Buck, Pearl S. (26 June 1892 - 6 March 1973)
Pearl S. Buck (26 June 1892 - 6 March 1973)
Tracy Simmons Bitonti
See also the Buck entries in DLB 9: American Novelists, 1910-1945 and DLB 102: American Short-Story Writers, 1910-1945, Second Series.
Sons (New York: John Day, 1932; London: Methuen, 1932);
The Young Revolutionist (New York: Friendship, 1932; London: Methuen, 1932);
The First Wife and Other Stories (New York: John Day, 1933; London: Methuen, 1933);
The Mother (New York: John Day, 1934; London: Methuen, 1934);
A House Divided (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1935; London: Methuen, 1935);
House of Earth (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1935; London: Methuen, 1936)—comprises The Good Earth, Sons, and A House Divided;
The Exile (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936; London: Methuen, 1936);
Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1936; London: Methuen, 1937);
This Proud Heart (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1938; London: Methuen, 1938);
The Chinese Novel (New York: John Day, 1939; London: Macmillan, 1939);
The Patriot (New York: John Day, 1939; London: Methuen, 1939);
Other Gods: An American Legend (New York: John Day, 1940; London: Macmillan, 1940);
Today and Forever: Stories of China (New York: John Day, 1941; London: Macmillan, 1941);
Of Men and Women (New York: John Day, 1941; London: Methuen, 1942);
American Unity and Asia (New York: John Day, 1942); republished as Asia and Democracy (London: Macmillan, 1943);
China Sky (New York: Triangle, 1942);
The Chinese Children Next Door (New York: John Day, 1942; London: Methuen, 1943);
Dragon Seed (New York: John Day, 1942; London: Macmillan, 1942);
What America Means to Me (New York: John Day, 1943; London: Methuen, 1944);
The Promise (New York: John Day, 1943; London: Methuen, 1944);
The Spirit and the Flesh (New York: John Day, 1944)-comprises The Exile and Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul;
The Dragon Fish (New York: John Day, 1944; London: Methuen, 1946);
China Flight (Philadelphia: Triangle/Blakiston, 1945);
The Townsman, as John Sedges (New York: John Day, 1945; London: Methuen, 1946);
Talk About Russia, by Buck and Masha Scott (New York: John Day, 1945);
Tell the People: Talks with James Yen about the Mass Education Movement (New York: International Mass Education Movement, 1945);
Portrait of a Marriage (New York: John Day, 1945; London: Methuen, 1946);
Pavilion of Women (New York: John Day, 1946; London: Methuen, 1947);
The Angry Wife, as Sedges (New York: John Day, 1947; London: Methuen, 1948);
Far and Near: Stories of Japan, China, and America (New York: John Day, 1947); republished as Far and Near: Stories of East and West (London: Methuen, 1949);
How It Happens: Talk About the German People, 1914-1933, by Buck and Erna von Pustau (New York: John Day, 1947);
Peony (New York: John Day, 1948); republished as The Bondmaid (London: Methuen, 1949);
The Big Wave (New York: John Day, 1948);
American Argument, by Buck and Eslanda Goode Robe-son (New York: John Day, 1949; London: Methuen, 1950);
Kinfolk (New York: John Day, 1949; London: Methuen, 1950);
The Long Love, as Sedges (New York: John Day, 1949; London: Methuen, 1950);
The Child Who Never Grew (New York: John Day, 1950; London: Methuen, 1951; Rockville, Md.: Woodbine House, 1992);
One Bright Day (New York: John Day, 1950); enlarged as One Bright Day and Other Stories for Children (London: Methuen, 1952);
God’s Men (New York: John Day, 1951; London: Methuen, 1951);
The Hidden Flower (New York: John Day, 1952; London: Methuen, 1952);
Bright Procession, as Sedges (New York: John Day, 1952; London: Methuen, 1952);
Come, My Beloved (New York: John Day, 1953; London: Methuen, 1953);
The Man Who Changed China: The Story of Sun Yat-sen (New York: Random House, 1953; London: Methuen, 1953);
Voices in the House, as Sedges (New York: John Day, 1953; London: Methuen, 1954);
My Several Worlds (New York: John Day, 1954; London: Methuen, 1955);
The Beech Tree (New York: John Day, 1954);
Imperial Woman (New York: John Day, 1956; London: Methuen, 1956);
Letter from Peking (New York: John Day, 1957; London: Methuen, 1957);
Friend to Friend, by Buck and Carlos Romulo (New York: John Day, 1958);
Command the Morning (New York: John Day, 1959; London: Methuen, 1959);
Fourteen Stories (New York: John Day, 1961); republished as With a Delicate Air and Other Stories (London: Methuen, 1962);
A Bridge for Passing (New York: John Day, 1962; London: Methuen, 1963);
Satan Never Sleeps (New York: Pocket Books, 1962);
The Living Reed (New York: John Day, 1963; London: Methuen, 1963);
The Joy of Children (New York: John Day, 1964);
Children for Adoption (New York: Random House, 1965);
Death in the Castle (New York: John Day, 1965; London: Methuen, 1966);
The Gifts They Bring: Our Debt to the Mentally Retarded, by Buck and Gweneth T. Zarfoss (New York: John Day, 1965);
For Spacious Skies: Journey in Dialogue, by Buck and Theodore F. Harris (New York: John Day, 1966);
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (New York: John Day, 1966);
The People of Japan (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966; London: Hale, 1968);
The Time Is Noon (New York: John Day, 1967; London: Methuen, 1967);
To My Daughters, With Love (New York: John Day, 1967);
The New Year (New York: John Day, 1968; London: Methuen, 1968);
The Good Deed, and Other Stories of Asia, Past and Present (New York: John Day, 1969; London: Methuen, 1970);
The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (New York: John Day, 1969; London: Methuen, 1969);
Mandala (New York: John Day, 1970; London: Methuen, 1971);
The Kennedy Women (New York: Cowles, 1970; London: Methuen, 1970);
China as I See It, edited by Harris (New York: John Day, 1970; London: Methuen, 1971);
A Gift for the Children (New York: John Day, 1971);
Pearl Buck’s America (New York: Bartholomew, 1971);
The Story Bible (New York: Bartholomew, 1971);
China Past and Present (New York: John Day, 1972);
The Goddess Abides (New York: John Day, 1972; London: Eyre Methuen, 1972);
Once Upon a Christmas (New York: John Day, 1972);
Pearl Buck’s Oriental Cookbook (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972);
All Under Heaven (New York: John Day, 1973; London: Eyre Methuen, 1973);
Mrs. Starling’s Problem (New York: John Day, 1973);
The Rainbow (New York: John Day, 1974; London: Eyre Methuen, 1976);
Words of Love (New York: John Day, 1974);
East and West (New York: John Day, 1975);
Mrs. Stoner and the Sea, and Other Works (New York: Ace, 1976);
Secrets of the Heart (New York: John Day, 1976);
The Lovers and Other Stories (New York: John Day, 1977);
The Woman Who Was Changed, and Other Stories (New York: Crowell, 1979; London: Eyre Methuen, 1980);
Christmas Day in the Morning (New York: HarperCollins,
Collection: Pearl Buck and Education: An Anthology of Her Writings, edited by Peter J. Conn (Perkasie, Pa.: Pearl S. Buck Foundation, 1996).
