Rachel Carson and the Perils of Simplicity: Reading Silent Spring from the Global South

Article excerpt

Abstract: Carson's work is often praised (and sometimes condemned) for its simplicity and lyricism, its "sensitive literary style." My engagement with Silent Spring explores this idea of literariness, tracing the formal qualities and rhetorical strategies of her oeuvre: the ecology of allusion and quotation that it generates, the metaphors and genres that it draws on. In doing so, it argues that the celebrated accessibility of her writing is in fact a carefully worked-for effect. The simplicity of Silent Spring, in other words, is more complex than it first appears: a quality that lent the book much of its power yet also rendered it vulnerable in other ways. At the same time, I hope to read Carson's public science writing alongside the anti-globalisation protest of Arundhati Roy, probing the relation between the simple and the complex in contemporary environmentalism. Both turned their attention to explicitly instrumental writing after winning fame for more "literary" texts, both questioned the credibility of the male expert, and both deployed the intimate address of the essay form for polemical effect. Roy's work also allows us to see how Carson's version of environmentalism looks from the developing world: how the ideas of ecology, toxicity, and "slow violence" that Silent Spring did much to introduce into public culture might play out in a postcolony like South Africa.

Keywords: Rachel Carson, Arundhati Roy, literary non-fiction, literary ecology, postcolonial ecocriticism

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To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple.

Arundhati Roy, "The End of Imagination" (1998)

While rereading Rachel Carson on the fiftieth anniversary of Silent Spring, first published in 1962, I found myself in the University of Cape Town's library basement to track down a first edition of The Sea Around Us (1951). This was her breakthrough work, the second book of the great ocean trilogy that preceded her campaign against DDT and other pesticides. Tucked into it was a clipped-out review with the price of the book given as 12s 6d, but no date or publication details:

   Miss Rachel Carson, supported by consultation with leading
   oceanographers, and having herself taken part in a marine
   expedition, presents a vivid account of the sea which will not only
   illuminate for the general reader the fundamental biological
   importance of its problems, but which derives a special character
   from her use of a sensitive literary style to give expression to
   the intrinsic beauty of natural phenomena.

The short notice is largely positive but remarks that the book "is not free of the oversimplification which is so difficult to avoid in covering such a vast field in a limited space."

One finds in this notice many standard responses to her work as well as some more buried clues relating to its context and reception. "Miss Carson" (implying her unmarried status) is congratulated for her "sensitive literary style," but this is a double-edged quality. Her book is praised for mediating between scientific experts and "the general reader": the result is vividness and aesthetic pleasure but also the danger of oversimplification. "Miss Carson" has no PhD and no academic affiliation, but the text is nonetheless underwritten by the work of leading experts.

The Sea Around Us was in fact the work of a maverick synthesiser, a digest of ten years of oceanographic research. This began with her first work, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), which appeared just before Pearl Harbour and so made little impact on a public that was soon consumed with the American war effort. By contrast, her 1951 bestseller benefited directly from naval technologies developed during World War II, especially the mapping of the ocean bed via sonar. (Leftover warplanes, on the other hand, would be used in the 1950s for the indiscriminate spraying of pesticides that Carson opposed.) The Sea Around Us quotes Shelley and Swinburne, accessing the literary Romanticism that Carson had immersed herself in while at college and which would also provide, via John Keats, the title of Silent Spring. …