Book Review: The Gentle Subversive

The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement.  Mark Hamilton Lytle, 2007. Oxford Univ. Press.
Bug Rating: (with some caveats)

I have written quite a bit about Rachel Carson, mainly because I am baffled at the amount of vitriol still spewed over her book Silent Spring nearly 50 years after it’s publication.  It’s turned out to be my own personal mini-crusade, since everytime I mention the name of this woman people come out of the woodwork to say…well, ill-informed wing-nutty things, frankly, including people who should know better.

I find Carson fascinating not just because she is the focus of a modern dis-information campaign, but because she was a scientist that could write. And I mean REALLY write, not just to communicate, but to bring the beauty and love of the natural world that she saw around her alive.

In all the DDT hoopla, it seems people have forgotten that Carson wrote beautiful prose about science.  She wrote well enough to win a National Book Award, and to have her science book stay #1 on the New York Times best seller list for 86 weeks:

“If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

Rachel Carson Book Cover

I was interested this short biography of Carson, and picked it up.  I’m really glad I did, because it helped me gain a better understanding of this woman and the huge challenges she faced.  And there were a lot of challenges.

Carson did not come from a wealthy family, and much of her life was occupied in chasing enough money to support herself and her extended family.  Carson moved her mother, her brother and sister, and her 2 nieces into one house–and became the primary financial support for all of them during the Depression.  In 1929, women did not commonly apply to Johns Hopkins, or gain admission to graduate school at Woods Hole.  Carson did both of those things successfully, and recieved a Masters in 1932.

She skipped pursuing a PhD in order to seek work, and was lucky enough to find a home in the Department of Fisheries.  She began writing radio scripts, and progressed to writing USFW publications and magazine pieces.  Carson published her first book in 1941–which was promptly eclipsed by a world at war, and did not prove to be very profitable.  In 1950, she got her big break with The Sea Around Us, which did bring enough income in to allow her to purchase a home in Maine and become an independent writer.  In 1950 Carson also had her first cancer tumor removed from her left breast.

Reading her story now, I can’t help but think of my many freelancing writer friends, and how they struggle to support their families and to try to make a living. It doesn’t seem to have gotten any easier in the last 50 years to be an independent writer.

Carson had a demanding family life. Her mother wanted to be connected and involved in Rachel’s life in a way that…well, I found kind of creepy.  Rachel’s niece (who was, remember, living with her and diabetic) had an out of wedlock child.  Carson became the primary caregiver for both her elderly mother and disabled niece, and could not afford to put either of them in a nursing home or have home help.  That Carson could write well under those conditions is pretty amazing.  And that doesn’t even begin to cover how much stress she must have been under when writing Silent Spring.

In 1958 Carson began work on what would become Silent Spring–her last book.   She had a radical mastectomy in 1959.  Early excerpts of the book attracted vitriolic criticism, and lots of gendered slurs.  “Shrill.” “Emotional.” “Unscientific.”

In 1960 Carson developed secondary tumors and blood poisoning, and was confined to a wheelchair for many months.  In 1961 she developed an infection that caused her to loose her sight for several months, and was unable to read what she had written. In 1962, as Silent Spring was going to press, more tumors were found in her abdomen.  She wore a wig to testify in Congress, hiding her loss of hair from radiation treatments.  By late 1963 compression fractures in her spine from radiation treatments made walking difficult and painful. Carson died in Spring 1964.

This woman had ovaries of brass.  I am in awe of how tenacious and determined she must have been to finish this last project.  Her letters show she was hanging on by her fingertips, determined to see it through.

As for this book—how does it compare to other Carson biographies? It is short, and a quick read, and has enough footnotes you can be fairly sure of source material. I was very happy that the author chose to not speculate about the nature of Carson’s close friendships with other smart, sciency women of her time, since we don’t know for sure if they were or were not platonic or romantic.

The book itself sort of falls into two parts: things jerks said to Carson while she was alive, and things jerks say about her now that she’s dead.    It’s not comprehensive, but for a quick dip into the issue and a history of what Carson endured, it’s a good read.  I don’t think the author covered modern attacks on Carson very well, but much of the documentation of who paid for the “hit” on Carson  came out in late 2007/2008, so that’s understandable.

At one time I was pretty actively writing about Carson and DDT, and trying to combat the misinformation campaigns put out by various astroturf groups.  I eventually stopped, mostly because the people that comment on that topic scare me.  I have gotten many, many threats over those posts, most of them threats of sexual assault. Those posts about DDT and Rachel Carson are the reason that comments on posts close after 40 days on this blog, since that way I don’t have to go in daily and remove nasty spittle-flecked comments.

I can’t be intimidated into believing their lies about a brave woman and a wonderful writer, but I was intimidated enough that I stopped writing about Carson to stay under their radar.   I think I need to take a lesson from Ms. Carson herself. In the face of terrible pain and opposition, she WON with good writing and truth.

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”   Rachel Carson

I wonder if sometimes I feel driven to defend Carson because I see so much of my sister in her.  Both women are talented, had breast cancer much too young–and neither one seems able to catch a fucking break. Anything that could go wrong does seem to go wrong.

And by God, if you mess with my sister, you mess with ME.
I got your back, Rachel. I got your back.

Additional Reading: