What a Book Can Do: The Publication and Reception of Silent Spring

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In 1962 the publication of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring"sparked widespread public debate on the issue of pesticide abuse and environmental degradation. The discussion permeated the entire print and electronic media system of mid-twentieth century America. Although Carson's text was serialized in the New Yorker, it made a significant difference that it was also published as a book. With clarity and precision, Priscilla Coit Murphy explores the importance of the book form for the author, her editors and publishers, her detractors, the media, and the public at large.

Murphy reviews the publishing history of the Houghton Mifflin edition and the prior New Yorker serialization, describing Carson's approach to her project as well as the views and expectations of her editors. She also documents the response of opponents to Carson's message, notably the powerful chemical industry, including efforts to undermine, delay, or stop publication altogether.

Murphy then investigates the media's role, showing that it went well beyond providing a forum for debate. In addition, she analyzes the perceptions and expectations of the public at large regarding the book, the debate, and the media. By probing all of these perspectives, Murphy sheds new light on the dynamic between newsmaking books, the media, and the public. In the process, she addresses a host of broader questions about the place of books in American culture, past, present, and future.

"In this in-depth study of a best-selling and influential book, Murphy makes an extremely important contribution to the history of print culture. . . . Her book is a quick read and not at all ponderous, so I recommend it not only to scholars in book history and mass communications, but also to anyone interested in the influence of the media and in 'Silent Spring' itself. It will be a marvelous addition to mass communications and book history classes."— Beth Luey, author of "Handbook for Academic Authors"

"Combines a marvelous blend of good detective work and rounding up of the correct suspects. There is, to my mind, a novel combination of literatures (publishing history, media effects, social movement research) that tells a very compelling story. Murphy recreates the time period nicely and captures the relationship between Carson and The New Yorker and her Houghton Mifflin editor beautifully. . . . I can think of very few comparable studies of a work of nonfiction."— Walter W. Powell, coauthor of "Books: The Culture and Commerce of Publishing"

PRISCILLA COIT MURPHY is an independent scholar who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

A volume in the series Studies in Print Culture and the History of the Book.

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Editorial Reviews

American Historical Review
Murphy's study is a 'biography of a book' that is one of the classics of environmental writing in American history.
American Journalism
(P)rovides a fresh and interesting take on an important and much-mythologized event in book, media, and cultural history. The book's tightly argued thesis and almost forensic attention to detail make it a useful addition to the now considerable literature around 'Silent Spring,' and of general interest to environmental historians, communication scholars, and book and media historians alike.
Chris Roush
"Today, the impact of Carson's book, Silent Spring, is still being felt, as regulatory agencies and environmental groups are still fighting over the use of some of these chemicals. . . . This book would make for an ideal reading choice for any public relations case study or basic reporting class. . . . Murphy's analysis of Carson's work and how the public reacted provides great insight into the power of well-researched and well-written journalism in book form."
Carolina Communications, 2005
Diana Post and Munro Meyersburg
"Silent Spring's author intended its information to be useful not only to ordinary people but also to those in authority. . . . The author is to be commended for producing such a thoroughly readable, enjoyable and scholarly work."--
of the Rachel Carson Council, 2006
Rachel Carson Council
"The author is to be commended for producing such a thoroughly readable, enjoyable, and scholarly work."
Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada
As a very good writer telling a familiar yet mostly unknown story, she presents detailed and thorough research, and her anlysis and arguments are convincing. She brings a mass-media-studies perspective to the book in society that is quite surprising to scholars who are used to starting with the book and looking outward.
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Product Details

Table of Contents

1 Silent Spring and its contexts : "the right to know" 1
2 Author and agent : "where an author can call his soul his own" 19
3 Editors and publishers : dealing with a "super-ruckus" 53
4 Opposition : "how do you fight a best-seller?" 89
5 Media : "one formidable indictment" 119
6 Audience : "this ought to be a book" 159
Conclusion : " speaking truth to power" 183
App Perspectives on the study of Silent Spring 199
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