How Rachel Carson Carved Out a Space to Become a Full-Time Writer
James R. Gaines on Early American Nature Writing
Rachel Carson imagined that she had given up her childhood dream of becoming a writer when she decided to make biology rather than English her college major, but she had fallen in love with hands-on laboratory work and, not surprisingly, with fieldwork. Her attachment to nature was more than intellectual: It was emotional, even sensual. “I love all the beautiful things of nature,” she wrote in a guileless freshman essay, “and the wild creatures are my friends.” Among the most cherished memories she carried with her to college were not of achievements at school or family occasions but of the time she had spent exploring the fields and forests of Springdale.
The outdoor world was home to her more than her house was, and college summers reminded her why. Both her siblings were still living at home—one married, the other divorced—but both now with children, which made their house’s four small rooms crushingly smaller.
She also switched to biology because of its professor, Mary Scott Skinker, who was a much-admired and much-feared figure on campus: admired for her quick mind and personal magnetism, feared for her academic standards. Rachel became one of her best students and, after college, a close friend. In a letter to a friend in Springdale about her junior prom, she wrote more about Skinker than about her date. There is little evidence of other dates, and when boys were imported from nearby schools for dances, Rachel was content to stay in the dorm or venture elsewhere.
On one such night, alone in her room, she was struck by new meaning in a poem she had read several times before, Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall.” The narrator of the poem is a young man revisiting the place where he and his true love had once imagined a life together, gazing at the stars. Now the woman he loved was gone, having married a man richer than he was, in a world where everything, even love, seemed to be for sale. In his anger and disillusionment, he calls down a revolutionary thunderbolt on this wicked, mercenary world.
Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow; For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.
It was while reading that last line on this night, Carson said, when she felt her calling. She had never seen the ocean, never even learned to swim, but the last line “spoke to something within me, seeming to tell me that my own path led to the sea.” Like college students before and after her, she had detected the way to a home after home, and that is how she wrote about the sea in all her books until her last: as the firstborn world, the family home of every form of life.
After graduation, she was admitted to the doctoral program in zoology at Johns Hopkins, but by the time she got her master’s degree in 1932, the Depression was at its depth. Her mother had already sold the family china, the family was down to living on apples and pears from the orchard, and Rachel was now the most employable member of the family. Skinker suggested she take the federal civil service exams in the biological sciences, and her top score in the test for “junior aquatic biologist” led to an interview at the Bureau of Fisheries.
The timing was perfect: The agency’s chief was facing the need to produce seven-minute segments for a radio series on aquatic life, and a professional script writer had just failed at the task. Taking a chance on someone who came highly recommended but whose work he did not know, he asked her to try a script or two. She ended up writing them all, and when they were done, he asked her to write the introduction to one of the bureau’s usual publications, in this case a brochure on life in the oceans. She returned with it a few days later, and she watched him as he read it.
Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tidepool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the (ow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.
When he finished reading, he smiled and told Carson it was not quite right for a bureau brochure. He suggested she send it to The Atlantic, and then he hired her.
He turned out to be right about The Atlantic, which published her essay in the September 1937 issue. “Everything else followed,” Carson said later. When she switched from English to biology in college, “I had given up writing forever, I thought. It never occurred to me that I was merely getting something to write about.”
By the time she got her job at the bureau, most of the family had moved in with Rachel, who had found an inexpensive rental in a rural community outside Baltimore. To help support her mother, her father, her older sister, Margie, and Margie’s two young daughters, aged 11 and 15, she began spending her nights and weekends producing articles for magazines and newspapers. Most of her pieces were based on research that crossed her desk at the bureau, especially on marine life and oceanography, a field then enjoying explosive growth in support of submarine and amphibious warfare.
That research also informed a first book, Inside the Sea-Wind, an exquisite portrait of marine life published in late 1941. Rhapsodic reviews did not save it from being swamped by the news of Pearl Harbor, however, and after that, the nights and weekends she had given to the book were given back to magazine and newspaper pieces.
During and after the war, she found herself increasingly frustrated in her daytime job because of her agency’s changed, more circumscribed mandate. In 1940, the Bureau of Fisheries was reorganized as the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), an agency of the Department of the Interior that served the needs of industry as much as the public interest. That was never clearer than when she was asked to review a biological survey of Bikini Atoll, a bathtub-shaped string of coral islands on the northern edge of the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific, between Hawaii and the Philippines. The atoll’s base of live coral surrounded a large lagoon, which was home to snails, crab, eels, and hundreds of other marine species.
Fish and Wildlife was asked for its opinion because Bikini was to be the site of the first postwar nuclear bomb tests, and the fishing industry was concerned about effects of the tests on populations of tuna, whales, and other commercial stocks. Looking at the survey, Carson had the misgivings any marine biologist would have had at the notion of subjecting so rich a habitat to atomic bombs, but after determining that none of the most marketable species was likely to be affected, the FWS’s job was to reassure the industry.
The bomb tests, code-named Operation Crossroads, proceeded as scheduled in the summer of 1946 and turned out to be military science at its most oxymoronic, less a research exercise than a life-or-death Army-Navy game. The bomb’s targets were ships parked in Bikini’s lagoon, surplus transports and battleships from World War II, including the venerable USS Saratoga and Japan’s Nagato.
Beyond testing the bomb, the Army Air Force hoped the tests would show naval warfare to be defenseless and the Navy obsolete. In the event, the tests proved nothing. The first, an aboveground test, yielded little useful information because the bomb missed its target, landing outside the range of some measuring instruments and destroying others. The second, an underwater test, was a disaster. Unlike detonation aboveground, which dispersed radioactivity into the atmosphere, water absorbed it.
