Books and Authors Luncheon: Rachel Carson, 1951

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Rachel Carson's Fish & Wildlife Services Employee Photo, 1940

Before achieving national acclaim for her exposé of the chemical industry, Silent Spring (1962), marine biologist and nature conservationist Rachel Carson wrote prolifically about the world of the ocean. Her sea trilogy, Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955), quickly made her a New York Times bestselling author and a literary star.

The Sea Around Us, which is the focus of the speech Carson gave for the New York Herald Tribune's Books and Authors Luncheon broadcast by WNYC on October 25, 1951, earned Carson the National Book Award in nonfiction and a Burroughs Medal in nature writing, and was even made in to a movie, which won the 1953 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

The month before The Sea Around Us was published, New Yorker editor William Shawn serialized nine condensed chapters as a "Profile" piece beginning June 2, 1951. The responses to the excerpts, paired with the wide exposure the book gained as a selection for the Book-of-the-Month Club, were so strong that Carson was immediately besieged by requests for speaking engagements and book signings. Carson refused most of these requests because, as biographer Linda Lear notes, she was "uncomfortable with the idea of appearing before large audiences." [1]

One of these requests came from Irita Van Doren, editor of the New York Herald Tribune Book Review and host of the Books and Authors Luncheon. Despite her intentions to refuse, Carson was persuaded to accept Van Doren's invitation.

At the Luncheon, likely held on October 16 and broadcast on WNYC on October 25, Carson, who, according to Lear, was "apprehensive about how to hold the interest of such a large and critical audience," made a short speech and played recordings of ocean life from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. She also briefly referenced a prevalent theme in reviews of The Sea Around Us: the unlikely truth of her gender.

Many of the reviews written, both from a literary and scientific angle, questioned the likelihood of a female scientist and drew attention to the fact, even in some cases going so far as to assume the publisher avoided printing a photograph of the author because of some unattractive physical quality. The reviewers who were able to confirm her gender reassured readers that Carson was not even "a very large and forbidding woman," as might be suspected, but that she was instead "a quietly taut, fragile-looking woman." [2, 3]

Carson addressed such comments at the luncheon in this way: "People often seem to be surprised that a woman should have written a book about the sea. This is particularly true, I find, of men. Perhaps they have been accustomed for a long time to thinking of the more exciting fields of science as exclusively masculine domains. In fact, one of my correspondents a few days ago addressed me as 'Dear Sir,' explaining that even though he knew perfectly well that I was a woman, he simply could not bring himself to acknowledge the fact." [4]

After firmly establishing herself to the assembled audience as female, Carson explained her fascination with the sea and talked about her recent adventures along the Atlantic Coast, where she had been working on a new book. There she began observing people gazing out in to the ocean. "I've been trying to analyze some of the reasons for that fascination," she said. "The sea is a place where one gets a sense of the great antiquity of the earth. It seems to link the dim beginnings of time with the present. The same sort of waves that we watch today must have rolled in from Paleozoic seas."

"Most of all, I think, the sea is a place of mystery. One by one, the mysteries of yesterday have been solved. But often the very solution seems to bring with it another and perhaps a deeper mystery. I doubt that the last ultimate mysteries of the sea will ever be resolved. In fact, I rather cherish the hope that they will not be."

Carson concluded her presentation by playing for the audience a collection of oceanic field recordings. "We used to think of the deep sea as a place of silence," she said. "The idea that there could be sound underwater had never entered most people's minds." But, during World War II, Navy technicians were able to capture the "voices" of whales and porpoises by putting their hydrophones underwater, intending to listen for submarines. The recordings of shrimp, fish, and whales she presents were recorded in many locations by lowering a hydrophone in to the ocean.

[1] Linda Lear's biography, "Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature," published in 1977. Quoted throughout.
[2] Jonathan Norton Leonard's review of The Sea Around Us, "--And His Wonders in the Deep," published in Time, July, 1951. Quoted from Lear.
[3] Unnamed review published in Pathfinder Magazine. Quoted from Lear.
[4] This quote comes from WNYC's recording of the event. Lear's research includes Carson's prepared remarks, which conclude in this way: "Then even if they accept my sex, some people are further surprised to find that I am not a tall, oversize, Amazon-type female. I can offer no defense for not being what people expect, but perhaps I might say a few words about why a woman, and only an average-size one at that, should have become a biographer of the sea."

Audio courtesy NYC Municipal Archives collection.