TRANSLATION: All Men Are Brothers [Shui Hu Chuan], 2 volumes (New York: John Day, 1933).
When Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, she became the third American (and the first American woman) to do so. She also became a figure of controversy. The citation that accompanied the award praised the “rich and generous epic descriptions of Chinese peasant life” in Buck’s novels and also singled out The Exile (1936) and Fighting Angel: Portrait of A Soul (1936), which were biographies of her parents, as “masterpieces.” Her detractors, however, felt the Swedish Academy had shown poor judgment in selecting Buck over other writers, such as Theodore Dreiser, whose work they considered of superior literary quality. Despite the critics and the subsequent decline in her literary reputation, Buck enjoyed great popularity with readers during her lifetime, and her novels helped to introduce American readers to Asian culture; as biographer Peter J. Conn comments, “For two generations of Americans, Buck invented China.”
Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker on 26 June 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia. She was the fifth of seven children (but only the second to survive infancy) of Absalom Sydenstricker and Caroline (Carie) Stulting Sydenstricker, who were on furlough after ten years of Presbyterian missionary service in China. The family returned to China when Pearl was three months old, and in 1896 they settled in Chenchiang. Pearl spent much time with her Chinese amah (governess), Wang, a widow whom Carie Sydenstricker had rescued from a hard life in the streets. Pearl had a bilingual and bicultural upbringing, and throughout her life she retained the feeling that she did not quite belong in either American or Chinese culture.
In 1910 Pearl returned to the United States to enroll in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynch-burg, Virginia, where her older brother, Edgar, was a newspaper editor. She became president of her class and began writing and publishing poems and short stories. After graduation in 1914, she had accepted a job as a teaching assistant to her psychology professor, but a few months later she was called back to China to help care for her seriously ill mother.
On 30 May 1917 Pearl married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist who had come to China to work on methods of applying statistical analysis to improve Chinese farming. The couple settled first in Nanhsuchou and then moved to Nanking in 1919 when Lossing Buck was offered a position at Nanking University. On 4 March 1920 Buck gave birth to a daughter, Caroline Grace (Carol). The child suffered from the metabolic disease phenylketonuria (PKU), which had not at that time been diagnosed and which profoundly affected her mental development. Her daughter’s condition was a lifelong source of grief, shame, and guilt for Buck. In addition, the discovery and removal of a uterine tumor in July 1920 necessitated a hysterectomy. Buck was also unhappy that Lossing Buck was absorbed in his work and distanced himself emotionally from her and from Carol, in a way that echoed her father’s treatment of her mother. The marriage, which seemed to begin happily, soon disintegrated, though it lasted for seventeen years.
Buck’s mother died in 1921. To comfort herself, Buck began writing her mother’s biography as a private memorial to be shared with family members. Years later, this book became The Exile. By the time she had finished writing it, Buck had decided to become a writer. As Conn notes, “Writing offered Pearl an untraditional role and at least a chance of gaining the independence that an extra income might bring. At the same time, it was a career that could be adjusted to make room for her other obligations.” Her first professionally published work was an essay titled “In China, Too,” which appeared in the Atlantic in January 1924 and in which she examines the social changes wrought by modernity in Chinese life and culture, particularly the emerging liberation of Chinese women.
In 1924 the Bucks returned to America so that both of them could enter graduate school at Cornell University and so that they could have Carol’s mental retardation properly assessed. At Christmastime they adopted a baby girl, Janice. Buck distinguished herself as she earned her master’s degree in English, winning the Laura L. Messenger Memorial Prize for a 140-page essay on “China and the West,” submitted under a male pseudonym, “David Barnes.” In the spring of 1926, after the Bucks had returned to Nanking, her story “A Chinese Woman Speaks” appeared in two installments in Asia magazine.
“A Chinese Woman Speaks” is the story of Kweilan, who is betrothed at birth and is brought up well-schooled in the traditional female role of domestic, subservient wife, including endurance of the brutal practice of foot binding. To her amazement and initial dismay, however, she discovers that her Western-educated husband insists on treating her as an equal partner; he unbinds her feet and introduces her to modern Western ideas, which she learns to reconcile with her upbringing. Conn remarks that this story “celebrates tolerance and a version of cultural pluralism,” a point of view Buck promoted throughout her life.
