It was midnight when the lone auburn-haired woman arrived on the beach. Tall and stooped, just shy of fifty-five, Rachel Carson looked considerably older than her years. She swayed a moment as she sat, drank in the briny air. To feel the full wildness, she switched off her flashlight. Then, adjusting her eyes to the darkness, she turned her attention to the swell and roar of the sea. Tonight it was full of “diamonds and emeralds,” flecks of phosphorescence that wave after wave hurled onto the sand. The individual sparks were huge. She could see them “glowing in the sand, or sometimes, caught in the in-and-out play of water,” sluicing back and forth.
This is what Carson lived for: bearing witness to the natural world in all its mystery, attuning herself to the earth’s rhythms and eternal cycles, feeling a part of the vast stream of time. It was why she’d spent the last four difficult years pushing so hard to complete Silent Spring. For all her travails, she had known from the moment she’d first read the field studies on the dangers of the synthetic pesticide DDT that she would feel “no future peace” until she shared with the world the gravity of what she saw. She had written the book because she wanted to change things, to alter the way people treated the natural world, to stop the mindless poisoning of it. Though Carson knew she had little time left to live, sitting on this beach tonight she had no regrets. She was filled with a sense that it had all been worth it: the years of isolation; the painstaking work; even her battle, now lost, against the cancer. The public’s reception of the excerpts appearing all summer in The New Yorker had been immediate and enthusiastic—greater, even, than she had dared dream. Especially cheering had been E. B. White’s kind note, commending her for—by now she had memorized the words—“the courage you showed in putting on the gloves and going in with this formidable opponent, and for your skill and thoroughness.” Silent Spring would be “an Uncle Tom’s Cabin of a book,” he predicted, “the sort that will help turn the tide.” Perhaps she could relax now. Finally, people were beginning to ask questions. They no longer “assumed that someone was looking after things,” that the mass aerial spraying of DDT “must be all right, or it wouldn’t be done.” They were beginning to understand that once these pesticides entered the biosphere, they carried the same hazards as nuclear fallout, the same capacity to alter our genetic makeup in grave and irreversible ways; these chemicals not only killed bugs but also migrated up the food chain to poison birds and fish and eventually sicken humans.
Carson hadn’t been surprised by the smear campaign the chemical industry was mounting that summer. She had anticipated their aggressive attacks on the book. But the defamation of her character—the charges that she was a Communist and a subversive, that her purpose in urging more care in the use of agricultural chemicals was to “jeopardize the nation’s food supply”—this she had not expected. The most vulgar had come from the former secretary of agriculture, who had wondered aloud “why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics.”
But none of this mattered; she was winning in the court of popular opinion. Her meticulous care in presenting the science had paid off. It was 1962, and the world was changing. There was a new optimism in the air, a sense that things were opening up in response to the deep freeze of the Cold War. A fresh generation of young people had come of age. They were better educated than their elders, more idealistic and open, more willing to ask questions, to openly challenge the status quo. Their heroes were Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and a band of subversive dreamers who called themselves the Beats. Their anthems spoke of a different sort of America, one in which individualism and community might coexist, an America where social justice and personal fulfillment were not at odds.
The chemical companies were right to be worried. Their claim that now “no housewife would reach for a bug bomb without fear” was well-founded. Women were already concerned about a host of contamination issues: “food additives, thalidomide, radioactive fallout.” And now they had to worry about poisons in their vegetable gardens. The strict postwar division of the sexes, which had stranded a generation of women in the suburbs, their sole duty to be good mothers and consumers, was backfiring. The problems she was identifying were bigger and more irrefutable than even her critics understood. She had shined a spotlight on big business’s carelessness toward the natural world, daring to make its indifference public. She had had the audacity to mount a critique of the “gospel of technological progress,” forcing an open discussion of the notion that living things and their environment were intertwined.
