Buck, Pearl S(ydenstricker)

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BUCK, Pearl S(ydenstricker)

Born 26 June 1892, Hillsboro, West Virginia; died 6 March 1973, Danby, Vermont

Also wrote under: John Sedges

Daughter of Absalom and Caroline Stulting Sydenstricker; married John L. Buck, 1917; Richard J. Walsh, 1935

The daughter of American missionaries who took her to China at the age of three months, Pearl S. Buck grew up in close contact with the Chinese and had no intention of ever leaving China except for periods of study, such as taking her degree at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. In 1917 she married an agriculturist employed by the Presbyterian Mission Board, and in 1924 the two attended Cornell, where Buck won the Laura Messenger Prize for an essay, "China and the West." This was an omen for her future, for she was to explain China to the West again and again, from her first published work, East Wind: West Wind (1930), to the time of her death, when she was working on a novel, Red Earth, which was to tell the story of the modern descendants of Wang Lung, the protagonist of her famous novel, The Good Earth (1931). Many of her books concerned other countries of Asia and also the U.S., but her love for the China in which she was brought up lasted all her life. Twentieth-century struggles, however, destroyed traditional China and made it impossible for her to continue living in the country. In 1932 Buck returned to the U.S., divorced her husband, and in 1935 married her publisher, Richard J. Walsh. The original incentive for her to earn money by writing had come in 1928, when she realized her daughter Carol was incurably retarded. But Buck did not stop at providing care for this one child. Like her mother supporting Chinese famine refugees, she felt that any suffering was her concern. Selecting Amerasians, who were hard to place, she brought up nine adopted children. In 1941 she founded the East-West Association; in 1949, Welcome House (a non-profit organization which provided care for children of Asian women and American servicemen); and in 1963, the Pearl S. Buck Foundation.

Buck has always been popular with the general public. Her simple style, her feeling for traditional values, and her skill in writing on universal themes account for her appeal to the general reader. Buck herself never felt the novel was a branch of great literature, intended for an elite. Her Confucian tutor had taught her to consider the novel a form of popular entertainment, unworthy of the scholar, and she wished to be popular, because she liked ordinary people.

The Good Earth, acknowledged as her best book, was written out of sympathy with the Chinese peasants. Wang Lung, the farmer, marries the slave girl, O-Lan, who becomes a devoted wife and a tireless worker. As she helps him on his farm, his prosperity grows, and he begins to buy land. O-Lan also presents him with children—two boys and a girl. Then famine comes. OLan kills a fourth child at birth, a girl, because there is no food, and the family, together with the old grandfather, heads south. In a big city, they eke out a miserable living and the surviving daughter is retarded. Then, during an insurrection, O-Lan finds some jewels in a house being looted. These jewels make it possible to return to the farm, and Wang Lung becomes more and more prosperous. OLan bears twins, a boy and a girl. Then Wang Lung takes a concubine and forces O-Lan to give up two pearls, which were all she had kept for herself. He wants to give them to his other woman. His oldest son trifles with the concubine. After that, OLan dies. Finally, Wang Lung and his family are established in the great house where O-Lan once worked as a slave, in conditions of wealth and ease. The whole story is told with love and understanding, and without a trace of praise or blame.

People everywhere identified with these Chinese peasants, and The Good Earth became a worldwide bestseller. It won Buck the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 and the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1935. The 1937 film based on the book, and directed by Sidney Franklin, was also a great success, with Paul Muni as Wang Lung and Luise Rainer, who won an Academy Award for her touching performance of O-Lan. It was a beautiful film, although its happy ending was not faithful to the book.

In 1938 Buck received the Nobel Prize "for rich and genuine epic portrayals of Chinese life and for masterpieces of biography." The Nobel Prize was thus awarded not only for The Good Earth but also for Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935), which carry the saga of Wang Lung's family through three generations. Other works were East Wind: West Wind, The Young Revolutionist (1932), The First Wife, and Other Stories (1933), her translation of a Chinese novel, Shui Hu Chuan, All Men Are Brothers (1933), and The Mother (1934).

The "masterpieces of biography" were Buck's accounts of her mother, The Exile, and her father, Fighting Angel (both 1936). Her portraits of her parents are fresh, vivid, and true. She describes her father and his evangelical fervor with tenderness, understanding, and an admiration that is not lessened by a touch of humor. The same qualities appear in her portrait of her mother, along with a fellow feeling of sympathy for the trials her mother had to endure. Buck's mother deeply felt the loss of a child who succumbed to tropical diseases, but she took almost as hard her husband's refusal to treat her as an equal. After these biographies, Buck's most outstanding work of nonfiction also concerned her own family, especially The Child Who Never Grew (1950), which tells the heartrending story of her retarded child.

The Good Earth has tended to overshadow all Buck's other writings, a circumstance that irritated her considerably, and with reason, for she wrote much of value. Among her lesser novels, of particular interest are the following: Pavilion of Women (1946), which tells how a Chinese lady finds fulfillment in a spiritual love for an Italian priest; Peony (1948), which presents the assimilation of the Chinese Jews; and Imperial Woman (1956), which tells the story of Tzu Hsi, who was dowager empress of China when Buck was a child.