The political situation in China was extremely unstable. In March 1927 the Nanking Incident, a violent two days of bloodshed and looting aimed particularly at foreigners, forced the Bucks and other family members (her father and the family of her sister, Grace Yaukey) to flee Nanking after a terrifying day of hiding in the home of one of their servants. They retreated to the Japanese town of Unzen with little more than their lives and some clothing; the losses included the manuscript of Buck’s first novel, though Lossing Buck managed to save the survey manuscript on which he was working. They were able to return to China in October 1927, settling in Shanghai; Lossing Buck then returned to Nanking, and Buck and the children joined him in July 1928.
Sometime during this period, Buck acquired a literary agent in America, David Lloyd. She had written to two potential agents, but as she recorded in her 1954 autobiography, My Several Worlds, the other agent told her “no one was interested in Chinese subjects.” Buck was determined to be a professional writer primarily to improve her financial situation, in order to acquire more independence and especially to provide for the special needs of her daughter Carol, whom she had made the wrenching decision to institutionalize in the Vineland Training School in New Jersey on a trip to the United States in 1929.
During the restoration of her Nanking home, Buck uncovered the manuscript of her biography of her mother. She was also working on a novel titled “Wang Lung.” She suggested to Lloyd that “A Chinese Woman Speaks” might constitute part of a novel, together with the story of Kwei-lan’s brother, the whole to be titled “Winds of Heaven.” During the 1929 trip to America, Buck received word from Lloyd that this book would be published by the John Day Company, under the title East Wind: West Wind (1930).
This novel was fairly well received. As Conn notes, “Several reviewers praised the book’s authenticity, though the compliment was gratuitous, since few American readers knew enough about China to have any basis for judgment.” The book was also the beginning of Buck’s long and profitable relationship with the John Day Company and with its president, Richard Walsh, with whom Buck eventually fell in love. She writes in her autobiography that Lloyd had told her the manuscript of East Wind: West Wind had been rejected by every other publisher in New York and that he was about to withdraw it when the John Day Company accepted it. Walsh also told her that his editorial staff had been evenly divided in their opinions on the book, and he had cast the deciding vote in favor, “not, he told me quite frankly, because he thought it a very good book, since he did not, but because he believed that he saw evidence there of a writer who might continue to grow.”
In May 1930 Buck finished the novel “Wang Lung,” which was accepted by the John Day Company, though Walsh requested a title change. He also wanted to defer publication until summer or fall 1931, so that this second book would, as Conn writes, “profit from Pearl’s growing reputation as a writer and interpreter of Asia.” East Wind: West Wind was continuing to receive favorable reviews, and sales were increasing. When word came in January 1931 that the second novel had been chosen (in page proofs) as a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, however, guaranteeing a significant sales boost, Walsh revised its publication schedule, and it appeared on 2 March 1931 under his suggested title: The Good Earth.
Buck’s second novel was a tremendous success and made her famous. As Conn summarizes:
Every leading newspaper and magazine gave the book a major notice, and almost all the reviews were ecstatic. Sales were so strong that Richard [Walsh] had to borrow copies from the Book-of-the-Month Club inventory to meet bookstore demand. The Good Earth would eventually prove to be the best-selling book of both 1931 and 1932.
The Good Earth follows the shifting fortunes of Wang Lung, the son of a poor Chinese farmer, and his wife, O-lan, whom he buys as a slave but who becomes a dedicated helpmate. They have sons, a highly prized commodity in Chinese culture, but also daughters, considered a burden, one of whom is retarded and another whom O-lan deliberately smothers and whose body is left to be eaten by a starving dog during a terrible famine. Wang Lung initially acquires land and money through hard work, but the famine and drought drive his family, along with many others, to desperation. Duing the looting after a revolutionary uprising, O-lan uncovers a stash of jewels in a Nanking house, the profits from which enable Wang Lung to buy the house of the rich family from whom he had purchased O-lan. When his eldest son falls in love with a concubine Wang Lung had purchased for himself, the patriarch banishes him, and O-lan grows ill and dies. A flood, a revolutionary army, and the disdain of his educated, modernized sons further erode Wang Lung’s world.
Critics have offered several reasons for the tremendous popularity of The Good Earth. Buck has been praised frequently for creating recognizable, even familiar characters with universal concerns, despite a setting and race that were previously alien to Western readers. Most Americans in 1931 knew little about China, and what they did know was clouded with clichès of the “heathen Chinee” whose cultural differences were regarded with disdain. Buck’s depictions of Chinese life, drawn from her own experiences and observations, presented a vivid and sympathetic portrait. Conn also observes that “Underneath its alien details, the novel is a story of the land, a rather familiar American genre,” and Depression-era audiences could especially relate to the struggles of farmers. In addition, the novel, like others of the period, “celebrated the traditional American virtue of simplicity.”
Buck’s next novel, Sons (1932), was a sequel to The Good Earth, focusing on Wang Lung’s three sons, particularly Wang the Tiger, who becomes a fierce warrior. His story was influenced by Buck’s translation of the Chinese novel Shui Hu Chuan (Water Margin), a text that dates back to at least the Ming dynasty and that chronicles the adventures of a group of twelfth-century bandits. Her translation appeared in 1933 under the title All Men Are Brothers. Buck received $30,000 for the rights to serialize Sons in Cosmopolitan. Lloyd also got Buck a $50,000 offer from M-G-M for movie rights to The Good Earth. The highly successful motion-picture version, which deviates in several ways from the novel, was released in 1937 and starred Paul Muni as Wang Lung and Luise Rainer as O-lan, a performance that earned her an Academy Award for best actress.
