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Buck, Pearl S.

Pearl S. Buck

Born: June 26, 1892
Hillsboro, West Virginia
Died: March 6, 1973
Danby, Vermont

American novelist and writer

Pearl S. Buck was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Buck's life in China as an American citizen fueled her literary and personal commitment to improve relations between Americans and Asians.

Early years

Pearl Sydenstricker was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, on June 26, 1892. Her parents, Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, were Presbyterian missionaries, who were on a twelve-year leave from duty from their activities in Chinkiang, China at the time of her birth. The Sydenstrickers had returned to Hillsboro after losing all but two of their children to tropical disease. Despite their experience they returned to China when Pearl was just five months old. Unlike other foreign families, the Sydenstrickers lived in the Chinese village. Pearl spoke Chinese before learning English. Her daily lessons included morning lessons from her mother and afternoon lessons from her Chinese tutor. Pearl recalled never feeling different from the Chinese children. But at age nine the family was forced to flee to Shanghai during the antiforeign Boxer Rebellion of 1900. They returned to China at the end of the rebellion, but Pearl attended boarding school in Shanghai at age fifteen. She moved to the United States two years later and started at the Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia. After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1914, she took a teaching assistantship at the college but almost immediately returned to China to care for her ailing mother.

In 1917 she married John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural specialist, with whom she settled in northern China. From 1921 until 1934 they lived chiefly in Nanking, where her husband taught agricultural theory. Buck occasionally taught English literature at several universities in the city, although most of her time was spent caring for her mentally disabled daughter and her infirm parents. In 1925 Buck returned to the United States to pursue graduate studies at Cornell University, where she received a master's degree in English in 1926. Back in Nanking the following year, she barely escaped a revolutionary army attack on the city. Meanwhile, because of her family's financial difficulties, she resolved to begin writing.

Novels reflect love of China

Buck's first novel, East Wind: West Wind (1930) was a study of the conflict between the old China and the new. This was followed by The Good Earth (1931), an intense novel of Chinese peasant life, which won her a Pulitzer Prize. In 1933 Buck received a second master's degree, this time from Yale University, and in 1934 she took up permanent residence in the United States. In 1935 she divorced John Buck and married Richard J. Walsh, her publisher. Her extensive literary output resulted in a 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature, the first ever awarded to a woman.

Humanitarian efforts occupy later life

In the next three decades, while continuing to write many volumes, Buck worked to promote racial tolerance and ease the struggles of disadvantaged Asians, particularly children. In 1941 she founded the East and West Association to promote greater understanding among the world's peoples. In 1949 she established Welcome House, an adoption agency for Asian American children. Her special interest in children resulted in many books for them. A steadfast supporter of multiracial families, in 1964 she organized the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which supports Asian American children and their mothers living abroad.

Although Buck's literary career embraced a variety of types, almost all of her stories are set in China: the extremely popular novel Dragon Seed, its less popular sequel The Promise (1943), and many later novels, including Peony (1948), Letter from Peking (1957), and The New Year (1968). Among her other works are the highly successful The Living Reed (1963), which details the history of a Korean family during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the late 1940s Buck also wrote a trilogy under the pen name John Sedges.

Honored for generous spirit

Buck's play A Desert Incident was produced in New York City in 1959. Her ability as an essayist is represented by American Argument (written with Eslanda Goode Robeson, 1949). Friend to Friend (1958) was an open, honest conversation with Philippine president Carlos P. Rómulo (18991985).

Buck died of lung cancer in 1973, with more than one hundred written works to her credit. But even more significant, perhaps, were the over three hundred awards she received for her humanitarian efforts on behalf of improved race relations worldwide.

For More Information

Conn, Peter J. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

La Farge, Ann. Pearl Buck. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Sherk, Warren. Pearl S. Buck: Good Earth Mother. Philomath, OR: Drift Creek Press, 1992.

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Pearl Sydenstricker Buck

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck (1892-1973), an American Nobel Prize-winning novelist, dedicated her books and her personal activities to the improvement of relations between Americans and Asians.

Pearl Sydenstricker was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, on June 26, 1892. Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries, on furlough at the time of her birth from their activities in Chinkiang, China, although they soon returned there. During the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the family was forced to flee to Shanghai where, from 1907 to 1909, Buck attended boarding school. She moved to the United States the following year to enter Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia. After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1914, she took a teaching assistantship at the college but almost immediately returned to Chinkiang to care for her ailing mother.

In 1917 she married John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural specialist, with whom she settled in northern China. From 1921 until 1934 they lived chiefly in Nanking, where her husband taught agricultural theory. Buck occasionally taught English literature at several universities in the city, although most of her time was spent caring for her mentally disabled daughter and her infirm parents. In 1925 Buck returned to the United States to pursue graduate studies at Cornell University, where she received a master's degree in English in 1926. Back in Nanking the following year, she barely escaped a revolutionary army attack on the city. Meanwhile, because of her family's financial difficulties, she resolved to begin writing.