Carson had never been the wild-eyed crusader her critics hoped to portray. Shy and self-effacing, considered in her speech, she exuded an inner stillness, a ladylike dignity that must have disarmed her foes. A loner at heart, almost pathologically private, devoted to her small broken family and a handful of friends, attached to her cats and her beloved Maine cottage, she was happiest amid the wild beauty of the wilderness, alert to the birdsong in the shadowed forest, the seagulls wheeling overhead, the swirling fog and mysterious tide pools along the shore.
She turned to the sea again. It was getting late; she had already stayed longer than she planned. Her eye caught a passing firefly now, his lamp blinking. “He was flying so low over the water that his light cast a long surface reflection, like a little headlight.” She registered a pulse of joy. How ingenious nature was, how intricate the interrelationships between species, including humans. This, too, was what she wanted to share: the wonder of the natural world in all its variety and strangeness, the amazing interconnectedness of it all. Her eyes swept the shoreline one last time, making a mental note of the rocks “crowned with foam,” the long white crests running down the beach. She was leaving tomorrow. She hoped it wouldn’t be the last time she could manage this walk to the beach. Flicking on her flashlight, she rose now with some effort and started toward the path, the funnel of her flashlight beam bobbing as she crept along. She took slow, halting steps, her breath labored. This, too, no longer mattered. She had finished the book. She had spoken out, and to her relief, the world seemed to be listening.
That same summer of 1962, several hundred miles south of where Carson sat, an impish, white-haired woman in a dark shift and a costume-jewelry necklace of oversize beads stood holding a placard on a street corner in Lower Manhattan. Tall and square-faced, with a Dutch boy haircut and thick black-rimmed glasses perched atop an aquiline nose, she searched the crowd, smiled in recognition as she spotted her neighbor, the owner of the coffee bar down her block, which lately had become an ersatz community clubhouse, the place where she and others from Greenwich Village and Little Italy had been strategizing over martinis and cigarettes for weeks. Bighearted and affable, the neighborhood sage, tonight he was dressed as a skeleton and carried a placard shaped like a tombstone, on which was scrawled the words DEATH OF A NEIGHBORHOOD. She shot him a quick, amused look, nodded in appreciation at his getup, then leaned in to confer for a moment with the congressman standing to her left, knitting her brow in concentration. She glanced at her watch and shook her head in agreement, sending her thatch of white hair flying. Then, moving with obvious deliberation, she threaded her way through the throng toward the podium, her quizzical face set despite the patter of applause that swelled through the crowd.
The object of this applause was Jane Jacobs, a magnetic forty-six-year-old writer and mother who had recently become a celebrity and pariah to every urban planner in the land. A year before, in 1961, she had written an audacious little book called The Death and Life of American Cities, arguing that the men supposedly bettering America’s cities were actually laying waste to them. The power and eloquence of the book had instantly hit a nerve, giving voice to what many had begun to sense—that the “poohbahs” who planned high-rise housing projects and made their decisions mostly behind closed doors were not always acting in the public’s best interest. Almost overnight she had been hailed as an urban hero, a silver-tongued prophet of the people, her name synonymous with grassroots efforts to halt urban renewal projects that demolished vital existing neighborhoods. The Village Voice, the scrappy new alternative downtown paper, was calling her “the terror of every politico in town,” gleefully claiming she had made more enemies than any American woman since Margaret Sanger. Diane Arbus had photographed her for Esquire. Vogue had paid its homage, dubbing her simply “Queen Jane.”
On this particular steamy evening, Jacobs stood amid an overflow crowd of residents from Greenwich Village, Little Italy, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and what would soon be dubbed SoHo. The idea was to stage a mock New Orleans–style funeral march down Broome Street into Little Italy, to protest the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, a monstrous, elevated superhighway that the master builder Robert Moses was trying to string across Lower Manhattan, part of a vast “spaghetti dish”of expressways that would loop around and across the city. The hulking ten-lane highway would rip through low-slung blocks that still had a tatty Paris-like feel as it made its way along Broome Street. It would mean bulldozing more than four hundred buildings that housed twenty-two hundred residents and eight hundred small businesses. It would wipe out the pastry shops and cozy restaurants of Little Italy, the lighting and restaurant supply shops on the Bowery, the shady park on Chrystie Street.
