of biologic pest management ‘‘reckless primitivism.’’ So egregious are the misreadings and lapses that it is hard not to conclude that the review's object was damage control, not rational debate about the issue.

Since the publication of Silent Spring, critical opinion of the book has changed in three important ways. First, no one questions the soundness of Carson's argument anymore; forty years of scientific research has confirmed virtually all of the book's major claims. The second change is related to the historical importance of Silent Spring, often called the Uncle Tom's Cabin of modern environmentalism. In ‘‘The Reception of Silent Spring,’’ Craig Waddell offered one of the most concise assessments of the book's significance.

Ernest Hemingway once wrote that ‘‘[a]ll modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.'' It would not be too much of an exaggeration to make a similar claim for Silent Spring's relationship to the modern environmental movement. Although the American environmental movement traces its roots to such nineteenth-century visionaries as Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, and John Muir—all of whom were concerned with the preservation of the wilderness—the modern environmental movement, with its emphasis on pollution and the degradation of the quality of life on the planet, may fairly be said to have begun with one book by Rachel Carson called Silent Spring.

Today, more and more critics are turning their attention to historical considerations. Several examples of such work appear in a recently published anthology of essays called And No Birds Sing; for instance, Ralph Lutts argues that the book's initial popularity was in some large measure attributable to the panic over atomic fallout, and Cheryll Glotfelty shows how Carson's critique of ‘‘man's [pesticide] war against nature'' exploits the tropes of Cold War discourse.

The third major change in the criticism of Silent Spring might be guessed from comparisons of Carson's book to Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huckleberry Finn. Having earned a place among the American classics for its historical significance, it is now the object of the close textual scrutiny always given to such works. Silent Spring is treated as a literary text across the usual range of interests: in "An Inventional Archaeology,’’ Christine Oravec looks at Carson's manuscript to learn about the book's composition; Edward Corbett's ‘‘A Topical Analysis’’ examines the argument through the lens of classical rhetoric; and "Silent Spring and Science Fiction'' by Carol Gartner points to its generic kinship with science fiction. Given Carson's considerable talents as a writer, this recent interest in literary dimensions of Silent Spring seems on the whole a promising development.

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