Buck was forged by two great traditions—China and the evangelical Christianity of her missionary parents. Her writings, with their simple, eloquent, somewhat archaic style and their taste for a clear message based on real experience, have reminded people of the Bible. But she was too earthy for a missionary, and too accepting of all religions. She refused her father's doctrines (for her mother was more loving and less dogmatic) as too harsh and narrow, and she tempered her parents' ideal of Christian love and service with Confucian tolerance and calm. Whatever her subject, she sought to convey these dual lessons to the world. And in this task she had set herself, she was as untiring and as impossible to discourage as her father had been in his mission work. Her obituary in the New York Times said that by her 80th birthday, in 1972, she had published more than 85 novels and collections of short stories and essays, and that more than 25 volumes still awaited publication—a staggering output. Although it was never her ambition to rival the great writers of the world, the quality of her work is remarkable. When one also thinks of her humanitarian endeavors, of which only the briefest account has been given in this article, one wonders how a single human being could have done so much.

Other Works:

East and West and the Novel (1932). Is There a Case for Foreign Missions? (1932). The Laymen's Mission Report (1932). The Writing of East Wind: West Wind (1932). Far and Near (1934, pub. as Twenty-seven Stories, 1943). Today and Forever (1934). The Gifts They Bring (with G. T. Zarfoss, 1935). House of Earth (containing earlier works, 1935). On Discovering America (1937). This Proud Heart (1938). The Chinese Novel (1939). The Patriot (1939). Other Gods (1940). Stories for Little Children (1940). Of Men and Women (1941). Stories of China (containing earlier works, 1941). American Unity and Asia (1942). Asia and Democracy (1942). China Sky (1942). The Chinese Children Next Door (1942). Dragon Seed (1942). Freedom for All (1942). Freedom for India Now! (with Lin Yutang, K. Shridharani et al.; 1942). Pearl Buck Speaks for Democracy (with foreword by E. Roosevelt, 1942). The Promise (1943). The Water-Buffalo Children (1943). What America Means to Me (1943). The Dragon Fish (1944). The Spirit and the Flesh (containing earlier works,1944). The Angry Wife (1945). China Flight (1945). China in Black and White (1945). Portrait of a Marriage (1945). Talk About Russia (with M. Scott, 1945). Tell the People (with J. Yen,1945). The Townsman (1945). Yu Lan: Flying Boy of Japan (1945). Can the Church Lead? (1946). The Big Wave (1947). How It Happens (with E. von Pustau, 1947). This Proud Heart (1948). American Argument (with E. C. Robeson, 1949). Kinfolk (1949). The Long Love (1949). New Evidence of the Militarization of America (1949). One Bright Day (1950). God's Men (1951). What the Peoples of Asia Want (1951). Bright Procession (1952). The Hidden Flower (1952). Come, My Beloved (1953). The Man Who Changed China (1953). Voices in the House (1953). The Beach Tree (1954). Johnny Jack and His Beginnings (1954). My Several Worlds (1954). A Certain Star (1957). The Christmas Miniature (1957). The Christmas Mouse (1957). Letter from Peking (1957). American Triptych (containing earlier works, 1958). Friend to Friend (with C. P. Romulo, 1958). Command the Morning (1959). The Christmas Ghost (1960). The Delights of Learning (1960). Fourteen Stories (1961). A Bridge for Passing (1962). Hearts Come Home and Other Stories (1962). Satan Never Sleeps (1962). The Living Reed (1963). The Big Fight (1964). Children for Adoption (1964). Escape at Midnight and Other Stories (1964). Joy of Children (1964). Welcome Child (1964). Death in the Castle (1965). Fairy Tales of the Orient (1965). My Mother's House (1965). For Spacious Skies (with T. F. Harris, 1966). Little Fox in the Middle (1966). Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (1966). The People of Japan (1966). The Time Is Noon (1966). To My Daughters, with Love (1967). The New Year (1968). Elements of Democracy in the Chinese Traditional Culture (1969). The Good Deed and Other Stories of Asia (1969). The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (1969). China As I See It (1970). The Kennedy Women (1970). Mandala (1970). The Chinese Story Teller (1971). A Gift for The Children (1971). Pearl Buck's America (1971). The Story Bible (1971). China Past and Present (1972). A Community Success Story: the Founding of the Pearl Buck Center (1972). The Goddess Abides (1972). Once Upon a Christmas (1972). Pearl Buck's Oriental Cookbook (1972). All Under Heaven (1973). Mrs. Starling's Problem (1973). Pearl S. Buck's Book of Christmas (1974). The Rainbow (1974). Words of Love (1974). East and West; Stories (1975). Secrets of the Heart (1976).


Doyle, P. A., Pearl S. Buck (1965). Harris, T. E., Pearl S. Buck: A Biography (1969-71). Spencer, C., The Exile's Daughter, a Biography of Pearl S. Buck (1936). Stirling, N., Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict (1983). Thompson, D. W., "Pearl Buck," in American Winners of the Nobel Literary Prize (1968). Van Doren, C., The American Novel, 1789-1939 (1940). Van Gelder, R., Writers and Writing (1946). Walsh, R. J., A Biographical Sketch of Pearl S. Buck (1936). Zinn, L., "The Works of Pearl S. Buck: A Bibliography," in Bulletin of Bibliography 36 (1979).