Buck, Pearl S. (1892–1973)
Buck, Pearl S. (1892–1973)
First American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, who was the widely read author of over 100 books and has been translated into 69 foreign languages. Name variations: (occasional pseudonym) John Sedges. Born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, Pocahontas County, West Virginia; died on March 6, 1973, in Danby, Vermont; daughter of Absalom and Caroline Stulting Sydenstricker (Presbyterian missionaries); spent her childhood and youth in China; taught at home by her mother and Chinese tutors; attended boarding school in Shanghai; graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman's College; Cornell University, M.A. in English, 1936; married John Lossing Buck (an agricultural missionary) 1917 (divorced, 1935); married Richard J. Walsh (editor of Asia Magazine and head of John Day Company), in 1935; children: (first marriage) two daughters, Carol and Janice; (adopted) many.
Pulitzer Prize, William Dean Howells Medal for Distinguished Fiction, Nobel Prize for Literature, Wesley Award for Distinguished Service to Humanity, Gimbel Award (for unique service to humanity), numerous other awards, citations and honorary degrees, memberships in the National Institute
of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Had immediate and greatest success with second published novel The Good Earth (1931); published sequels, Sons (1932) and A House Divided; published numerous other books of fiction and non-fiction for both children and adults, including Dragon Seed, The Exile, and Fighting Angel, and biographies of her parents; settled with second husband at Green Hills Farm, Perkasie, Pennsylvania, with large family of adopted children; founded East West Association (1941), Welcome House (1949) and Pearl S. Buck Foundation (1964); made countless appearances urging interracial understanding and world peace. A Biographical Sketch of Pearl S. Buck, published by the Ralston Press, has credited her with publishing 107 books and over 200 short stories, a total that does not include her numerous articles, letters and addresses.
In 1938, when Pearl S. Buck became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, the 1930 recipient Sinclair Lewis advised her: "Don't let anyone minimize the receiving of the Nobel Prize. It is a tremendous event, the greatest of an author's life." As moving as the Stockholm ceremony was, the new Laureate looked up into the face of the Swedish king and thought she was seeing the face of her long dead father. The king's family, she learned, had originated in the area of Bavaria from which her 18th-century Sydenstricker forebears had fled to America in search of religious freedom.
Buck's maternal grandparents, prosperous artisans from Utrecht, Holland, had also immigrated to the United States to escape laws limiting religious liberty. Cornelius Stulting and his wife arrived in Virginia in 1847 and, in 1849, settled in Hillsboro in what would become, at the time of the Civil War, Pocahontas County, West Virginia. There they built a large "brickknobbed" farmhouse that boasted vertical Jenny Lind paneling and a graceful, two-storied portico. In the interior were "horsehair plaster" walls, wide bay windows, black walnut trim, and a fine stairway ornamented with handcarved scrolling. This serene and lovingly tended house, looking out from its plateau onto a green mountain world, would always haunt the dreams of the Stultings' daughter Caroline. It was there that Caroline's own daughter, Pearl Comfort, was born on June 26, 1892.
For rich and genuine epic portrayals of the Chinese peasant life and for masterpieces of biography.
—Nobel Prize citation for award to Pearl S. Buck
Caroline and her husband, Absalom Sydenstricker, were deeply dedicated Presbyterian missionaries who returned to their post in China within a few months of their daughter's birth. Caroline would give birth to seven children, losing four of them to diseases contacted in the Orient. Pearl was one of the three whom she would raise to adulthood.
The little girl spent her childhood in the ancient city of Chinkiang, situated at the junction of China's Grand Canal and the Yangtze River. She would later say that, as an adult entering 20th-century American life, she had come out of the Middle Ages.
Though the child learned to speak Chinese before she spoke English, her first formal instruction in reading and writing was in English with her mother as teacher. An illiterate and much loved Chinese amah introduced Buck to the riches of Chinese folklore. Her tutor, a Confucian scholar, brought her knowledge of the traditional Chinese novel, a sprawling, story-telling genre looked down upon by the learned, but greatly loved by ordinary people. The English language literature available in the Sydenstricker home included the King James Bible, Shakespeare, and the novels of Scott, Thackeray, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans ) and Dickens, the latter Buck's favorite for many years. Caroline insisted that her daughter write regularly and submitted her work to the Shanghai Journal, an English language newspaper, under the pseudonym "Novice."
