Rachel Carson’s First Creative Dollar

“One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, "What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”

As a true poet, Rachel Carson demands respect and posthumous attention. Poetry wasn’t a pastime of hers. It was a way of life - to see the world as a scientific visionary with a mastery over words. 

“It is not half so important to know as to feel.”

Carson first studied English in college, but later switched her major to biology. Writing for the student newspaper throughout college kept her in touch with earlier successful attempts at being published. She eventually merged her lifelong disciplines in a striking and uncompromising way, speaking to wide audiences in an informative manner.  

“A Who's Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones - we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

Silent Spring, published in 1962, still holds its place as one of the most groundbreaking books of the last 100 years. She explains her take on the connection between science and literature succinctly in a quote below:

“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history... It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

Rachel Carson’s First Creative Dollar

The Amount: $10 (Worth around $201.65 in today’s money)

The Project: A story submitted to a magazine for kids called St. Nicholas (1917)

The Back Story

If you are wondering how Rachel Carson was paid so well as a ten year old, it is because St. Nicholas was the most popular children’s magazine around at the time.

As a solitary child who loved to read and write while living in Springdale, Pennsylvania, the magazine was an outlet for her. St. Nicholas regularly asked its readers to submit poems, drawings, and stories for publication while also paying its young readers (who we can imagine were also subscribers).

The equivalent of two hundred dollars seems like an easy start to a promising career, but as you can imagine from her topics of choice - nothing about what happened to Rachel Carson was easy. In fact, she maintained a professional writing career mostly while working other jobs as a conservationist, marine biologist, and zoologist. She fought battles no one saw and she fought many battles people did see - on the nightly news.

The Sea Around Us, published in 1951 - eleven years before Silent Spring.

Facts From Her Life Journey

Long before supporting herself as a writer, Carson encountered family hardships. For example, she wanted to obtain a doctorate, but the Great Depression caused her to leave Johns Hopkins University in the 1930s. She left to obtain a full time teaching position so she could support her family of origin only to be left caring for her mother when her father died unexpectedly in 1935.

“It is also an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.”

In addition to these financial struggles, her journey to enlighten the masses wasn’t an easy one by any means. In fact, it’s a tragic story inside a story - full of industry bullies, lies, humiliation, and a calm only Carson could radiate. She hid the crippling impact of cancer and battled it silently through much of the press surrounding Silent Spring. Her once collaborator on the book, Edwin Diamond, became her worst critic. (She had reached out to E.B. White - of Charlotte’s Web - but the collaboration never came to be.) On children she wrote:

“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.”

Taking on a book as a solo project is a feat for anyone, let alone a woman in the 1960s battling breast cancer. In addition, she was addressed in letters throughout her career as a man… mostly by scientists who were threatened by her femininity. While one of the first pioneers to write about biomimicry, Rachel Carson only made $55 for the insight.

Maria Popova explains below:

"Carson continued submitting essays to popular magazines. In what began as a government press release about the migration patterns of chimney swifts and ended up as a feature article in Collier’s, she envisioned what we now call biomimicry - the replication of nature's process and systems in technological solutions to human problems: "If aviation engineer's would apply the wisdom of the chimney swift, several troublesome problems of aeronautics could be solved.”  She was paid $55 for the piece, a sum so negligible as to be almost humiliating, but having just returned from the hospital after an appendectomy, Carson gratefully put the small amount towards her medical bills.”

- From the brilliant book Figuring

If you would like to learn more about the amazing life of Rachel Carson, consider checking out this podcast by The New Yorker and this online book where I obtained a lot of the above information.

“The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves.”

Do you remember when you first heard about Silent Spring?

What do you think of Carson's young start as a writer? Why do you think she didn't write ground breaking works until much later?


5 Replies to “Rachel Carson’s First Creative Dollar”

  1. Awesome thanks for the history on her life! I had to read Silent Spring in high school as a summer reading and it’s what started out my thinking about environmentalism. Remember that I grew up in Baltimore City in an urban jungle, so green spaces were very rare and I didn’t think about those kinds of things. But after reading her book and others, I became a nature nut and now I play in nature for most of my exercise 🙂

    1. Such a wonderful woman. Thank you for sharing the impact she had on your life Dave! As for me, I grew up amongst corn and bean fields being sprayed. That was the “normal” I was indoctrinated into. Slowly I became enraged about it. Even today, I took a walk in a beautiful place only to see a “don’t stand on this lawn for 24 hours sign.” I was ticked. I don’t care what a lawn looks like. I want to be able to play in it.

  2. Nice one! I had absolutely zero insight into her childhood. I really enjoy this series as I always seem to learn something intriguing even with folks I thought I was pretty familiar with.

    1. Thanks Mr. Fate! That’s what it is here for. I learn something new every time I write one.

      I like to tackle people who we don’t usually associate with business or money – just to explore how it certainly had an impact on their life (the way it has an impact on everyone, but hardly any of us are comfortable talking about it).

  3. Howdy! I could have sworn I’ve visited this blog before but after looking at a few of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Anyhow, I’m certainly pleased I found it and I’ll be bookmarking it and checking back often!

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