Since I was born during the short window between John F. Kennedy’s election and inauguration, I can claim with technical accuracy to be a child of the ’60s. True, my main accomplishment over the next 10 years was learning to ride a bike, but the iconography of the decade is so inescapable that I’ve always felt as if I actually knew what it was all about: raised fists, civil-rights and antiwar marches, hippies, the Beatles, the hair—an epoch of resistance.
Andrea Barnet’s new biography of four women who helped shape that era rewrote that definition a little for me—or at least broadened it. One thing that unites Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters is, of course, gender. But (perhaps in part because of that fact) what really makes them fit subjects for joint consideration is the idea they shared, which was in many ways quite new when they broached it in the ’60s: that the world, both natural and human, is not a series of mechanistic interactions but rather a web. “Into a blustery, all-male world of patriarchs and company men, technocrats and cold warriors,” Barnet writes, “walked four women who saw things differently and were unafraid to say so.”
Carson, Jacobs, Goodall, and Waters weren’t friends; they weren’t all of the same generation, and they worked in different fields. But where the men who had made the world of the 1950s saw “strict hierarchies and separations, they saw entities and connections, the world as a holistic system…they saw movement and flow, evolution and process.” Indeed, Barnet tells us, all four “intuitively grasped the overarching idea of ‘connection,’ which is the basis of what we now call ‘web’ or ‘systems’ thinking. If these insights seem self-evident today, it is only because of how thoroughly we have internalized their essence.” Their ideas “not only turned out to be prescient, but culture-changing—the catalyst to a radical shift in consciousness.” There were others—men and women both—who helped push us in the same direction, but these four help us better understand the nature, and the beauty, of that shift.
Rachel Carson was much older than the rest of this quartet, and she was prominent before the ’60s—indeed, her books about the oceans were among the best, and best-selling, of the 1950s. Carson had aspired to a career as a biologist, but her father’s illness left her the sole supporter of her family, and as a result she had to forgo getting a PhD. In 1935, Carson took a civil-service job with the Bureau of Fisheries, which later became a part of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, where she was given the task of writing radio scripts and brochures about marine life. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind, described seabirds and fish in language both technically accurate and lyrical. Yet despite the fine reviews, its impact was effectively scuttled by the outbreak of World War II.
Before she started writing about pesticides, however, Carson returned to the sea, producing another manuscript about the oceans. This time, it caught the eye of Edith Oliver, a shrewd longtime presence at The New Yorker, who persuaded managing editor William Shawn to excerpt most of it. The check from the magazine, for $5,200, equaled Carson’s government salary for a year, and so she quit to become a full-time writer.
That second book, The Sea Around Us, made her: It spent 86 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, at one point selling more than 4,000 copies a day, and earned her the National Book Award. Its sequel, The Edge of the Sea, was another considerable success. Had Carson’s work stopped there, she would have left an imprint: She had helped open up 70 percent of the planet for humans to contemplate, understand, and enjoy. What Jacques Cousteau would later do with a camera, Carson did first with just a typewriter.
But she didn’t stop there. The stories about the harmful effects of the powerful insecticide DDT, which she’d known about at least since the war, had always nagged at her. First she tried to persuade E.B. White to take on the issue (he had written on the question of nuclear fallout before), but when he demurred, Carson continued to investigate the dangers of the ubiquitous pesticide on her own. (Among other things, DDT was sprayed from the air over football stadiums before big games to keep the mosquitoes down; pocket-size dispensers were also sold for carrying in golf bags.) As she worked on the book that would become Silent Spring, Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer, beginning a race against time. In the summer of 1962, The New Yorker began to serialize the book, and Silent Spring was published that fall to a cascade of plaudits—as well as a full-blown assault by the chemical industry, which tried to discredit Carson as an “anti-business” subversive who lacked professional scientific credentials. The kind of public-relations campaign that the tobacco and oil industries later perfected had its crude birth in the response to Silent Spring.
The chemical industry was right to be alarmed. The book, Barnet writes, was “more than a polemic about the perils of synthetic pesticides; it was a critique of the values of the 1950s: its love affair with technology, its deference to big business, its scientific elitism, its mania for national security, its increasing disconnection from nature.” When Carson testified before the Senate, her composure and gravitas left a strong impression on committee chairman Abraham Ribicoff. She made an equally important appearance on CBS Reports, where, as Barnet notes, nearly 15 million Americans saw her “answering every question with calm deliberation, never sounding anything but thoughtful throughout.” Though she’d been careful and detailed in her critique of pesticides, Carson concluded the program on a more philosophical note. “We still talk in terms of conquest,” she said. “We still haven’t become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Now I truly believe that in this generation we must come to terms with nature.”