At 15, Buck was sent to boarding school in Shanghai. At 17, she went "home" to matriculate at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. In that cloistered environment, where she felt in many ways an alien, she nevertheless became a student leader, was chosen class president, elected to Phi Beta Kappa, won literary prizes, and taught psychology for a term after her graduation in 1914.
Caroline Sydenstricker's illness brought her daughter back to China. There Pearl nursed her frail patient back to tentative health, and there she met John Lossing Buck, an agricultural expert whom she married after a brief courtship. Chinese etiquette did not allow prolonged contact between young men and women. The bride's parents opposed the marriage, thinking the couple too different in temperament and interests, but there is a time, Buck would say later, when one is "ready" for marriage.
The Bucks went to live in Nanhsüchou in Anhwei (Anhui) province in North China. There Pearl became head of the local girls' school and accompanied her husband John on trips about the bleak northern countryside, he instructing the poverty stricken peasants in new farming methods, she talking with the women and children in whom she found a fascinating basic humanity. It was this sympathetic immersion in Chinese peasant life that would in time give her material for her major novels.
After five years, the Bucks left the north to accept appointments at the University of Nanking (Nanjing) in the ancient Yangtze River city some hundred miles from Shanghai. John, known as Lossing, taught rural economics, while Pearl taught English literature. She taught irregularly, also, at Southeastern University and at Chung Yang University, both in Nanking. In 1925, the couple returned to the United States for graduate study at Cornell University. There Buck wrote her thesis on the 19th-century English essayists. In need of money, she also entered and won a history department contest with an article on "China and the West," a subject that would be a lifelong preoccupation.
The Bucks had brought back to the United States their daughter Carol whose slow development was a source of anxiety. Buck would later express
her gratitude to the doctor at the Mayo Clinic who told her bluntly that the child was mentally retarded and would never progress beyond a four-year-old level. The news was cruel. "It was as if my very flesh were torn. It was beyond belief, and yet I knew I had to … shape my life around it." Eventually, she would place Carol in the Training School at Vineland, New Jersey, and she herself became active in the affairs of the school.
Carol was a victim of phenylketonuria, an inability to assimilate protein. Tests to recognize the difficulty in newborns are now required in many states and a special early diet prescribed. Buck's The Child Who Never Grew, originally published in the Ladies' Home Journal, tells Carol's story and has been widely reprinted as a source of comfort and information for the parents of retarded children.
In 1926, the missionary couple returned to their post in China, but a new life was opening. In little more than a decade, Pearl Buck would find herself an internationally famous author. She had always known that she wanted to write. Now she was beginning to mine the rich ore of her Chinese life. She had already published articles on the East in Atlantic and Forum magazines. It was time to turn to fiction.
Buck's early books were not published in the order of their composition. What was to have been her first novel was destroyed in 1927 when Nanking was attacked by a marauding army. Buck, along with friends and family, narrowly escaped the widespread slaughter of foreigners; hidden in a hovel by a loyal Chinese friend, they eventually boarded English and American warships in the harbor. The danger reminded her of the perils of the Boxer Rebellion in her childhood. "I have had the strange and terrible experience of facing death because of my color," she would later write, exploring the origins of her deep sympathy for blacks and other minorities in the United States. That sympathy would be reinforced by the memory of her grandfathers, both Southern landholders, who had refused to own slaves.
In 1928, after a year spent in Japan, Buck returned to her vandalized home in Nanking and set about writing in earnest. Her short story "East Wind: West Wind" was accepted by Asia Magazine. With revision and additional material, it was published in 1930 as a novel under the imprint of the John Day Company and went into three printings in ten months. In 1930, she also rapidly completed The Good Earth, originally titled "Wang Lung," after the central figure in this epic tale of Chinese peasant life. The Good Earth was published in 1931 by John Day and was an instant bestseller in the United States. It would remain Buck's most popular and widely read novel, translated, according to one tally, into 30 languages, excluding pirated editions. Seven different versions appeared in China alone. The saga of a Chinese farming family clearly struck a universal chord.
Sons, the sequel to The Good Earth, was published in 1932 and A House Divided, the final volume of the trilogy, in 1935. An unrelated novel, The Mother, appeared in 1934. Even as she worked on these books, Buck labored almost daily on an English translation of the monumental Chinese classic Shui Hu Chuan. Under the English title All Men Are Brothers, the 600,000 word manuscript was published in 1933.
Meanwhile, Buck's personal life was undergoing important change. In 1934, she left her husband and her Chinese life behind and came to the United States with Carol and an adopted daughter. In 1935, she divorced John Lossing Buck and married Richard J. Walsh, her editor and president of the John Day Company, who had persistently sought her hand. The couple settled at Green Hills Farm near Perkasie, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in a century-old, stone house. Both lovers of children, the couple adopted a large family, including some Caucasian children, some Amerasian, and some of mixed white and black heritage. In her later years, she claimed that she could remember no serious problems with any of the ten children she had raised.
A busy family life did not slow Buck's career. In 1936, she published The Exile and Fighting Angel, the much admired biographies of her missionary parents. In 1937, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's film version of The Good Earth premiered, starring Paul Muni, Luise Rainer , and Tilly Losch . The New York Times reported that $3 million had been spent on the production with 2 million feet of film exposed in China and 700,000 or 800,000 feet in Hollywood on the meticulously built replica of Chinese scenes. Though MGM chief Louis B. Mayer was quoted as saying, "Who wants to see a picture about Chinese farmers?" the movie was considered a classic man-and-wife struggle to live off the rugged land of China, and Rainer won an Academy Award for Best Actress. Wrote Nash and Ross in the Motion Picture Guide: "The actress' incredible performance … one where she never laughed, seldom spoke, and expressed everything in wide-eyed silence, pierced the heart of Pearl Buck's phlegmatic heroine and remains an artful classic." The story was also dramatized for Broadway in 1933, starring Claude Rains and Alla Nazimova .
In 1938, already the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal, Buck became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. The prize would not again go to an American woman until 1993 when Toni Morrison became the Laureate. With the Nobel Prize behind her, Buck turned frequently to American subject matter, writing novels under the pseudonym of John Sedges. The acerbic Baltimore critic Henry L. Mencken, not an admirer, complained that she neglected her domestic duties to write stories "about her neighbors." She contributed also to children's literature with such books as The Big Wave, Stories for Little Children, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and One Bright Day.
Over the years, Buck continued to be showered with honors. She received honorary degrees from Yale University, the University of West Virginia, St. Lawrence University, Howard University, Lincoln University, Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, Combs College of Music, West Virginia State College, Bethany College, Delaware Valley College, Hahnemann Hospital and Muhlenburg College. Numerous awards hailed her service to humanity.
In 1941, Buck and her husband founded the East West Association, which for ten years brought Asian entertainers and scholars to American audiences. In 1949, she founded Welcome House as a non-profit adoption agency, first to aid children of mixed blood, later to help Amerasian children whose American soldier-fathers had abandoned them in the Orient. Still later, she founded and gave generously to the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to aid homeless Amerasian children in the lands of their birth.
Buck's other humanitarian interests were broad. She was a member of the national committee of the American Civil Liberties Union. She spoke out forcefully against censorship of books. She spoke for the rights of women and the development of their talents, which she saw as under-utilized in mid-century American society. She was an ardent advocate of world peace and spoke with concern during the Korean War about the growing influence of the military in American life. She denounced racial prejudice on many occasions. In 1954, a letter from Buck to The New York Times led directly to the removal of immigrants from the Federal House of Detention in Manhattan and the Westchester Jail, where new arrivals to the United States were confined with criminals, following the closing of Ellis Island.