In 1932 Buck returned to the United States to accept a Pulitzer Prize for The Good Earth. She shied away from media attention, however, in part because she wished to keep Carol’s existence private. Her newfound income, which was tremendous in the depths of the Depression, enabled her to set up an endowment at Vineland that would take care of Carol for life. Sons sold well and received positive reviews, with some commentators judging it even better than The Good Earth. Buck began to accept speaking engagements and became involved with causes including civil rights and family planning. In 1933 she received an honorary degree from Yale in the same week that her next book, The First Wife and Other Stories, appeared, again to excellent reviews.
Lossing Buck had completed a doctorate while the couple was in America, but he was eager to return to China. In 1933, during the journey, Buck told her husband that the marriage was over and that she wanted to separate. Her love for Walsh, with whom she was so much more compatible than Lossing Buck, had made her continued existence in the marriage unbearable, despite the social stigma that divorce still carried in those days. In 1934 she returned to the United States and a short time later purchased Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which became her home for the rest of her life.
Although Buck was the John Day Company’s most lucrative author, the business was struggling financially in the Depression years; she endeavored to help in other capacities by becoming a literary adviser (helping to sign up writers such as Chinese expatriate scholar Lin Yutang) and writing short stories to make money she could invest in the company. She also assisted with Asia magazine, of which Walsh had taken over editorship with the intention of turning it into a serious publication, not just a tourist magazine. The financial needs of the company also persuaded Buck to publish The Mother (1934), which she had drafted soon after The Good Earth. She was reluctant to release this novel, in part because she doubted its quality (she writes in My Several Worlds that when she finished it, she threw it in the wastebasket, and it only escaped permanent disposal because the houseboy was away from his duties, giving her the chance to retrieve it later) but also perhaps because she identified too closely with the frustrations of her protagonist. The unnamed heroine is deserted by her husband and left to care for her two sons and a daughter who is going blind. She enjoys sexual passion and desires more children, but remains celibate until one encounter that leaves her pregnant with a child she must abort. The afflicted daughter is married off to a poor family and soon dies from neglect and abuse, while the younger son is executed as a revolutionary; but the older son’s wife gives birth to a boy, ending the novel on a somewhat more positive note. In his 1980 study of Buck’s work, Paul A. Doyle comments: “The theme is worthy of a truly great work, and the material is there; but Buck has miscalculated the stylistic effects, and she has not thought out nor developed thoroughly enough the characterization of her central figure.”
Good advance sales for The Mother and the sale of serial rights to Cosmopolitan for $35,000 gave the John Day Company a needed boost, though sales soon tapered off despite solid reviews. In the fall of 1934 the company underwent a reorganization and contracted with Reynal and Hitchcock to manufacture Day books. Reynal and Hitchcock published Buck’s next novel, A House Divided, in January 1935. It is the third part of a trilogy with The Good Earth and Sons, focusing on Wang the Tiger’s son Wang Yuan, who becomes a scholar. Despite his studies at an American university, he is still unsure how best to help China. Once again, reviews were generally positive, but when A House Divided was packaged together with The Good Earth and Sons as House of Earth (1935), sales were unimpressive. Buck suspected public interest in stories about China would begin to wane, and she felt she should start writing stories set in America.
In June 1935 Buck traveled to Reno to obtain a divorce; surprisingly, Walsh’s wife, Ruby, went with her to give Walsh a divorce at the same time. Buck and Walsh were married the afternoon both divorces became final. Despite the personal scandal, her work continued to be honored: that same year, Buck received the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for The Good Earth and was elected a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She and Walsh adopted two baby boys, Richard and John, in the spring of 1936, and a year later adopted two more babies, Edgar and Jean.
Since Buck’s father had died in 1931 and could no longer be harmed by the unflattering portrait of him in the work, Buck decided she could publish her biography of her mother. The Exile was released in 1936 and was such a success that she produced the sequel, Fighting Angel, soon afterward. Buck depicts her father’s religious zeal, which caused him to neglect his wife and family, and his misogyny; she also chronicles the loneliness and disillusion of her mother, who was isolated from everything familiar and suffering the losses of her children, her own illnesses, and her husband’s disdain. The books are not only a portrait of Buck’s parents but also a depiction of Protestant missionary life in China at the end of the nineteenth century. Doyle praises these “decidedly superior biographies” and suggests that although they have been neglected as part of the decline of Buck’s literary reputation, they deserve attention “not only as examples of excellent biographical writing but also as pictures of two completely rendered Americans and of a historical phenomenon characteristic of a particular time and place.”
Buck’s next novel, This Proud Heart (1938), continued her treatment of the struggles of women, this time in an American setting. The heroine, Susan Gaylord, is a sculptor who refuses to allow her incompatible husband to prevent her from pursuing her art. She studies with a mentor named David Barnes, who encourages her talent but also cautions her of the difficulties faced by women artists in gaining any respect from most male colleagues. After Susan’s husband dies, she moves to Paris to study with a great master; she is sidetracked by a second marriage, to a wealthy painter named Blake Kinnaird, but eventually returns to her work on her “American Procession,” a series of sculptures of women. When Blake is alienated by her resulting success, she moves out; he seeks reconciliation, but she decides to continue on her own. Reviewers commented that Susan’s seemingly inexhaustible talents were too good to be true (or tolerable), and that Buck’s prose style was rather awkward. Biographer Nora Stirling considers this novel “a downward step” in style from Buck’s earlier books: “Studded with clichés and repetitions, lacking in variety and telling imagery, it remains curiously reminiscent of the radio serials, popular in the Thirties.” Doyle comments, “Stylistically, This Proud Heart is a disaster; thematically, it has several rewarding moments.”