This was just the sort of top-down planning Jacobs deplored. It was arrogant and misguided, having nothing to do with what gave a city neighborhood its vitality and charm, its ability to adapt and remake itself as conditions changed. Cities were no different from oyster beds or “colonies of prairie dogs.” They were living organisms; they thrived, just as in nature, on diversity and readaptation, not rigid order imposed on them from outside. This kind of progress killed cities. It slashed apart close-knit neighborhood communities, leaving desolate gaping holes in the urban fabric. It was a monstrous mistake that went against everything Jacobs had observed about urban life from her own lively little block in Greenwich Village, whose intricate rhythms she had likened in her book to a kind of exquisite “sidewalk ballet,” a dance that commenced every morning with the clatter of trash cans and the babble of children en route to school, expanding and reinventing itself throughout the day. What made her own neighborhood—and so many others like it—feel so vital was its short, bustling blocks and patchwork of old and new buildings, its crazy-quilt mix of commercial and residential uses: houses interspersed with stores and cafés, warehouses with restaurants and bodegas. At any hour of the day or night, there were people on the street: mothers pushing toddlers in strollers; longshoremen slipping into taverns at the end of their shifts; teenagers preening, checking their reflections in storefront windows; fathers strutting home after work; theatergoers scurrying off in evening clothes. There were always “eyes on the street,” as she liked to describe it, which made everyone feel safe.
For decades, planners had ignored what occurred “tangibly and physically” on the street, which she found exasperating. They had sailed off on “metaphysical fancies” instead of asking people what kind of housing actually made them feel good, or why certain blocks felt inviting while others breathed menace. This was the genius of her book. She had actually bothered to wade in and ask people, to walk the blocks of neighborhoods that worked—even those the experts deemed expendable—and then describe, in her trademark pungent prose, the intricate dance of particulars that made these districts thrive while others withered. This is what had made the so-called planning experts so mad—besides the fact that she wasn’t college educated, let alone trained in urban planning: she had had the audacity to dismantle, point by point, all their airy abstract theories, drawing on a mix of intuition and her own firsthand observations to make her case.
But clearly, that case had to be made again. This was why she and so many others were here tonight—Democrats and Republicans, shopkeepers and professionals, plumbers and artists, Catholics and Jews. To explain once more why this outrageous boondoggle of a road would rip the soul out of these vital neighborhoods. To put the city on notice that the residents here would not stand for it. That they would keep on fighting this ill-conceived plan until it was wiped off the map.
Leaning in to the microphone now, she graciously acknowledged the state senator and representative who had just preceded her. The crowd went silent, all eyes on the striking, white-haired woman in a sack dress and sandals who looked like a hausfrau but seemed to command the respect of a queen. Then she began to speak.
“What kind of administration could even consider bulldozing the homes of more than two thousand families at a time like this?” she asked matter-of-factly. A camera flash popped and flared, briefly illuminating the platform where she stood, but she seemed not to notice. “With the amount of unemployment in the city, who would think of wiping out thousands of minority jobs?” she continued, widening her eyes. “They must be insane.”
No one wanted this roadway, Jacobs went on to explain. No one but a few out-of-touch bureaucrats, she added. It would kill lively neighborhoods that had been standing almost since the Dutch first put down roots in Manhattan four centuries before. The crowd stood rapt, drinking in every word.
“The expressway would Los Angelize New York,” she declared, pausing for a moment. This was the sound bite she hoped would make the evening news. This proposed highway is a “monstrous and useless folly,” she added. “The arguments for it,” she continued, “amount to piffle.”