It’s hard to imagine what a thoroughly bizarre operation urban planning had become in the 1950s and ’60s. If the chemical industry thought that wiping out a broad array of pests would produce a happy society, many of the world’s architects thought that standardizing our surroundings could achieve that end as well. Oscar Niemeyer, for instance, was designing Brasília from scratch, with separate zones for work, pleasure, and habitation. The low-density, car-dependent suburb had also become a favored form of the era, and giant public-housing towers were seen as an antiseptic answer to slums.
Barnet opens her section on Jane Jacobs with an account of Jacobs’s visit to Philadelphia to meet Edmund Bacon, the local version of New York master planner Robert Moses. Jacobs recalled Bacon greeting her at the city’s grand train station. Then he took her to an area
where loads of people were hanging around on the street, on the stoops, having a good time of it…and he said, well, this is the next street we’re getting rid of. That was the “before” street. Then he showed me the “after” street, all fixed up, and there was just one person on it, a bored little boy kicking a tire in the gutter.
“Where are the people?” Jacobs asked. “They don’t appreciate these things,” Bacon replied.
Excitedly he explained the need for order in the crowded and unruly downtown, the importance of providing a “view corridor.”
Bacon’s vision of an orderly and uncluttered city was more than just dogma found in many academic journals; it wrecked neighborhoods across the nation and around the world. Jacobs—then a young editor at Architectural Forum, but not a part of the profession’s establishment—was one of the few who resisted this view of the city; indeed, she spent the next couple of decades pointing out that the kind of cities imagined by Bacon and Moses had no street life. She asked how these places felt to those who lived and worked in them, and she asked that question impertinently and persistently.
Jacobs’s breakthrough piece came in 1958, with an article called “Downtown Is for People” that appeared in Fortune, which outlined her emperor’s-new-clothes take on urban renewal. “Letters of praise poured into Fortune in unprecedented numbers,” Barnet tells us. Careful readers will note a pattern here. As with Carson, an overlooked and under-credentialed observer used the wonderfully edited general-interest magazines of the era, then at their height of popularity, to advance her ideas at length and with enough reach to reconfigure a national debate. But unlike Carson, Jacobs had plenty of time and strength left to see her ideas through. She published her blockbuster, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, by which point she was already engaged in a series of fights with Moses over the shape of Lower Manhattan, where she lived. First there was the epic battle to keep Washington Square Park from being cut in two by an extension of Fifth Avenue. “There is nobody against this,” Moses had insisted to the city’s Board of Estimate. “Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch…of mothers.” Led by Jacobs, who organized children’s pickets, “reverse ribbon-cutting” ceremonies, and dozens of other media-savvy stunts, the mothers prevailed. Much the same thing happened a few years later, when Moses’s successors tried to designate the West Village a slum and clear it for urban renewal, and again when Soho was threatened with a highway.
It’s impossible to imagine New York now if Jacobs hadn’t thought, and fought; hundreds of other cities also bear her mark. Her triumph was intellectual as well as political. Jacobs offered us a view of cities as “complex organisms that made themselves up as they went along.” In Death and Life she insisted, as Barnet puts it, that “vibrant cities were continuously adapting over time, in response to the external environment, just like other natural systems.” In fact, her insight proved so spot-on, and the cities it produced so attractive, that this very attractiveness has become the problem we call gentrification. But that’s a dilemma for a different decade. Barnet has done well to place Jacobs alongside Carson as a powerful challenger of the entrenched orthodoxy of a proud but blinded power structure.
Barnet’s third subject, Jane Goodall, fits this template too, though she was a generation younger. Goodall loved nature and didn’t care for school; in search of adventure, she started looking for secretarial work overseas, and nearly by accident ended up working for Louis Leakey, the maverick anthropologist then on the cusp of his great discoveries in the Olduvai Gorge. Leakey had long wanted to know more about the lives of the great apes, which had scarcely been studied in the wild—the few exceptions were a series of expeditions that looked more like military operations and traumatized the chimps under study, causing them to flee into the forest. (Those that didn’t escape were often slaughtered so their stomach contents could be inspected.)
Goodall, of course, pioneered an entirely different way of working. She went to Gombe, at one end of Lake Tanganyika, and after long and arduous months—much of that time spent simply sitting so that the chimps would learn to tolerate her—she began to identify and then to understand the individual animals. They constituted “a society connected by a web of relations and interdependencies,” as Barnet puts it, adding: “it was an approach akin to that of Jacobs, who argued that generalizations about cities got one nowhere. It was only by observing the unique and particular features of individual blocks…that one could possibly get a sense of how the city as a whole worked.”