News stories reported that when Buck heard she had won the Nobel Prize in 1938, she first said in Chinese, “wo pu hsiang” (I don’t believe it), and then in English, “That’s ridiculous. It should have gone to Dreiser.” Many critics agreed. Although Buck writes in My Several Worlds that previous Nobel winner Sinclair Lewis told her not to let anyone minimize her winning of the prize, and others such as Carl Van Doren, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, and William Lyon Phelps defended her work, the prevailing attitude in literary circles was one of hostility. Doyle notes, “It was claimed that she was too youthful [at forty-six], that she had written too few important books to be considered of major stature, and that no woman writer deserved the award.” Her immense popularity also counted against her; Conn points out that despite the enthusiastic reviews her works received in the daily and weekly press, Buck “was routinely ignored or belittled” by “the highbrow cultural gatekeepers who wrote for the serious quarterlies.” In “Wang Lung’s Children” (New Republic, 10 May 1939), Malcolm Cowley expressed his opinion that Buck’s reputation suffered because of her popular success; the intellectuals felt that because she had been acclaimed first by the public and not by the literati, her work could not be of the same caliber as those whose reputations had begun first with the intellectuals. Among the charges leveled at Buck by her detractors was that her prose style was facile, clumsy, cliched; but Conn offers a defense for this criticism: “She often said that she first composed her novels mentally in Chinese, and then translated them into English. Her stylized and often stilted prose originated in her effort to reproduce in English the altogether different cadences of Chinese speech.”
Others felt, as the anonymous reviewer for Time (6 March 1939) did, that “The influence of her writing far transcends its importance as literature.” Some critics believe that the awarding of the prize to Buck in 1938, amid the growing threats of fascism and war, was as much a political statement as an endorsement of her literary talent; as Conn writes,
Pearl had established herself as a powerful voice against the rising tide of international violence and totalitarianism. In her novels, and also in literally scores of essays, reviews, and lectures, she had spoken out on behalf of liberal democracy, self-determination, and ideological and racial tolerance....In a decade when writers on both the left and right insisted on the social responsibility of the artist, Pearl’s exertions seemed exemplary.
Doyle, however, disagrees with the assumption that the prize was a political one: “The fact that Pearl Buck’s writing exemplified a ’one-world’ humanitarian sympathy, while it unquestionably increased Buck’s reading audience, does not appear to have swayed the award committee to any appreciable extent.” He does suggest, however, that another reason for her selection was that she was one of the most popular American writers read overseas: “The impact of an American writer on foreign countries is always a fundamental factor that influences the Nobel Committee’s judgment–a fact often forgotten or deliberately ignored by American literary critics.”
Buck’s selection nevertheless tainted the reputation of the prize in some literary circles. Stirling quotes Robert Frost’s remark that “If she can get it anybody can.” In a 22 February 1950 letter to Joan Williams, William Faulkner (whose own Nobel Prize in Literature for 1949 was awarded in December 1950) wrote about the possibility of his own nomination: “I dont want it. I had rather be in the same pigeon hole with Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, than with Sinclair Lewis and Mrs. Chinahand Buck.” In Intellectual America: Ideas on the March (1941), Oscar Cargill countered this disdain:
To reflective Americans outside the [literary] fraternity, to the “barbs” at least, the prize seemed well given as a reminder that pure aestheticism is not everything in letters. If the standard of her work was not so uniformly high as that of a few other craftsmen, what she wrote had universal appeal and a comprehensibility not too frequently matched.
In his presentation speech on 10 December 1938, Per Hallström, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, praised not only The Good Earth, the novel that had made Buck famous, but also the “vividly individualized” heroine of The Mother:“The mother is the most finished of Pearl Buck’s Chinese female figures, and the book is one of her best.” He added, however, that “in character descriptions and the storyteller’s art she is at her best in the two biographies of her parents,” which “should be called classics in the fullest sense of the word.” Near the end of his speech, he said that the prize was awarded “for the notable works which pave the way to a human sympathy passing over widely separated racial boundaries and for the studies of human ideals which are a great and living art of portraiture.”
At the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm that evening, Bertil Lindblad, director of the Stockholm Observatory at Saltsjöbaden, remarked to Buck, “you have in your literary works, which are of the highest artistic quality, advanced the understanding and the appreciation in the Western world of a great and important part of mankind, the people of China. You have taught us by your works to see the individuals in that great mass of people.” He concluded, “it is of the greatest importance that the peoples of the earth learn to understand each other as individuals across distances and frontiers. When works of literature succeed in this respect they are certainly in a very direct way idealistic in the sense in which this word was meant by Alfred Nobel.”
The topic of Buck’s Nobel lecture, which was published in 1939, was The Chinese Novel. It was a revision of a talk she had given at Nanking years earlier, in which she endeavored to draw attention to a literary tradition as rich and significant as those of European and American cultures. In My Several Worlds, she expresses her initial misgivings about addressing the distinguished members of the Swedish Academy:
What did I know to present to them? I had by then lived only long enough in the United States to realize that I knew too little of my own people, that it would take years of living and observation before in our pat-ternless society I could discern the causes behind what we felt and said and did. It would be presumptuous to try to speak so soon. Moreover, I had been reminded often enough of my ignorance. Even when the Pulitzer Prize had been awarded The Good Earth, certain critics had objected to so American an award being given to a book about Chinese peasants, written by a woman, and worse than that, a woman who had never lived in her own country.
Sensitive to the potential criticism, Buck therefore chose “a subject I did know well, and about which very little is known by most westerners.”