Applause rippled through the crowd, whistles and hoots of agreement, more camera flashes. True to form, Jane Jacobs was once again making waves, poking holes in official cant about the efficacy of urban highways, just as she had the city’s earlier arguments for razing the West Village. She was tapping into a current of quiet discontent that lay slumbering just below the surface of the culture, demonstrating that ordinary citizens, if they were organized enough, could push back, even defeat the swaggering bureaucrats who for the last decade had been calling the shots, riding roughshod over the greater good, with no sense of consequence or need for accountability. This was her message tonight, and like Rachel Carson’s, it was hitting a nerve.
For many people, the sudden appearance of Carson’s and Jacobs’s brilliant and prescient books was one of those moments that seem, in retrospect, to have changed the very order of things. Both Silent Spring and The Death and Life of Great American Cities had an almost immediate effect on public sentiment. Silent Spring was not only a runaway bestseller but is credited with having led, in the short run, to the creation of the EPA; in the long run, it spawned America’s environmental consciousness. Jacobs’s book is said to have changed urban renewal policies across America and dethroned Robert Moses. It became the bible, ultimately, for the preservation movement and for the larger idea of self-emerging systems in cities rather than centrally imposed plans.
Like another wildly popular and transformative book that came out at almost the same time, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which also unleashed a tsunami of change—and also had the effrontery to question the culture’s most enshrined assumptions—Jacobs’s and Carson’s books were articulating for ordinary readers what many were beginning to feel. They were connecting with people on a visceral level, calling into question the nation’s exuberant and self-assured path, suggesting that perhaps it wasn’t as rosy as it had been cracked up to be. Both were pointedly addressing one of the central paradoxes of progress: in the blind embrace of technology, there had been a loss of human scale and a degradation of the physical and social environment. What each stirred was the slumbering fear that technological innovation held the power to transform life as it was known into something not just alien but inherently threatening. Change, the great hope and mantra of modernity, was perhaps not so benign.
Though they didn’t yet have a name for it, Carson and Jacobs were sowing the first seeds of the Green movement. They were putting a personal face on complex questions about the country’s collective future, drawing upon values that were deeply rooted in America’s earliest Edenic idea of itself. Both were openly indicting fifties corporate culture and its misplaced priorities, its self-interest and shortsightedness in plundering the commons; they were putting forward a set of values different from those of the big boys and their big business.
The fifties had been an era of Cold War fears and conformity, of getting and spending, setting up house and keeping up with the Joneses. It was a decade driven by powerful strains of hypermasculinity, its poster boys the Marlboro Man and the rakish playboy bachelor, the cool corporate executive and the clever adman. The culture was awash in a glut of consumer goods and spanking-new high-tech weaponry. It was enthralled by its own power and reach (despite the terrifying specter of Armageddon that loomed). It went without saying that men were the breadwinners in this brawny new world; women’s place was in the home or at the shopping center buying shiny new appliances. The popular understanding—even by educators at prestigious women’s colleges like Radcliffe—was that the “proper goal” for an intelligent woman was marriage. To be a stay-at-home wife was an honor (or so the thinking went), a signal that one had reached the middle class. Family “experts” enjoined every housewife to help her husband “rise to his capacity.” Everything from the legal system to the movies reinforced this idea. Women were not meant to compete with men, to act independently of men, or to have adventures or strong opinions of their own.
There were scores of women who did work, of course, whether out of economic necessity or because they wanted to. But they were relegated to underpaid, ancillary jobs. In the higher precincts of power, the presence of women was pretty much a nonevent. At the dawn of the sixties, only 6 percent of doctors were women; only 3 percent of lawyers were women; less than 3 percent of U.S. senators, members of Congress, and ambassadors were female. It was assumed that women couldn’t possibly be scientists, TV news anchors, movie directors, or CEOs. In some states, a woman couldn’t get credit without a male cosigner. In others, they were barred from serving on a jury, as it might involve neglecting their domestic duties. When Carson and Jacobs published their books, the idea of gender equality wasn’t part of anyone’s vocabulary.