Novels Reflect Love of China

Buck's first novel, East Wind: West Wind (1930), a study of the conflict between the old China and the new, was followed by The Good Earth (1931), a profoundly affecting novel of Chinese peasant life, which won her a Pulitzer Prize. In 1933 Buck received a second master's degree, this time from Yale University, and in 1934 she took up permanent residence in the United States. In 1935 she divorced John Buck and married Richard J. Walsh, her publisher. Her extensive literary output—Sons (1932), The First Wife and Other Stories (1933), The Mother (1934), A House Divided (1935), and biographies of her father and mother, The Exile (1936) and Fighting Angel (1936) respectively—culminated in a 1938 Nobel Prize for literature, the first ever awarded to a woman.

Humanitarian Efforts Occupy Later Life

In the next three decades, while continuing to write prolifically, Buck worked to promote racial tolerance and ease the plight of disadvantaged Asians, particularly children. In 1941 she founded the East and West Association to promote greater understanding among the world's peoples, and in 1949 she established Welcome House, an adoption agency for Asian-American children. She always had a special interest in children, and among her many books for them are The Water-Buffalo Children (1943), The Man Who Changed China: The Story of Sun Yat Sen (1953), The Beech Tree (1955), Christmas Miniature (1957), and The Christmas Ghost (1960). A steadfast supporter of multiracial families, in 1964 she organized the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which supports Asian-American children and their mothers living abroad.

Although Buck's literary career embraced a variety of genres, almost all of her stories are set in China: the extremely popular novel Dragon Seed, its less popular sequel, The Promise (1943), and a raft of later novels, including Peony (1948), Letter from Peking (1957), and The New Year (1968). Among her other works, the highly acclaimed The Living Reed (1963) details the history of a Korean family during the late 19th and early 20th century. In the late 1940s Buck also authored a trilogy under the pseudonym John Sedges. The novels were later published as American Triptych (1958).

Lauded for Generous Spirit

Buck's play A Desert Incident was produced in New York City in 1959. Her ability as an essayist is exemplified by American Argument (with Eslanda Goode Robeson, 1949) and Friend to Friend (1958), "a candid exchange" with Philippine president Carlos P. Rómulo. Buck died of lung cancer in 1973, with more than one hundred written works to her credit. But even more significant, perhaps, were the over three hundred awards she received for her humanitarian efforts on behalf of improved race relations worldwide.

Further Reading

There has been very little critical attention given to Mrs. Buck's work. Her autobiography is My Several Worlds (1954). The best biographical sources are Cornelia Spencer, The Exile's Daughter: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck (1944), Paul A. Doyle, Pearl S. Buck (1965), and Nora Stirling, Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict (1983). □

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Buck, Pearl Sydenstricker

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck (sī´dənstrĬk´ər), 1892–1973, American author, b. Hillsboro, W.Va., grad. Randolph-Macon Women's College, 1914, the first American woman to receive (1938) the Nobel Prize in Literature. Until 1924 she lived principally in China, where she, her parents, and her first husband, John Lossing Buck, whom she married in 1917, were missionaries. She is famous for her vivid, compassionate novels about life in China. The Good Earth (1931; Pulitzer Prize), a best seller that is considered her finest work, describes a Chinese peasant's rise to wealth and brilliantly conveys a sense of the daily life of ordinary rural fieldworkers in China. Among her other novels of China are East Wind: West Wind (1930), Dragon Seed (1942), Imperial Woman (1956), and Mandala (1971). Remarkably prolific, she wrote 39 novels; 25 nonfiction works, including Fighting Angel, a biography of her father (1936), and China As I See It (1970); and numerous short stories, children's books, plays, and magazine articles. In 1935, she married her publisher, Richard J. Walsh, president of the John Day Company. In 1949 she founded Welcome House, which provided care for the children of Asian women and American soldiers; the Pearl Buck Foundation of Philadelphia, to which she consigned most of her royalties, aids in the adoption of Amerasian children.

See her autobiography, My Several Worlds (1954); biographies by T. F. Harris (2 vol., 1969–71), P. Conn (1996), and H. Spurling (2010); study by K. Liao (1997).

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Buck, Pearl S.

Buck, Pearl S. ( Sydenstricker) (1892–1973) US novelist. Buck was brought up in China, which she used as the setting for many of her novels, including The Good Earth (1931), which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Her other works include Sons (1932), The Mother (1934), A House Divided (1935) and Dragon Seed (1942). She also wrote plays, screenplays, verse and children's fiction. Buck received the 1938 Nobel Prize in literature.

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