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National Book Award Classics


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The following essay appeared in the March, 2003 issue of Ingram's Advance e-letter, as part of National Book Award Classics, a monthly series of essays by Neil Baldwin, highlighting past Winners of the National Book Award.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)
The Sea Around Us

Rachel Louise Carson was born on a farm in the rural, riverside town of Springdale, Pennsylvania, the youngest of three children. From the age of ten, when she published her first short story, A Battle in the Clouds, she knew she would become a professional writer when she grew up. Rachel's mother, Maria, encouraged her daughter's dream, and instilled in her a lifelong passion for the natural world.

Rachel received a full academic scholarship to attend the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College). She started out as an English major, but a required biology course made a deep intellectual impression. She changed her major to zoology, graduated magna cum laude in science, won a fellowship for summer study at the Wood's Hole Oceanographic Institute, then went on to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore for a master's degree in genetics.

She managed to combine her expanding expertise in marine science with her formidable writing talent into a part-time job writing radio scripts for the United States Bureau of Fisheries - becoming the first woman to work for this agency in other than a clerical position. By the mid-1930's, Rachel was publishing in a variety of popular magazines. Her first major article, Undersea, appeared in 1937 in the Atlantic Monthly. This led to her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, in 1941, followed by a series of path-finding articles on the effects of DDT upon wildlife.

In 1949, Rachel Carson was promoted to editor-in-chief for all publications at the Fish and Wildlife Service. She won the George Westinghouse Science Writing Award, which led to a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship, freeing her to write The Sea Around Us.
Published in July, 1951, by Oxford University Press, the book hit the New York Times best-seller list within two months. By November, it had sold more than 100,000 copies - and after The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award in March, 1952, it immediately sold another 100,000 copies, and stayed on the Times list for an astonishing 86 weeks.

"The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities," Rachel Carson said in her self-effacing remarks accepting the National Book Award, "If they are not there, science cannot create them. 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."

Indeed, The Sea Around Us reads at times with an almost Biblical tone. Rachel Carson is a meticulous stylist. This is not so much a "science" book; rather, it is a spiritual and at times quite emotional hymn to the mysteries and magic of the sea, within which scientific information is seamlessly interwoven, creating a rhythm and tone replicating the surge and flow of the tides.

Carson approaches the sea as if she were constructing its biography, starting with its origins, then gradually penetrating deeper and deeper below the surface, so that we are immersed in the subject matter - more resembling a comforting, warm bath than a fight in the undertow of the pounding surf - all the while carried forward by the author's fine prose style, in which she often goes out of her way to address the reader directly.

From the beginnings of all life out of the synthesis of minerals and elements within the sea, we are taken to its wind-driven surfaces, thence to its sunless depths, where we meet its many exotic inhabitants, gigantic and microscopic. We learn how islands are born, how mountain ranges rivaling any on land parade between continental masses, how sediments of every conceivable variety coat the floor of the sea, how the shape of one continent mirrors the face of another, how tides come and go pushed by the immense power of the sun and the moon, how the Gulf Stream makes its restless journey to and fro in the Atlantic.

Along the way, this erudite writer pays tribute to other masterpieces which have likewise immortalized the seas - starting with the Book of Job and with Homer, moving on through Shelley, Swinburne, Milton, Arnold, Darwin, Melville, Conrad, Eliot - she has read them all, and incorporates their profound imagery into her narrative.

Rachel Carson is now lauded as "the mother of the modern environmental movement." But The Sea Around Us - unlike its successor, Silent Spring - was not written as a clarion-call or a warning.

It should be read with great pleasure as a languorous, worshipful and compelling prose-poem.

-- Neil Baldwin, Executive Director


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