Jill Lepore on Rachel Carson in The New Yorker, March 2018

A fantastic writer paying homage, so gracefully, to a writer of another generation. Lepore uncovers for the modern reader enough about Carson’s life, but mostly about her writings on the sea (as opposed to her more well-known book on DDT) that the reader is truly humbled.  Here is an abstract from an academic article with a similar theme.  I am very intrigued to think more about ways to quantitatively measure the persuasion that so many commentators assume was substantial. How do we “know” in the quantitative sense that the book had a big impact? Both Clinton memoirs sold millions of copies, does anyone think they had an impact on anything? Implied here is that paradoxically (from Carson’s perspective) her impact may have been on “persuading” people to purchase more disposable consumer goods!

Recent scholarship on the work of the great nature writer, Rachel Carson, posits that her landmark book, Silent Spring (1962)—often credited with igniting the modern environmental movement—is best understood in the context of her earlier, extraordinarily popular publications on the natural history of the oceans, which helped establish her as a talented and trustworthy translator of scientific concepts into literary prose. This essay builds upon that idea, showing how Carson’s The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955) not only shaped public understandings of ocean ecology, but also spurred a public passion for all things oceanographic, best embodied in a wave of “Carsonalia”—consumer items and experiences ranging from hats, to Book of the Month Club editions, to liner notes for the NBC Symphony’s recording of Debussy’s La Mer. While these items inspired and expressed the “sense of wonder” that was critical to Carson’s ecological aesthetic, I argue, they also subsumed the new “frontier” of the world’s oceans into the technological imperialism of the post-World War II United States. As new technologies allowed military and scientific researchers to see deeper into the oceanic depths than ever before, images of the open ocean were domesticated through consumer markets into viewable, readable, and even wearable forms. This commodification of the ocean, and of Carson’s ecocentric message, both enabled and frustrated her attempts to promote ecological literacy. Yet they also reveal much about our contemporary relationship to the world’s oceans, which remain sites of both enduring wonder and extraordinary exploitation.

Wonders with the Sea: Rachel Carson’s Ecological Aesthetic and the Mid-Century Reader
Amanda Hagood, Environmental Humanities (2013) 2 (1): 57-77.


About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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