Despite widespread acclaim for her many contributions and the friendship of such luminaries as Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, Buck's reception by literary critics has been ambivalent. She was for a time compared to Tolstoy, yet the comparison has not lasted. From the beginning, some intellectual Chinese emigres were incensed by her portrayal of Chinese peasant life, declaring it animalistic and inaccurate. J. Donald Adams, who was highly enthusiastic at the time of the publication of The Mother, tempered his praise later. Buck herself is said to have credited not the literati but the popular columnist Will Rogers with a large part of the immediate success of The Good Earth. "It's not only the greatest book about a people ever written," declared Rogers to his readers, "but the best book of our generation. Go get this and read it."
Since the 1930s, Buck has come to be largely ignored by American literary critics. Her concerns were for the most part not theirs. The traditional Chinese novel, whose history she traced in her Nobel Prize Lecture, was long and crowded, a blend of fact, fiction and folklore, intended for the general public who adored it. Buck herself sought to tell absorbing, didactic stories addressed to a large reading public, particularly in her later career. Though she is said to have been stung by the attacks of literary critics, she did not attempt to write for a cloistered and academic audience.
Her style and vocabulary were simple and concrete. She said that she often used Chinese idioms, and that, when writing about Chinese characters, she first composed her stories in Chinese, then translated them into English as she put the words down on paper. In the original version of East Wind: West Wind, she followed the Chinese tradition of including in her text words and phrases borrowed from admired older novels, unaware that in American literature this practice was not considered elegant but hackneyed and clichéd.
Western influences upon Buck's writing were the King James Bible read aloud in her childhood home and those Victorian novelists whom her parents considered acceptable reading. When in adulthood she became acquainted with the American literary scene, she admired her contemporaries, Sinclair Lewis and Theodore Dreiser, the latter of whom suggested to his publisher that she be commissioned to write a biographical sketch about him.
The critic Paul A. Doyle has called The Good Earth a roman-fleuve, detailing as it does in slow and steady flow many years in the life of a peasant family whose strength comes from the soil, in Buck's view the source of the great strength of the Chinese people. The novel seeks to portray life as it is actually lived, not as symbol, dream or melodrama. Doyle places Buck among the Naturalists, that late 19th-century and early 20th-century movement whose origins are generally traced to Emile Zola in France.
Unlike other Naturalists, however, Buck was not pessimistic about the fate of humankind. She decried young writers who produced "books of futility and despair." She believed that, as one of her characters said, "With his stomach full any man preferred to be good." In her view, human society could be improved by the efforts of concerned individuals. She herself was concerned. Her professional success gave her political power, and she used that power freely to help both persons and institutions.
Richard Walsh, Buck's husband of 25 years, died in 1960 after a series of debilitating strokes. Buck herself died in 1973 at Danby, Vermont, and is buried at Green Hills Farm. The old Stulting farmhouse in Hillsboro, in whose preservation she was greatly interested, has been restored and opened to the public as an historical museum by the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation.
Buck, Pearl S. My Several Worlds. NY: John Day, 1954.
Doyle, Paul A. Pearl S. Buck. NY: Twayne, 1965.
Harris, Theodore F. Pearl S. Buck: A Biography. Vols. I and II. NY: John Day, 1969.
Nash, Jay Robert, and Stanley Ralph Ross. The Motion Picture Guide. Cinebooks, 1986.
Walsh, Richard J. A Biographical Sketch of Pearl S. Buck. NY: John Day, 1936.
Zinn, Lucille S., comp. A Biographical Sketch of Pearl S. Buck. Buckhannon, WV: Ralston Press, 1980.
Brenni, Vito. "Pearl Buck: A Selected Bibliography," in Bulletin of Bibliography. Vol. XXII. May–August 1957, pp. 65–69; September–December 1957, pp. 94–96.
Buck, Pearl S. A Bridge for Passing. NY: John Day, 1962.
Conn, Peter S. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. NY: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Spencer, Cornelia (Grace S. Yaukey). The Exile's Daughter: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck. NY: Coward-McCann, 1944.
Margery Evernden , Professor Emerita, English Department, University of Pittsburgh, and freelance writer