There is a lingering critical and popular misconception that Buck won the Nobel solely for The Good Earth. Even Buck’s friend James A. Michener repeated this misinformation as late as 1992, in his introduction to a new edition of Buck’s 1950 book The Child Who Never Grew. Buck reports in My Several Worlds that at a luncheon given by her Swedish publisher, she met Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf, a previous Nobel recipient who had served on the committee that selected Buck for the prize; Lagerlöf told Buck that she had cast her vote on the strength of The Exile and Fighting Angel. Buck also writes in her autobiography that when her publishers tried to emphasize that the award had been given for the body of her work, “orders began to come in from bookstore customers for a book, purportedly by me, entitled The Body of Her Work.”
In My Several Worlds, Buck calls the four days she spent in Stockholm for the awarding of the prize “my most perfect single recollection.” She comments on the reaction:
The award came, as I have said before, at a time when I needed it most. I had met that difficult period of a writer’s life, when the reaction, which the American public invariably bestows upon anyone whom it has discovered and praised, had set in. Since the praise is always too much and too indiscriminate the opposing criticism and contempt are also too much and too indiscriminate. My head had not been turned by the praise and its excess had only amused and touched me, but the rudeness of unjust criticism, a sort of stone-throwing which became merely imitative once it had begun, did temporarily destroy my confidence.
She adds, however, “The warmth of the Swedish people, combined with their dignity and their calm, restored my soul.”
After receiving the prize, Buck was in even greater demand for speaking engagements, articles, and reviews. She maintained her writing schedule and reserved her mornings for regular writing time, producing some 2,500 words a day and rarely making major revisions. She also continued to read and respond to novel manuscripts for the John Day Company.
Her first novel after the Nobel Prize was The Patriot (1939). It follows the protagonist, Wu I-wan, son of a wealthy Shanghai banker, through many of the political and military events of the war between China and Japan in the 1930s, to such an extent that a reviewer for The New Yorker (4 March 1939) called the book a “documentary.” Conn writes that “In a sense, the war came to Pearl’s rescue as a writer, by authorizing her to return to the Chinese material she knew best.”
She returned to an American subject, however, for her next novel, Other Gods: An American Legend (1940), a satire inspired in part by the fame of Charles Lindbergh. In the novel, Bert Holm, a handsome but fairly simple individual, succeeds in climbing one of the highest mountains in the world and is subsequently made a national idol by opportunistic image makers and the masses who are eager to have such a hero to follow. The main theme is the cult of celebrity in America. Reviews and sales were both mediocre at best.
From the late 1930s, Buck’s priorities began to shift away from writing fiction and more toward humanitarian and philanthropic activities. Conn suggests that a main reason for this shift, besides her genuine desire to combat war and injustice in a more direct and”useful” fashion, was that”both her reputation and her self-confidence had been damaged beyond remedy by the Nobel Prize.” Whereas before she had been”merely one of a large number of popular writers” such as Margaret Mitchell,”When the Swedish Academy abruptly elevated her to a supreme literary position, the decision represented a challenge, even an insult, to established highbrow opinion,” and the resulting backlash reinforced her own doubts and insecurities about the quality of her work.
She did not, however, abandon fiction completely. In 1941 she published Today and Forever, a collection of short stories, many of which celebrate brave Chinese women warriors. A reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement (TLS; 8 February 1941) commented,”popular or too popular in manner though these stories are, they are at the same time very illuminating in their way.” Buck’s next novel, Dragon Seed (1942), appeared just after the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II. Conn calls this timing”politically and commercially lucky,” because “Americans were eager for encouraging stories about their new Asian allies.” The book sold well, and M-G-M purchased movie rights. The novel traces the impact of the Japanese invasion of China on the family of farmer Ling Tan. It again documents historical events, particularly the December 1937”rape of Nanking,” in which Japanese troops burned most of the city, murdered Chinese soldiers and civilians alike, and raped some twenty thousand Chinese women. The story celebrates the courage of the townspeople and farmers who fight back. Reviews were good, though some critics complained about the didacticism and the awkward prose style. The reviewer for Time (26 January 1942) called the novel”the first sharp, fictional account of resistance in Occupied China.” Her next novel, The Promise (1943), about the British betrayal of their Chinese allies in Burma, was, like its predecessor, intended as polemic.
Buck’s political activism was such that the FBI had begun keeping a file on her in 1937, when she expressed her support for the Spanish Loyalists and for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. During World War II, her support for racial equality escalated, as did FBI interest in her. Conn notes, “As a prominent writer and an outspoken advocate for civil rights, Pearl met two of the main criteria [FBI director J. Edgar] Hoover used to identify suspicious persons.” Buck was also one of the few white Americans who publicly
opposed the internment of Japanese Americans during the war.
Because she feared that she was becoming indelibly known as exclusively a writer about China, and because she felt that her gender as well as her subject matter contributed to her rejection by the literary establishment, Buck decided to begin publishing some of her novels under the male pseudonym “John Sedges.” Her first novel as Sedges was The Townsman, which appeared in May 1945. It is a nineteenth-century frontier tale chronicling the settlement efforts of Jonathan Goodliffe in the small town of Median, Kansas. The novel also features a positively portrayed black family, the Parrys, to whom Jonathan is a friend. The novel was a moderate critical success, and her second Sedges novel, The Angry Wife (1947), also preached racial tolerance in a tale of two brothers who fought on opposite sides in the Civil War.
Her next novel under her own name was Portrait of a Marriage (1945), which depicts the relationship of William, a wealthy painter, and Ruth, a rural Pennsylvania farm woman, whose only common bond seems to be their unexplained mutual passion. Reviews and sales were, again, lackluster. When she went back to a Chinese subject with Pavilion of Women (1946), she fared better, at least in terms of sales; this novel, in which the upper-class Chinese wife Madame Wu declares her independence from her husband and befriends an excommunicated Catholic priest, was a Literary Guild selection. Reviews, while generally positive, were also patronizing in their emphasis on this book being “a woman’s novel,” by a woman, for women, about women’s concerns, and therefore by implication incapable of possessing any real literary merit.
