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||Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) - original surname Sydenstricker; pseudonym John Sedges|
One of the most popular American authors of her day, humanitarian, crusader for women's rights, editor of Asia magazine, philanthropist, noted for her novels of life in China. Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The decision of the Swedish Academy stirred controversy, especially among critics who believed that Buck lacked the stature the Nobel Prize was intended to confirm. Nowadays Buck's books are generally considered dated although attempts have been made to rehabilitate her work.
"One does not live half a life in Asia without return. When it would be I did not know, nor even where it would be, or to what cause. In our changing world nothing changes more than geography. The friendly country of China, the home of my childhood and youth, is for the time being forbidden country. I refuse to call it enemy country. The people in my memory are too kind and the land too beautiful." (from A Bridge for Passing, 1963)
Pearl S. Buck was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia. She spent her youth in China, in Chinkiang on the Yangtse River. She learned to speak Chinese before she could speak English. Her parents were missionaries; to grow up in China was a rare experience for a Caucasian child at that time. This experience was of major importance for her whole life. Buck's father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a humorless, scholarly man who spent years translating the Bible from Greek to Chinese. Her mother, the former Caroline Stulting, had travelled widely in her youth and had a fondness for literature. Buck's life in China was not always pleasant. When she was only a child, the family was forced to flee from the rebel forces of the Boxer Rebellion.
After being educated by her mother and by a Chinese tutor, who was a Confucian scholar, Buck was sent to a boarding school in Shanghai (1907-09) at the age of fifteen. She also worked for the Door of Hope, a shelter for Chinese slave girls and prostitutes. Buck continued her education in the United States at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, where she studied psychology. After graduating in 1914, she returned to China as a teacher for the Presbyterian Board of Missions. Her mother was seriously ill and Buck spent two years taking care of her.
Buck married Dr. John Lossing Buck, an agricultural expert, devoted
to his work. When her mother recovered, they settled in a village in
the North China. Buck worked as a teacher and interpreter for her
husband and travelled through the countryside. During this period China
took steps toward liberal reform, especially through the May 4th Movement
of 1917 to 1921.
In the 1920s the Bucks moved to Nanking, where she taught English and American literature at the university. Later she singled out the radical thinker Chen Duxiu (Ch'en Tu-hsiu) as the most powerful mentor of her youth. Chen, who taught at the university of Beijing, became one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1924 Buck returned to the United States to seek medical care for her first daughter, who was mentally retarded. In 1926 she received her M.A. in literature from Cornell University.
The Bucks went back to China in 1927. During the civil war, they were evacuated to Japan – Buck never returned to China. In 1935 Buck divorced her first husband and married her publisher and the president of John Day Company, Richard Walsh, with whom she moved to Pennsylvania.
As a writer Buck started with the novel Eeast Wind: West Wind (1930), which received critical recognition. She had earlier published autobiographical writings in magazines and a story entitled 'A Chinese Woman Speaks' in the Asia Magazine. Her breakthrough novel, The Good Earth, came out in 1931. Its style, a combination of biblical prose and the Chinese narrative saga, increased the dignity of its characters. The book gained a wide audience, and was made into a motion picture.
In 1936 Buck was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and
Letters. She became in 1938 the third American to win the Nobel Prize
in Literature, following Sinclair Lewis and Eugene O'Neill. Buck's
literary merit has been questioned by a lot of critics. "Buck's heart
was in the right place, though her prose remained as flat as ever, with
the moral complexities flattened as well. . . . In the official Nobel
history, [Anders] Österling astonishingly says that the "decisive
factor in the Academy's judgement" was her "incompararable" biographies
of her parents, both missionaries in China." (The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige by Burton Feldman, 2000, p. 73)
War II she lectured and wrote on democracy and American attitudes
toward Asia. In the pamphlet Freedom for All
(1942) she spoke of the unjust treatment of African Americans serving
in the military. "The discriminations of the American army and navy and
air forces against colored soldiers and sailors, the exclusion of
colored labor in our defense industries and trade unions, all our
social discriminations, are of the greatest aid today to our enemy in
Asia, Japan. "Look at America," Japan in saying to millions of
listening ears, "Will white Americans give you equality?"" (An American Dilemma: Volume 2 by Gunnar Myrdal, with a New Introduction by Sissella Bok, 2009, p. 1016)
In China, missionaries were long regarded as tool of
cultural oppression. After the death of Mao, Buck's biographies of her
parents, published under the title The Spirit and the Flesh
(1944), captured the attention of a new generation of Chinese readers,
providing them a totally different perspective into the issue. "All the
political propaganda, and many years of socialist education, simply
went to pieces after people read this little biography," said Professor
Kang Liao, one of China's leading Buck scholars. (Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling, 2010, p. 227)
It has been said, that Buck introduced the theme of women's corporality into 20th century literature. Another major theme was interracial love. Through her personal experiences, Buck had much first-hand knowledge of the relationships between men and women from different cultures. In The Hidden Flower (1952) a Japanese family is overset when the daughter falls in love with an American soldier. The Angry Wife (1949) was about the love of Bettina, a former slave, and Tom, a southerner who fought for the army of the North.
