Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part II

Chapter 12. Remarks at the Acceptance of the National Book Award for Nonfiction

[1952]

IN JANUARY, 1952, Carson learned she had won the prestigious National Book Award for nonfiction for The Sea Around Us. At the New York award ceremony, where Carson was joined on the dais by James Jones, the fiction winner for From Here to Eternity, and poet Marianne Moore, critic John Mason Brown acknowledged that “Carson has atomized our egos and brought to each reader not only a new humility but a new sense of the inscrutable vastness and inter-relation of forces beyond our knowledge or control.”

Carson used the occasion to comment on the isolation of science in America and on what she viewed as the artificial separation of science and literature as exclusive methods of investigating the world. Carson’s early critique of the two cultures mirrored that later made famous by the English scientist C. P. Snow in 1959.

image WRITING A BOOK has surprising consequences, and the real education of the author perhaps begins on publication day. I, as the author, did not know how people would react to a book about the ocean. I am still finding out. When I planned my book, I knew only that a fascination for the sea and a compelling sense of its mystery had been part of my own life from earliest childhood. So I wrote what I knew about it and also what I thought and felt about it.

Many people have commented with surprise on the fact that a work of science should have a large popular sale. But this notion that “science” is something that belongs in a separate compartment of its own, apart from everyday life, is one that I should like to challenge. We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally.

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

My own guiding purpose was to portray the subject of my sea profile with fidelity and understanding. All else was secondary. I did not stop to consider whether I was doing it scientifically or poetically; I was writing as the subject demanded.

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. 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. [ … ]

We have looked first at man with his vanities and greed and his problems of a day or a year; and then only, and from this biased point of view, we have looked outward at the earth he has inhabited so briefly and at the universe in which our earth is so minute a part. Yet these are the great realities, and against them we see our human problems in a different perspective. Perhaps if we reversed the telescope and looked at man down these long vistas, we should find less time and inclination to plan for our own destruction.