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

Hedley Twidle


This paper emerges from a symposium held at the University of Cape Town in May 2012 to mark the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Hosted by the Institute for the Humanities in Africa (HUMA), the event was intended to explore the contemporary resonances of Carson’s text from the global South, and also to consider the emerging field of the environmental humanities. Writers, historians, literary scholars and social anthropologists were asked to intervene in debates where the voices of natural scientists are typically more prominent.

Rachel 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. Yet equally, Roy’s work allows one 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.


Rachel Carson, Arundhati Roy, Charles Darwin, literary non-fiction, literary ecology, slow violence, postcolony, Cape Colony, natural history, the essay

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