William Souder’s 2004 biography of John James Audobon, Under a Wild Sky, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His newest book, On a Farther Shore, chronicles the life and times of Rachel Carson, author of the controversial book Silent Spring — a tome that many consider to be the Bible of the environmental movement. Souder discuses why Carson is such an inspiration, how Silent Spring might be received if it were to be released today and why it’s important to read biographies of notable figures in science.
Q: What inspired you to write Rachel Carson’s biography?
William Souder: My interests are diverse, but I write mainly about science, history, and the environment. A really vexing question is why we have this divisive, intensely partisan disagreement over environmental issues. Why should the left and the right feel differently about the environment we all share? I knew Rachel Carson had been at the forefront of the modern environmental movement—it can be argued she was its founder—and so I thought there might be answers to how we got to where we are on the environment that were embedded in her story. And that turned out to be true. The language and the shape of the continuing environmental debate were formed in the response to Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring. Now that book is about the collateral damage caused to the environment by the indiscriminate use of pesticides like DDT. But you could substitute climate change for pesticides and the case would be argued out the same way—now as it was a half century ago. On one side you have the interests of industry and its allies in government and on the political right that resists the regulation of economic activity. On the other you have science and the voices that speak for a reasonable preservation of the natural world.
That seems like a simple confrontation between greed and morality, but it’s more complicated than that. The critics of Silent Spring attacked the book by claiming it was hysterical and one-sided—but more importantly that it was un-American, an attempt to strangle the free enterprise that was our advantage over the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc. To its detractors, Silent Spring wasn’t science. It was ideology. The irony, of course, is that it’s the reverse.
I should add that, as a practical matter, Rachel Carson is a terrific subject—and you cannot hope for more as a writer. She lived a consequential life that peaked just before her death from breast cancer in 1964. And she left an enormous legacy that includes the creation of the EPA and a motivated—if insufficiently effective—environmental movement. She also left behind the kind of vast paper trail of correspondence that is gold to a biographer.
Q: As you did your research, what most surprised you about her?
William Souder: I think most readers of my book are going to be shocked by the extent of atmospheric nuclear testing that took place during the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s—and surprised at how the roots of the environmental movement can be found in the chilly voids of the Cold War. All-in, more than 500 nuclear devices were exploded in the atmosphere between 1945 and 1963, when most of the nuclear powers agreed to halt above-ground testing. The United States accounted for more than 200 of these tests—including ten in June of 1962, or one about every three days. That was the same month Silent Spring—in which Carson argued that pesticides and radiation were parallel threats to the environment—was serialized in the New Yorker magazine.
I knew Carson had argued a connection between pesticides and radiation, but I didn’t realize how important it was until I closely re-read Silent Spring as a commentary not just on pesticides, but on American sensibilities in the Cold War. When you read the short, bleak opening chapter of Silent Spring—it’s one of the great set-pieces in American literature—it’s easy to see that gray, lifeless town, where no birds sing, where farm animals sicken and die, and where a pale residue lies in the gutters and on the rooftops as the result of either pesticides or the fallout from a nuclear apocalypse. And in that lifeless, colorless void was also the shadow of an existence Americans imagined inside the Soviet Union—the cold hardness of totalitarianism that was our darkest fear. It’s no accident that baby boomers became the vanguard of the environmental movement. They came of age with such images and terrors. When they read Silent Spring, they got it.
Q: Do you think the reception of Silent Spring would have been different today? Why or why not?
William Souder: It’s hard to imagine the same circumstances today because so much has changed that would reshape the response to this kind of work. Rachel Carson was one of the most famous and beloved authors in America when she published Silent Spring, and it was a startling departure from her earlier works, which were lyrical, moving portraits of the sea. But her credibility was enormous, as was her audience. That was a world still dominated by print—by many newspapers and magazines that no longer exist, but which back then devoted substantial space to covering the world of literature. I think books mattered then in a way that, sadly, they no longer do. And it has to be conceded that after years of a concerted attack on the media from the right, a significant portion of Americans don’t believe what they read or hear, regardless of how credible the source is.
The fact is, we have seen the perils of climate change exhaustively reported on for years now. And the country is pretty much evenly divided on whether it’s a problem and so we’ve done next to nothing to address it. So, no, I don’t think Silent Spring would have the same impact today. In fact, I think it’s more influential for being half a century old and still relevant.
Q: You’ve done biographies on some notable science celebrities. What does understanding them and their lives beyond their work really offer scientists and science enthusiasts?
William Souder: I suppose I should say something about how science is the most rational and objective way of understanding things, and so the lives of scientists are object lessons for us all. I do think that’s true. But to be honest, I’ve written biographies mainly because they are such interesting narratives. A life is a story made to order for a writer. You have a protagonist, and a beginning, middle, and end. And with any luck, the person that people may already think they know sometimes turns out to have unexpected depth and complexity. For example, many people who know about Rachel Carson’s intense friendship with Dorothy Freeman assume Carson was a lesbian. Well, I believe she probably was. But there’s no unambiguous evidence either way that would tell us whether she and Freeman had a sexual relationship. In the end, I decided they probably did not. But the reader gets to make up his or her own mind, which is as it should be when the truth is uncertain. As it often is for anyone’s life. So people, not necessarily just scientists, are good subjects. I think if you choose well and the material is strong, it makes for compelling reading. At least I hope it does.
Q: What do you think Carson’s legacy is? What do you think Carson would have wanted her legacy to be?
William Souder: It’s odd. Carson is the invisible force behind one of our most visible public debates. Everyone has convictions on both sides of the environmental debate—a debate that Carson started 50 years ago. But many people do not know who Rachel Carson is. And many people have not read Silent Spring. So Carson’s legacy is considerably larger than the memory of her and her work. And I think she would be sad about this, because her writing was so important to her. For Carson, no title was more exalted than “author.” Carson would be disappointed and surprised that a book like The Sea Around Us, an international sensation in 1951 that sold millions of copies and won her a National Book Award, is today still in print but little-read. Of course, a lot of things about the present would disappoint and surprise Carson. For all of the progress we’ve made in the decades since her death, in many ways we’ve really gone nowhere.