Besides the significance of women’s experiences, another topic important to Buck was that of adoption, particularly of mixed-race and/or illegitimate children, who were particularly stigmatized and considered unadoptable. As she became more outspoken on the subject, people wanting to adopt and people seeking help finding homes for their “unadoptable” children began contacting her for assistance. In 1949 she established Welcome House, and international and interracial adoption agency. Buck is credited with coining the term “American” for children of Asian and American parentage, of whom there was a boom after World War II, mainly fathered by American servicemen. She also wrote several books for children, including The Big Wave (1948), for which she received the Children’s Book Award of the Child Study Association of America. In 1952 Buck and Walsh adopted Henriette, born to an African American serviceman and a German woman, and in 1957 another daughter, Cheiko, child of an African American father and a Japanese mother.
In 1950 Buck finally broke her long silence about the existence and condition of her daughter Carol. Her article”The Child Who Never Grew” was published in Ladies’ Home Journal in May of that year, and a longer version was published as a book, with all royalties going to the Vineland Training School. Buck wrote openly about the anguish she had experienced over her daughter’s condition, while asserting the value of Carol’s life. As Martha M. Jablow writes in an introduction to the 1992 edition of the book, Buck”was the first prominent person to acknowledge publicly a child with mental retardation,” which at the time still carried tremendous social stigma. Such a revelation by a figure so famous”did not erase entirely” the stigma, but it was “a watershed.” Jablow notes,”In the 1990s’ tell-all atmosphere of celebrities baring their most private scars, it may be difficult to appreciate how much courage it took for Pearl Buck to speak out in 1950. But it was a painfully courageous act at that time.” (An afterword by Janice Walsh in the 1992 edition records that Carol Buck lived comfortably at Vineland until her death from lung cancer at the age of seventy-two.)
Conn writes that Buck’s later novels, which include The Hidden Flower (1952), about the doomed marriage of an American man and a Japanese woman,”were simply hastier, more lackluster versions of what she had written twenty years earlier.” The magazine market for her stories also began to decline in the 1950s. In 1953 Walsh, her greatest supporter, suffered a stroke, and his health continued to worsen until his death in 1960. The publication of Buck’s autobiography, My Several Worlds, in 1954 was, however, a needed lift; it sold well, was a main selection of the Reader’s Digest Book Club, and earned positive reviews, several of which labeled it one of her best works.
Those commitments were expressed not only in Buck’s novels but also in several nonfiction works. Talk About Russia (1945) was the story of Magnitogorsk, a successfully industrialized steelmaking city in the Soviet Union, as told through the experiences of Masha Scott, a Russian woman of peasant stock who had worked there. Tell the People: Talks with James Ten about the Mass Education Movement (1945) focused on Yen (Yan Yangchu), leader of the Mass Education Movement in China, an ambitious project to ameliorate poverty by reducing illiteracy among the peasantry. American Argument (1949) was a discussion with Eslanda Goode Robeson, wife of African American actor Paul Robeson, on a variety of social and political topics.
Except for the positive reception of My Several Worlds, in the early 1950s Buck’s career was in decline. She began blaming her long-faithful agent, Lloyd, accusing him of neglecting his duties toward her, and she looked for new representation.
Buck’s 1956 novel, Imperial Woman, is a fictionalized biography of one of the most powerful women in Chinese history: the Empress Dowager, Tz’u-hsi. Buck’s portrayal was more sympathetic than that of the male writers and historians whose work had preceded hers. The novel Command the Morning (1959) focuses on the work of atomic scientists; nuclear disarmament was another of the public causes for which Buck was an activist.
In the fall of 1963 Buck wrote another novel in which, as Conn notes, a primary goal was once again”to educate American readers about a country and culture they did not know.” This time the country was Korea, and her novel The Living Reed traces the experiences of four generations of the Kim family, from the first Korean-U.S. treaty in 1883 to the end of World War II. Conn reports that”reviews of the book indicated that her popularity remained highest among women readers.”
Also in 1963, Buck met Theodore F. Harris and began a relationship that she subsequently spent much time defending. Harris, some forty years younger than Buck, was an Arthur Murray dance instructor she initially hired to teach her daughters to dance. He soon became her constant companion and a source of much scandal, alienating family and friends. In 1964 she installed Harris as president of the newly formed Pearl S. Buck Foundation, developed to further the work of Welcome House in assisting Amerasian children, particularly by providing sponsorship funding to children in Asia. In its early days the foundation struggled with financial mismanagement and accusations against Harris; aside from the widespread belief that he was an opportunist taking advantage of a rich and lonely old woman, there were allegations that he misappropriated funds, molested several Korean boys brought to the foundation, and used Buck’s prestige as a cover to smuggle narcotics in her luggage on overseas trips. While Buck steadfastly refused to credit any of the accusations, matters came to a head when an expose by associate editor Greg Walter titled”The Dancing Master” appeared in the July 1969 issue of Philadelphia Magazine. The ensuing publicity caused Harris to step down as president of the foundation, and Buck withdrew from its daily operations after it reorganized with new directors. She continued to defend and support Harris to the end of her life, cooperating with him on a two-volume biography of her (1969, 1971) and other works.
Buck continued to receive awards and honors, more for her philanthropic work than for her writing. In 1965, for example, she received four such honors: the Sojourner Truth Award from the Business and Professional Women of Philadelphia; induction into the Women’s Hall of Fame at the New York World’s Fair; the Humanitarian Award from the Jewish philanthropic organization Brith Shalom; and a special citation from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.
