It was while at college that Carson went on her first and seemingly only date with a young man, Bob Frye, who took her to the annual PCW prom. He didn’t rate a mention in a letter Carson wrote to a friend about the event, but she had plenty to say, Souder adds, about Mary Skinker, whom Carson described as “a perfect knockout.” An ethereal beauty, Skinker seems to have been a source of fascination for the girls at PCW, and Carson become infatuated with her. Such hero worship of a beautiful and elegant teacher by her female students is hardly unusual, and Souder, in my view, places excessive sexual emphasis on this episode of Carson’s life.
Carson was devastated when Skinker announced that she’d be leaving PCW to complete her doctoral studies at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Missing her mentor, Carson happened to read Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” her eyes alighting on the line “For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.” She decided then and there that she would follow Skinker to Woods Hole and devote her life to studies of the sea. After graduating from PCW she enrolled at Johns Hopkins, and with Skinker’s help obtained a scholarship to study for two months at Woods Hole.
The experience was a mixed one, for although Carson loved studying marine life, she discovered that she wasn’t suited to laboratory work. Her M.Sc. thesis was delivered a year late, in June 1932, after which she obtained her job at the US Bureau of Fisheries. This gave her the freedom to write articles and book reviews for magazines such as The Atlantic. By 1938 Carson had begun writing a book on the oceans. The project was well timed, for, as William Beebe descended into the ocean depths in his bathyscaphe, major discoveries were being made, and the public’s interest in this strange realm seemed insatiable.
A regrettable error creeps into Souder’s narrative when he discusses Carson’s work on the ocean. He refers to the “abysmal” depths, in quotation marks, though just who he is quoting is unclear. The eternally dark, freezing, and highly pressurized waters Beebe explored may indeed seem abysmal to us, but they are in fact known as the abyssal depths; nor are soundings of the deep ocean commonly referred to as “abysmal soundings.” These are not the biography’s only faults: parts of it are disordered to the point of distraction. In particular, Souder should have told us more about the extent of the pesticide problem in America in the 1960s. But overall, he has produced a serviceable and timely biography.
When published in 1941 Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, was hailed as “beautiful and unusual,” the great Beebe himself saying that he “enjoyed every word.” Yet sales did not reach 1,700 copies. The experience left Carson feeling that her publisher had not done enough to promote the book; she became a demanding author who in future would look into every aspect of a publisher’s handling of her work. With the publication of her second book, The Sea Around Us, in 1950, this approach paid off. A poetical description of the oceans and the life they contain, it was an astonishing achievement that began with the formation of the earth and continued right through to the present age. The New Yorker had agreed to publish ten chapters in advance, and other chapters were taken by other magazines. When released, the book met near-universal acclaim and would set new records for the number of consecutive weeks it was listed at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Its success gave Under the Sea-Wind new life, and by April 1952 Carson had two of the best-selling nonfiction books in America.
Her success sometimes put Carson in an awkward position. People expected her to be an intrepid underwater explorer, while in fact she had learned most of what she knew about the sea from books and other writings. But the financial success her writing brought would change her life. Previously, she had lived with her mother, and money worries were never far away. In 1953, however, she used her royalties to purchase a property on Southport Island, Maine, a wild, windswept place with only 250 residents.
There, in June 1953, she would meet Dorothy Freeman, who, with her husband, Stan, raced their yacht Draftee off the island every summer weekend. They were huge fans of The Sea Around Us, and when they heard that Carson was building a house on the island, Dorothy wrote her a welcoming letter. The trio struck it off right away and a few weeks later Carson led them on a late afternoon walk to catch the low tide. When they used a microscope to examined samples they had collected, Dorothy said that a “wonderful, beautiful, and unbelieveable…new world” had opened to her.
Dorothy Freeman left us a poignant picture of Rachel Carson at the height of her success. As Souder tells it:
Carson seemed “tiny” and often wore a wistful expression. It was hard to believe that so much knowledge resided in such an unimposing person. Dorothy sensed something sad in Carson, who seemed overwhelmed by her sudden prominence.
Carson’s relationship with Dorothy Freeman was destined to heal some of that sadness. Each summer the Freemans and Carson would meet on Southport Island and spend their time in seaside rambles and other activities. In 1953 Carson would write to Dorothy:
And, as you must know in your heart, there is such a simple answer for all the “whys” that are sprinkled through your letters:…Why did I come to the Head that last night? Why? Because I love you! Now I could go on and tell you some of the reasons why I do, but that would take quite a while, and I think the simple fact covers everything.