Goodall also observed something truly remarkable: chimps making rudimentary tools to get at termites in their mounds. When she told Leakey, he was stunned: “in his wildest musings he hadn’t imagined a breakthrough of this caliber or import,” an observation that knocked humankind off one of its imagined pedestals. Though somewhat on the fringes of academe himself, Leakey knew that, to be taken seriously, his young assistant would need credentials, so Goodall was dispatched back to Cambridge to get her doctorate. At the first conferences she attended to present her findings, the primatologists—male great apes themselves—ignored or condescended to her. Among the charges lodged against her: Goodall was an amateur; she had given her subjects names; she proceeded by anecdote. But Goodall had the same weapon as Carson and Jacobs: the general-interest magazine—in her case, National Geographic. When “My Life Among Wild Chimpanzees” was published in 1963—two years after Death and Life and a year after Silent Spring—replete with pictures of the ponytailed Goodall and the toolmaking chimps, readers were predictably “enchanted. Within days,” Barnet writes, “Jane was buried in messages from friends, letters from readers from around the globe, solicitations from publishers and journalists.” It’s a fame that has never really abated and that she has put to remarkable use as a perennially effective spokesperson for conservation.
Barnet might have done well to end her volume there, because Alice Waters, her fourth subject, doesn’t quite fit, temporally or intellectually. Barnet has tried to shoehorn her in, arguing that Waters reached some of the insights that would eventually revolutionize American cooking during an undergraduate trip to France in 1965, but that’s a stretch: Mainly she learned what she liked to eat. Nor did Waters really break through until the 1970s. She opened Chez Panisse in 1971, and it was some years later that her insistence on local sourcing opened the eyes of many people in America. For that reason, I’d suggest that readers skip this section of Barnet’s book and instead head straight for Waters’s own account, published last year.
Coming to My Senses is as compelling a book about the 1960s as I’ve ever read. If the decade had a geography, Berkeley was one of its capitals, and Waters knew everyone and everything. She worked for the underground papers; she was on Sproul Plaza when Mario Savio launched the free-speech movement; she went to the art-house movies; she volunteered for an antiwar congressional candidate; she took lovers who were themselves central players in the era. There’s nothing sentimental in Waters’s account, nor is there anything lurid—it’s the lived experience of a fascinating moment in time, told by someone whose expertise is simplicity ladled over with nuance.
“Even though I shared a lot of counterculture values,” Waters writes,
I never connected with the hippie culture…. I didn’t want anything to do with the hippies’ style of health food cooking: a jumble of chopped vegetables tossed together with pasta—throw in a few bamboo shoots and call it a Chinese meal. To me, that world was all about stale, dry brown bread and an indiscriminate way of eating cross-legged on couches or on the ground with none of the formality of the table.
What Waters wanted looked at first more like France—a carefully built menu of the day, a comfortably elegant place to enjoy it—and then like Northern California, which, in turn, took on the shape of her particular tastes. She was running a “counterculture restaurant,” as she calls it, but she also succeeded in reshaping the culture—and in that respect, she is certainly the equal of Carson, Jacobs, and Goodall. And Waters, too, became an activist: Her Edible Schoolyard project continues to change the way that children eat at schools across America, and it’s hard to imagine the slow-food movement becoming as big as it has without her backing.
Barnet, of course, is interested in showing that gender had a good deal to do with the similar philosophies these women produced. She reminds us how rare it was for women to be taken seriously in the 1950s, which meant that they didn’t need to take the prevailing ideologies seriously—they weren’t members of the ruling cults. Rather, “each displayed a profound respect for intuition and the wisdom of direct engagement”; they were comfortable with disorder and messiness. “Instead of the false neutrality of the design theorist or the traffic engineer, the agricultural technician or the academic zoologist, each of these women used the felt and observed as the template upon which to build her ideas.”
It seems reasonable to agree with this basic point, even though there are plenty of counterexamples on both sides. (As Barnet notes in passing, the conservationist Aldo Leopold prefigured much of Carson’s work on the world’s inescapable interrelatedness. Meanwhile, the most influential female writer of the period may well have been Ayn Rand, and whatever else one says about her, the organic web of life was not her jam.) It’s also true that this is a very white book, one that ignores the most important explosion of the 1960s: the civil-rights movement. Barnet could have drawn from its cadre to demonstrate that the view of interrelatedness was central to the political activism of the era—in particular, the struggle for racial equality. An obvious choice would have been Ella Baker, a “web” thinker in her own right, who recognized that broad social movements did not depend on the charisma of a few great leaders, but instead required communities mobilized around their collective interests and organized in broad-based and nonhierarchical structures.
In any event, Barnet’s thesis seems correct. These four gave their moment—and ours—a unique and compelling way to perceive the interconnections within a society, as well as its relationship to its surroundings. We will always need the perspective of outsiders, of unsocialized, uncredentialed nonexperts, in order to see what plainly needs to be seen. Carson, Jacobs, Goodall, and Waters were and are geniuses, extraordinary spirits, remarkable souls—just the kind of people rarely produced by the normal order of things.