The result was a mile-high, million-ton column of water that came crashing back into the lagoon, setting off huge waves that painted all the ships at anchor with a thick coat of radiation and left a radioactive mist lingering over the atoll. Less than an hour after the blast, patrol boats were back in the lagoon picking up measuring instruments, and, later that day, 49 support ships joined them with almost 15,000 men aboard. A scheduled third test was canceled, and the Bikini islanders—a fishing community of 167 people who had been moved to another atoll with the assurance that their dislocation would be temporary—were told they would not be going home after all.
In the years that followed, the Marshall Islands became the proving ground for atomic weapons, and the Bikini Atoll, now a UN-designated, U.S.-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific, was overlaid with concrete runways, shipyards, barracks, and laboratories, which an Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) self-promotional film described as a thrilling sign of human reinvention—“like so many science buildings on college grounds!” Carson could not have been sanguine about that, even though she was still resistant to the idea that nature would ultimately be impervious to human works.
Her earliest direct confrontation of that issue came when she edited the FWS’s first cautionary research on DDT, which was published in 1946. DDT was a war hero at the time. Infectious insects had been the bane of generals from the time of Hannibal, but during World War II, DDT protected untold thousands of soldiers and civilians from typhus, malaria, dengue fever, and other insect-borne diseases. Thanks in part to Hitler’s personal physician, who considered the use of DDT an insult to Aryan health, the typhus-ridden German army lost the Battle of Stalingrad.
The calculation of risk from DDT in peacetime was more complicated, but if that calculation was ever made, no record of it survived. Exactly one week after V-J Day, Gimbels department store announced with a full-page ad in the New York Times that DDT, in a new “Aer-A-Sol bomb,” was safe for use in home and yard: “Released Yesterday! On Sale Tomorrow! Gimbels Works Fast!” As a result, U.S. chemical companies were relieved of wartime inventories, more companies began making DDT, and the race was on to develop even more powerful alternatives, both new chlorinated hydrocarbons and the even more toxic organophosphates, some of which required farmers to wear gas masks and poisoned even some who did. Such research efforts were directly and indirectly supported by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps, whose Cold War mandate was to devise new chemical, biological, and radiological weapons.
The FWS’s earliest DDT studies, carried out in 1945 and 1946, concluded that, in a variety of concentrations and delivery methods, DDT killed some of the species it was meant to protect and led to resistance in some of the species that were its targets. Carson used that research as the basis for a story proposal to Reader’s Digest, saying that it raised the question “whether [DDT] may upset the whole balance of nature if unwisely used.” It was an issue, she said, that “really does affect everybody.” In fact, the FWS’s warning was addressed not to “the whole balance of nature” but to DDT’s impact on specific commercial species. She could not have known it, but just then the U.S. Army Chemical Corps was studying DDT as a lethal nerve agent against enemy armies and civilian populations. In any case, Reader’s Digest passed on the idea.William Shawn, then the managing editor of The New Yorker, saw Carson’s book for what it was.
She kept looking for jobs outside the FWS but in the meantime began to turn her nights and weekends toward another book, this one a history and portrait of life in the world’s oceans. Her day job was then as demanding as it would ever be, but she spent every spare moment at the library of the Department of the Interior. Eventually she made a coconspirator of the chief librarian, who helped her find the research she needed and let her take books out overnight for return the next day. It was obvious to colleagues that she was exhausting herself with work on something more than FSW brochures, but she kept it as far from her daytime work as was possible for someone who by then was managing a sta. of six and all the agency’s publications. By early 1948 she was working on the book proposal and talking to potential literary agents.
A year later, having taken only a few weeks’ leave from her job, she had shaped an enormous amount of technical research into several chapters of vivid prose, which she delivered to Marie Rodell, her choice among several agents. Rodell had just begun her career as an agent, and Carson was one of her first clients. Both of them had made an excellent choice.
Within two months Rodell negotiated a contract with Oxford University Press for what became a beautiful and comprehensive portrait of ocean life, one that translated the best and latest science into a narrative history of life on Earth from the birth of the first single-celled organism. As with all her writing, she went over every sentence many times, reaching out to each scientist whose work she cited to be sure of her interpretation of it. She also used her mother to read her work aloud in order to correct its sonority. The result was a book that so beautifully clarified its subject’s technical complexities that several magazine editors refused to excerpt it, as if its very accessibility made it suspect.
Not for the last time, she was also dismissed as a woman invading a male domain. More than one man who read the book confessed to being surprised when they met her. Some expected her to be a large and domineering woman rather than the quiet, restrained scholar she was. Others actually thought that a man must have ghostwritten the book. Fortunately for her and her readers, William Shawn, then the managing editor of The New Yorker, saw the book for what it was. In early 1951, The New Yorker bought more than half the book for excerpts that took up most of three issues that June.
Published as a book on July 1, The Sea Around Us was on the New York Times best-seller list for the next 88 weeks, and its success prompted Oxford to republish Inside the Sea-Wind, which joined The Sea Around Us on the Times best-seller list. By the end of the year, The Sea Around Us had sold more than 250,000 copies. Eventually translated into 32 languages, it fulfilled Carson’s most euphoric hope of success and underwrote her dream of leaving the FWS to become a full-time writer.
From The Fifties: An Underground History by James R. Gaines. Used with the permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2022 by James R. Gaines.