While Carson’s relationship with Dorothy was expressed passionately on paper, it was otherwise kept quiet. Carson would address her envelopes to “Mrs. Stanley Freeman,” but in the letter itself referred to Dorothy as “Darling.” Both worried that the “craziness” between them might be revealed, and so began writing two kinds of letters. One contained news and views that could be read by others, while the other, which was usually folded inside the general letter, was intensely personal.
The time that Rachel and Dorothy could spend together was limited, and their relationship seems not to have been physically sexual. Souder recounts a meeting between the two after Carson had addressed a group of scientists in Boston:
As Carson was leaving the hall after she finished, she was startled to find Dorothy waiting for her. Carson impulsively kissed her and whispered, “We didn’t plan it this way, did we?” They went back to Carson’s room at the Sheraton Hotel and sat on the bed for a languorous hour smiling at each other, unsure what came next.
Without doubt their relationship was deep and fulfilling, and it seems a little unfair of Souder to say that they didn’t know “what came next.” Perhaps there was no “next” for them: perhaps they were perfectly contented with things as they were. After all, the term “lovers” is one of infinite possibility.
Carson had longed her entire adult life to devote herself to writing. But now that she could afford to do so, she discovered that she was in a kind of prison. She had decided that her next book would be a sort of beachcomber’s guide. Writing and rewriting, she became ever more dissatisfied with the project. Finally, in March 1955—a full three years behind schedule—she delivered the manuscript of The Edge of the Sea to her publishers. Carson noted that any book she wrote would look like a failure compared with The Sea Around Us. But in fact The Edge of the Sea achieved considerable success, rising to fourth place on the New York Times best-seller list.
Even as she wrote about the sea, the issue of pesticides seems never to have been far from Carson’s mind. Nonetheless, she had difficulty in framing the work she wished to write, and was perhaps a little intimidated by the scale of the research involved. She told her publisher, Paul Brooks, that those who criticized the use of pesticides without fully understanding the science did more harm than good, and assured him that whatever she wrote would have the weight of evidence behind it. As the draft chapters began to arrive, Brooks realized just what this meant. A vast amount of hidden research supported the words the public would see.
As the writing went on, Carson’s health began to deteriorate. Early in 1960 she suffered from a duodenal ulcer and pneumonia, followed by acute sinusitis. The discovery of two lumps in her left breast later that year seems not to have overly disturbed her; but when she awoke from surgery she was told that one of the tumors had been malignant, and a radical mastectomy had been performed. Perhaps anticipating a brief hospital stay, she had left her seven-year-old grandnephew, whom she cared for, at home. Proclaiming herself cured, she talked her way out of the hospital a week later, and got on with her life. Around a year later Carson discovered secondary tumors on her sternum and embarked on a course of radiation therapy. She would never be entirely well again.
Carson had settled on Man Against the Earth as the provisional title for her new book. It was Brooks who came up with Silent Spring—though initially as a title for the chapter on impacts of pesticides on birds, rather than for the whole work. Was there ever a more resonating book title? The possibility of a “silent spring” strikes so acutely at our sense of life, beauty, and nature’s renewal that it chills us as deeply as a perpetual winter. And it frames beautifully the parable that opens the book—of small-town America, so secure and rich in wildlife, which is unaccountably devastated by a “rain of death.”
The success of Silent Spring provoked an almost instant backlash from the chemical industry, and in the cold war environment of the time some of the worst smears that could be thrown, as Souder writes, were accusations of communism or socialism:
Subversive, antibusiness, Communist sympathizer, health nut, pacifist, and, of course, the coded insult “spinster.” The attack…came from the chemical companies, agricultural interests, and the allies of both in government—the self-protective enclaves within what President Eisenhower had called the “military-industrial complex.” Their fierce opposition to Silent Spring put Rachel Carson and everything she believed about the environment firmly on the left end of the political spectrum. And so two things—environmentalism and its adherents—were defined once and forever.
In fact Carson’s position was more subtle and realistic than her critics allowed. Chemical control of insects was warranted in some cases, she wrote, especially for prevention of diseases, and all the more so “in time of natural disaster or of war or in situations of extreme poverty and deprivation. Then control of some sort becomes necessary.”