In 1967 Buck published what was perhaps her most personal novel, The Time Is Noon. It is a thinly veiled account of her life through the end of her first marriage: the heroine is unhappily married to a loutish farmer with whom she has a retarded daughter; she has witnessed the loveless marriage of her parents, a self-righteous preacher and his emotionally suffocated wife; and she falls in love with an aviator, with whom she has more in common than her husband. Buck had actually written this novel in the early 1930s, wanting to”get rid of all my life until that moment,” as she wrote in For Spacious Skies: Journey in Dialogue (1966), but had set it aside on Walsh’s advice that it might create too much controversy. Her decision to finally publish it was motivated in part by her desire to make money for the foundation.
Buck’s 1968 novel, The New Year, is another example of her use of fiction to assist her humanitarian goals. Successful politician Chris Winters gives in to his conscience, acknowledging the son he fathered with a Korean woman when he was a serviceman during the Korean War. He and his wife, Laura, adopt the boy; not only does Laura manage to give her husband’s illegitimate, biracial offspring a loving welcome, but their story actually improves Chris’s chances in the gubernatorial race rather than harming them. Conn notes the”relentlessly optimistic tone” of this novel:”Rather than offering a realistic account of the sufferings of Amerasian children and the hazards of adoption, The New Tear merely celebrates Pearl’s dreams of justice and reconciliation.”
Buck’s last novel about China was The Three Daughters of Madame Liang, published in 1969. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club choice and a Reader’s Digest”Condensed Book” selection. Madame Liang is a Shanghai restaurateur whose daughters–a doctor, a musician, and a painter–are recalled from the United States by the Chinese government and encounter the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
Buck continued producing stories, children’s books, and nonfiction until her death from lung cancer on 6 March 1973. She is buried at Green Hills Farm, and her tombstone bears the name”Pearl Sydenstricker” in Chinese characters. The work of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation continues, and critical and public interest in Buck’s writing has been renewed somewhat by centennial celebrations in 1992, Conn’s biography in 1996, and the re-emergence of The Good Earth as talk-show host Oprah Winfrey’s book club selection for the fall of 2004. Jane M. Rabb, in her analysis of the reasons for Buck’s critical neglect among literary and feminist scholars, notes that”The current academic enthusiasm for the multicultural and the interdisciplinary should revive interest in the best works of Buck, who is nothing if not multicultural and interdisciplinary.” Conn concludes that Buck’s”best work, by and large, was probably her nonfiction” and that her fiction was hobbled by the way she “used her novels as political and educational instruments, exchanging the challenges of novelistic art for the easier satisfactions of melodrama, propaganda, and protest.” Nevertheless, he argues that “her achievements as a writer remain considerable— surely more notable than her virtually complete neglect by scholars and critics would imply.”
Bo Yu, “An Interview with Mrs. Buck,” Xiandai (Modern Times), 4, no. 5 (1934): 891-898.
Lucille S. Zinn,”The Works of Pearl S. Buck: A Bibliography,” Bulletin of Bibliography, 36 (October-December 1979): 194-208.
Cornelia Spencer [Grace Sydenstricker Yaukey], The Exile’s Daughter: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck (New York: Coward-McCann, 1944);
Theodore F. Harris, Pearl S. Buck: A Biography, 2 volumes (New York: John Day, 1969, 1971);
Irvin Block, The Lives of Pearl Buck: A Tale of China and America (New York: Crowell, 1973);
Nora Stirling, Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict (Piscataway, NJ.: New Century, 1983);
Beverly Rizzon, Pearl S. Buck: The Final Chapter (Palm Springs: ETC, 1989);
Warren Sherk, Pearl S. Buck: Good Earth Mother (Philomath, Ore.: Drift Creek Press, 1992);
Peter J. Conn, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
Phyllis Bentley,”The Art of Pearl S. Buck,” English Journal, 24 (December 1935): 791-800;
Henry Seidel Canby,” The Good Earth: Pearl Buck and Nobel Prize,” Saturday Review of Literature (19 November 1938): 8;
Oscar Cargill, Intellectual America: Ideas on the March (New York: Macmillan, 1941);
George A. Cevasco,”Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel,” Asian Studies, 5 (December 1967): 437–450;
Paul A. Doyle, Pearl S. Buck (New York: Twayne, 1965; revised, 1980);
Doyle,”Pearl S. Buck’s Short Stories: A Survey,” English Journal, 55 (January 1966): 62-68;
Xiongya Gao, Pearl Buck’s Chinese Women Characters (Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press / London & Cranbury, NJ.: Associated University Presses, 2000);
Ann LaFarge, Pearl Buck (New York: Chelsea House, 1988);
Kang Liao, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Bridge Across the Pacific (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997);
“The Nobel Prize in Literature 1938,” Nobelprize.org <http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1938/index.html>
Jane M. Rabb,”Who’s Afraid of Pearl S. Buck?” in The Several Worlds of Pearl S. Buck: Essays Presented at a Centennial Symposium, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, March 26-28, 1992, edited by Elizabeth J. Lipscomb, Frances E. Webb, and Peter Conn (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994), pp. 103-110;
Mamoru Shimizu,”On Some Stylistic Features, Chiefly Biblical, of The Good Earth,” Studies in English Literature (Tokyo), English Number (1964): 117-134;
Yüh-chao Yü, Pearl S. Buck’s Fiction: A Cross-Cultural Interpretation (Nankang, Taipei: Institute of American Culture, Academia Sinica, 1981).
Pearl S. Buck donated her manuscripts to the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation, the organization that maintains her Hillsboro home. They are housed in the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Library at West Virginia Wesleyan College. There are also Buck papers at the Lipscomb Library of Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, Lynchburg, Virginia.