Rob Nixon: Rachel Carson's Prescience

Roundup: Talking About History

Rob Nixon is the Rachel Carson professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His most recent book is Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011).

Fifty years ago, on September 27, 1962, Houghton Mifflin published Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, among the 20th century's most influential books. To honor the anniversary, the University of Cape Town invited me to lead an interdisciplinary forum this past June on Carson's environmental legacy.

Spurred by the prospect of this event, I set myself a happy task. I would read all of Carson in sequence: her ocean trilogy, Silent Spring, her essays, her collected letters. I have long loved her work—she is a writer, like James Baldwin, whom I savor for the inventive cadences of voice, someone who exhibits syntactic as well as social courage. I have taught Silent Spring often, but have gotten to know her other work only in a piecemeal, random way. I laid out a reading plan: I would start with her essay "Undersea" (published in The Atlantic Monthly, in 1937, when Carson was 30) and head toward her celebrated letter on transience and migrating monarch butterflies, written shortly before her death, at 55, in April 1964.

The young Carson and I set off from Madison, Wis. traveling in tandem across three continents, through O'Hare, Heathrow, and Johannesburg's Oliver Tambo airports, on to a wintry, mist-shrouded Cape Town, by which stage her life—and her life's work—were almost complete. Naïvely, I'd thought I'd be rereading Carson, forgetting that "rereading" is invariably a misnomer. When we return to an author after a long absence, that return is colored by who we have become. I grew up beside—and inside—the Indian Ocean, so when I first encountered Carson's marine trilogy, my connection was visceral and unfiltered....

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