Buck and Walsh were active in humanitarian causes through the East
and West Association, which was devoted to mutual understanding between
the peoples of Asia and the United States, Welcome House, and The Pearl
Buck Foundation. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, and Paul
Robeson, she also advocated the rights of women and racial equality
before the civil rights movement. As a consequence of these activities,
the F.B.I. kept detailed files on her for years. Before this, soon
after the Nobel prize, she had been invited by J. Edgar Hoover to take
a special tour of FBI facilities in Washington. A report accused her of
having "Communist affiliation" but it was not believed that she was a
Communist. (See more in Dangerous Dossiers: Exposing the Secret War Against America's Greatest Authors by Herbert Mitgang, 1988)
After the communist revolution in China, Buck became disillusioned about the chances for international cooperation. The Patriot
(1939) focused on the emotional development of an university student,
whose idealism is crushed by the brutalities of war. Buck gradually
shifted her activities to a lifelong concern for children. She coined
the word ''Amerasian'' and raised millions of dollars for the adoption
and fostering of Amerasian children, often abandoned by their American
fathers stationed in the Far East.
Buck's own family included nine adopted children as well as her biological daughters. The Child Who Never Grew (1950) told a personal story of her own daughter, whose mental development stopped at the age of four. The subject is also dealt with in Buck's famous novel The Good Earth. The book was filmed in 1937. Irving Thalberg had wanted to produce the novel since the 1931 publication. Thalberg employed many Chinese as extras and authentic background shots were made in China. Luise Rainer won an Academy Award for best actress. Buck did not first complain her small royalty, until years later, when MGM ignored her plea for a substantial donation to help Amerasian children.
The Good Earth (1931) sold 1,800,000 copies in its
first year. It has been translated into more than thirty languages and was
awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1932. The story follows the life of Wang
Lung, from his beginnings as an impoverished peasant to his eventual
position as a prosperous landowner. Wang Lung
collects a slave, O-lan, from the prosperous house of Hwang. O-lan's
parents sold her to Hwang because they were poor and needed money.
According to an old Chinese custom, Wang Lung's and O-lan's marriage is
pre-arranged. The fiancée is not beautiful, she is humble but shares
with him the devotion to land, to duty, and to survival. First year is
happy: the crop is good and they have two sons. Then the crops fail, and
O-lan gives birth to a girl. The family moves to south, and the man
abandons the plan to sell the child. Revolution breaks out, houses are
plundered, and Wang Lung gets in his possession a silver treasure. The
family returns to their home region. Wang Lung buys land and soon owns
also the house of now impoverished Hwang. The only problem is their
retarded child, a girl, who don't speak. O-lan gives birth to twins, a boy
and a girl. The elder boys go to school. Wang Lung buys another wife,
Lotus. O-lan is not well after the birth of the twins, and she dies after
the wedding of her sons. In his old days, Wang Lung gives his love
to a young slave girl, who also takes care of the retarded girl. His
youngest son moves from the house to become a soldier and because he also
loves the young slave girl. Old Wang Lung witnesses for his sorrow that
his children do not share his unyielding devotion to the land.
The novel was followed by two sequels, Sons (1932), which focused on the youngest son, Wang the Tiger, and A House Divided (1935), which was Yuan's story. The three novels were published in 1935 in one volume as The House of Earth. One of the recurrent themes was foot binding which ended in China in 1911 after 1,000 years of practice. At her death Buck was working on "The Red Earth," a further sequel to The Good Earth, presenting the modern-day descendants of that novel's characters.
was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1951. After Walsh's death, Buck formed a relationship with Ted Harris, a
dance instructor 40 years her junior, who took charge of the Pearl S.
Buck Foundation. Buck died at the age of eighty in Danby, Vermont, on
March 6, 1973. Her manuscripts and papers are at the Pearl S. Buck
Birthplace Foundation, Hillsboro, West Virginia and the Lipscomb
Library of Randolph-Macon Women's College, Lynchburg, Virginia. A novel she wrote shortly before her death, entitled The Eternl Wonder,
was discovered in 2013. The coming-of-age story told of a young man
whose search for meaning leads him to New York, England, France and
"I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in human beings,
Buck said in a lecture. "Like Confucius of old, I am so absorbed in the
wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and
the angels... If there is no other life, then this one has been enough
to make it worth being born, myself a human being." (This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of One Hundred Thoughtfil Men and Women in All wWlks of Life, edited by Edward P. Morgan, with a foreword by Edward R. Murrow, 1953, p. 120)
During her career as an author, spanning forty years, Buck published eighty works, including novels, plays, short story collections, poems, children's books, and biographies. She also wrote five novels under the name John Sedges and translated Lo Guangzhong's (1330-1400) The Water Margin / Men of the Marshes, which appeared under the title All Men Are Brothers (1933). The book depicts adventures of outlaws and was banned by Sung rulers. Command the Morning (1959) concerned the efforts of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb and the ethics of dropping it on Japan. The Chinese Novel (1939) was largely an explanation of her own writing style.