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.”