And so the question: What was it about the insights of two uncredentialed women working outside the mainstream that carried such power? And why at that moment? Today we take it as gospel that marvelous older buildings rich with architectural detail are worthy of saving, that a masterwork like McKim, Mead & White’s Pennsylvania Station in New York, with its soaring, vaulted, steel-and-glass ceilings, wouldn’t meet with the wrecking ball, as it did with little debate in 1963. We grow wiser about the perils of chemical contamination and rue the proliferation of tasteless prefab convenience food bereft of nutritional value. Our familiarity with these wise and salutary ideas is testament to how deeply they have embedded themselves into our collective consciousness and national debates.
Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs shifted the cultural conversation in profound and enduring ways. They saw and helped articulate the unconscious currents at play within the culture and in so doing sparked the imaginations of ordinary people, offering them a new, more holistic way to think about the world and a more benign way of living in it. In each case, their work underscored the fragile interconnectedness of the living world, in this way spurring a new public awareness of the links, respectively, between chemicals and the contamination of the biosphere, the preservation of neighborhoods and the sustainability of cities. In each instance, they argued for a radical shift in the way we collectively inhabit the planet, wary of the culture’s blinkered enthusiasm for science and technology unmoored from ethical responsibility. And they both found their audiences during a decade that saw enormous changes and upheaval.
Writers have described the sixties variously as a decade of carnivalesque “spectacle”; “an experiment in political theater”; a struggle for the nation’s soul; a time of political and moral radicalization; a moment of buoyant change; a time of taboo-shattering sexual antics and instantaneous freedoms; and an era of strife and polarization riven with explosive, sometimes violent conflicts. Depending on one’s vantage point, all of these descriptions hold true.
But what interests me here is another legacy that hasn’t been much explored: the deep-seated shifts in the values and sensibilities of the culture, beyond the politics of feminism, that these remarkable women catalyzed, and the ways in which their ideas simultaneously fed and expanded upon the larger issues shaping the era and its aftermath. What was it about the cultural soil of the sixties that proved such fertile ground for their visions, allowing them to take root and flourish? Why was the culture so primed to hear what they were saying? For these women’s dissident positions, their resistance to America’s love affair with technological novelty, their embrace of the intuitive and the local, their contempt for the “machine”—whether it was of war or entrenched urban politics or the juggernaut of the chemical industry—turned out to be critically of their age. And I think the fact that they were female, interlopers almost by definition at that moment, was germane to their respective achievements—that is, their outsider status led them toward fresh ways of seeing their particular fields, and inspiring each was a kind of nurturing, arguably maternal instinct.
That Carson and Jacobs came from disparate worlds and didn’t know each other, that they grew up in different decades and stumbled into their respective fields in odd and utterly singular ways, that their temperaments were dissimilar and the degrees of their influence vary, only add to the unlikelihood that they should share so much and be so inextricably tied. But they were tied, it turns out, not only by the myriad and surprising common strands in their respective stories but also by the striking similarities in the philosophical underpinnings of their thoughts, despite the differences in their origins. That they happened to be in the right places during an era when the culture was primed to have its moral compass reset is also part of their collective story, for their ideas both shaped and grew out of their moment. Each of these women was a visionary in her own right, a pioneer who spurred a powerful social movement that would change the course of history. Each made real the sometimes far-fetched notion that an individual, armed with grit and colossal courage and an abiding, outsize love for what she does, can make a difference. For these women made all the difference in the world. Their ideas still have the power to touch and inspire and illuminate the way forward.
Andrea Barnet is the author of All-Night Party: The Women of Bohemian Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913–1930. She was a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review for twenty-five years, and her journalism has appeared in Smithsonian, Self, Harper’s Bazaar, and Elle, among other publications.
From Visionary Women, by Andrea Barnet. Copyright 2018 Andrea Barnet. Excerpted with permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins.