Buck, Pearl S. (1892-1973)

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Buck, Pearl S. (1892-1973)

Author and humanitarian activist Pearl S. Buck almost single-handedly created the prism through which an entire generation of Americans formed its opinion about China and its people. Her work and personality first came to the attention of a wide audience in 1931, with the publication of her signature novel The Good Earth, based on her experiences growing up in China with a missionary family during the convulsive period from the Boxer Rebellion to the civil wars of the 1920s and 1930s. She wrote more than seventy other books—many of which were best-sellers and Book-of-the-Month Club selections—and hundreds of pieces in many genres, including short stories, plays, poetry, essays, and children's literature, making her one of the century's most popular writers. As a contributing writer to Asia magazine (later Asia and the Americas), published by her second husband, Richard Walsh, she brought a precocious "Third-World" consciousness to Americans by advocating an end to colonialism while advancing the causes of the peasantry, especially women.

In 1938, Buck became the first of only two American women to win the Nobel Prize for literature, though her books have fallen out of favor with critics and academicians and she is rarely anthologized today or studied in college literature courses. Her work has remained a sentimental favorite of millions of readers around the world. Contemporary Chinese-American writer Maxine Hong Kingston has credited Buck with acknowledging Asian voices, especially those of women, for the first time in Western literature. Biographer Peter Conn declared in his 1996 study Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography that "never before or since has one writer so personally shaped the imaginative terms in which America addresses a foreign culture. For two generations of Americans, Buck invented China." He quoted historian James Thomson's belief that Buck was "the most influential Westerner to write about China since thirteenth-century Marco Polo." Living in the United States during the second half of her life, Buck was prominent in many progressive social movements, lending her support to causes on behalf of disarmament, immigrants, women, and racial minorities. Her outspoken activism, especially during and after World War II, earned her an FBI dossier and the ire of McCarthyists in the 1950s.

Pearl Buck was born Pearl Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia, on June 26, 1892, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries Absalom and Carie (Stulting) Sydenstricker, who were then on leave from their post in China, to which they returned when Pearl was three months old. Except for a brief foray in the States around the time of the Boxer Rebellion, Pearl stayed in China until 1910, when she enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, graduating as president of the class of 1913 and remaining as a teaching assistant in psychology. She returned to China soon afterwards to care for her ailing mother and remained there for most of the next twenty years, during which time she took an avid interest in the daily lives of Chinese peasants as well as the intellectuals' movements for reforms in literature and society that, in 1919, coalesced in the May 4 movement. Since she was fluent in Chinese language and culture, Buck came to support the new wave in Chinese literature, a dissident movement that called for a complete reconstruction of literature as a way of promoting political and social change. In 1917, she had married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural missionary, and moved with him to Nanhsuchou, where she experienced firsthand the backwardness and poverty that would later find its way into the pages of her fiction and nonfiction.

During the 1920s, Buck began interpreting China to American readers through articles she wrote for the Atlantic, the Nation, and other magazines. In 1924 she and her husband returned briefly to the United States, both to pursue masters degrees at Cornell University, hers in English and his in agricultural economics. Using a masculine pen name, she won a prestigious campus literary prize for her essay "China and the West," which criticized China's traditional treatment of women and girls while praising the achievements of Chinese art and philosophy. The couple returned to Nanjing but were forced to flee in 1927 during the Chinese civil war, taking refuge in Japan for a while before returning to Shanghai. They were soon alienated by the corruption and elitism of Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang and by the violence of Mao Zedong's Communists. Motivated by a need to find a suitable school for their mentally retarded daughter, Carol, the Bucks returned to the United States in 1929 thanks to a Rockefeller Foundation grant for John's agricultural survey work. Pearl had already begun to write novels about her experiences in China; the first of them, East Wind, West Wind, was published by John Day in 1930. It was among the first serious novels to interpret to American readers the upheavals in traditional Chinese society, particularly in terms of the changing role of women. On March 2, 1931, John Day published Buck's second novel, The Good Earth. The book became an overnight sensation after Will Rogers lauded it on the front page of the New York Times as "not only the greatest book about a people ever written but the best book of our generation." The Good Earth won Buck a Pulitzer Prize in 1932, was translated into some thirty languages, and was made into a popular motion picture. MGM's offer of $50,000 for the film rights was at the time the most lucrative deal between an author and a Hollywood studio. Buck's always precarious financial situation improved considerably, and she found herself much in demand as a lecturer and writer. She moved to the United States permanently in 1932, the year John Day published her third novel, Sons.

Like a prophet without honor in her own country, however, Buck soon found herself the target of criticism from church leaders who objected to the absence of a positive Christian message in The Good Earth, as when a Presbyterian bureaucrat complained to Buck that "the artist in you has apparently deposed the missionary." A year later, in the presence of church officials at a Presbyterian women's luncheon in New York, she courageously denounced typical missionaries as "narrow, uncharitable, unappreciative, ignorant" in their zeal for conversion, which put her at the center of an already gathering storm critical of the missionary endeavor. Her break with denominational orthodoxy was sealed in an article she wrote for Cosmopolitan, "Easter, 1933," in which she repudiated dogmatism and found humanitarian parallels between the teachings of Christ and the Buddha; shortly after its publication, she resigned as a Presbyterian missionary.

Buck continued writing fiction about China, and John Day published her fourth novel, The Mother, in 1934, about the tribulations of an unnamed Chinese peasant widow abandoned by her husband and condemned by custom to a life of loneliness and sexual frustration. In June of 1935, she got a Reno divorce from her husband and, that same day, married Richard Walsh, her editor/publisher at John Day. Buck had already begun to assume a significant role in the company's affairs, especially in the editorial direction of Asia magazine, which he had just taken over. With Walsh and Buck at its helm, the periodical quickly changed from being a travel-oriented publication to a serious journal of ideas, with contributions by Lin Yutang, Bertrand Russell, Rabindranath Tagore, Margaret Mead, Agnes Smedley, and other noted writers and intellectuals. As a contributor, Pearl Buck expressed her growing dissatisfaction with Chiang Kaishek's policies while remaining anti-Communist herself.

During this period, the Walshes adopted four children, and in 1936 John Day published Buck's memoir of her mother, The Exile. A commercial as well as critical success, it was soon followed with Fighting Angel, a memoir of her father. As a boxed set, the two were offered as a joint Book-of-the-Month Club selection, The Flesh and the Spirit. It was during this period that Buck began to ally herself with American pacifist and disarmament groups, such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as with the Urban League and other groups advocating racial desegregation. She also became increasingly concerned about the rise of Nazism and the plight of Jews in Europe. The couple founded the China Emergency Relief Committee, with Eleanor Roosevelt as its honorary chair, to give humanitarian aid to victims of Japanese aggression in East Asia.

In 1938, Pearl Buck became the fourth woman and the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, a decision that was greeted with derision in some American literary circles, who felt Buck was too much of a "popular" writer to deserve such an honor. When told of the award, she remarked in Chinese "I don't believe it," adding in English, "It should have gone to [Theodore] Dreiser." While the prize was given for the entire body of her work, the twin biographies of her parents were specifically cited as her finest works. In her Nobel lecture, she argued that the great Chinese novels should be regarded as highly in the West as the works of Dickens or Tolstoy.

Just before the United States became involved in World War II, Walsh and Buck founded the East and West Association "to help ordinary people on one side of the world to know and understand ordinary people on the other side." This group, and the other nongovernmental organizations in which they were involved, helped solidify a network of American business people and intellectuals that was instrumental in developing American attitudes toward Asia in the postwar period. Also during the 1940s, Buck became more deeply interested in women's issues at home. In 1941 she published Of Men and Women, a collection of nine essays on gender politics that challenged the patriarchal hegemony in American society. A New York Times critic even argued that Buck's view of gender resembled that of Virginia Woolf's. Resisting the "official" stance of mainstream women's organizations, Buck became a fervid supporter of more radical women's-rights groups that first proposed the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, though Buck still hesitated to call herself "a feminist or active in women's suffrage."

Buck's novel Dragon Seed was published in 1942, after the United States had entered the Pacific War. The book, which called particular attention to war as an example of savagery against women, drew much of its narrative from actual events, such as the Japanese rape of Nanjing, and it also urged its Chinese protagonists to endure privation and create a new, more humanitarian society. At home, she was among the most vociferous critics of segregation and racial discrimination, which she thought unworthy of the noble cause for which American sacrifices were being made. She supported the growing claims of African Americans for equality, and emerged as a strong proponent of the repeal of exclusion laws directed against Chinese immigration. Buck had been under FBI surveillance since her pacifist activities in the 1930s, and her appearance at rallies with such leftist activists as Paul Robeson and Lillian Hellman earned her a 300-page dossier, one of the longest of any prominent writer. During the postwar era, Buck was accused of membership in several "Communist Front Organizations."

Although she continued to write, little of her later fiction achieved the literary stature of her earlier work, with the possible exception of Imperial Woman (1956), a fictionalized account of the last Empress Dowager Tz'u-hsi, who had ruled China during Buck's childhood there. Her autobiography, My Several Worlds, was published in 1954; a sequel, A Bridge to Passing, appeared in 1962. Her activism continued unabated, however, and she founded Welcome House, an adoption agency for interracial children, especially for Amerasians, which placed children with adoptive parents regardless of race. During the 1960s, her reputation escaped untarnished when her companion, Ted Harris—her husband, Richard Walsh, had died in 1953—was vilified in the press for alleged irregularities and personal wrongdoing in connection with the Welcome House organization.

In the early 1970s, when relations with Communist China began to thaw, Buck hoped to visit China with the Nixon entourage, but her request for a visa was turned down by the Chinese government who accused her works of displaying "an attitude of distortion, smear and vilification towards the people of new China and its leaders." It was obvious that her record of leftist activism did not engender support within the Nixon administration. She became ill soon afterwards, and after a bout with gall bladder complications, she died on March 6, 1973.

—Edward Moran

Further Reading:

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

Stirling, Nora. Pearl Buck. Piscataway, New Century Publishers, 1983.