Pearl S. Buck Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A novelist and Nobel laureate, Buck campaigned tirelessly for freedom and equal rights for all peoples of the world, both East and West.

Early Life

Born to missionary parents and taken to China at the age of three months, Pearl Sydenstricker always displayed her understanding and love for the Chinese people. Her scholarly father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a student of comparative religion, spoke four languages, and translated the Bible from Greek to Chinese. Her mother, Caroline, was well versed in languages, art, and literature and taught her children at home. Instead of living in a missionary compound, Pearl’s parents insisted upon the family living among the Chinese people. In addition to a Chinese nurse, Pearl had a Chinese tutor, a Confucian scholar who taught her Chinese writing, reading, and history as well as the principles of Confucianism.

Despite their peaceful ties with their Chinese neighbors, the Sydenstricker family was forced to flee temporarily during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Pearl left China at age seventeen to attend college at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, from which she graduated in 1914. That same year she returned to China to care for her sick mother and work in a nearby mission school. In 1917, she married John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural specialist, and they moved to Northern China. In 1921, her daughter Caroline, was born. As time passed, it became obvious that Caroline was mentally impaired. The next year the Buck family moved to Nanking, where Pearl frequently taught English literature over the next ten years. Motivated by her daughter’s increasingly desperate condition, Buck accompanied her husband to America to seek medical advice. Unfortunately, she learned that Caroline’s mental impairment was severe. During her stay in the United States, Pearl attended Cornell and received a master of arts degree before the family returned to Nanking in 1926.

Buck and her family again resumed their work in Nanking. China was beginning to show signs of political unrest as various factions lobbied for the elimination of foreign imperialism. Buck now felt herself the target of racial prejudice. On March 27, 1927, during the Nanking Incident, Buck and her family almost lost their lives when their home was attacked by an angry Chinese mob. Huddled in the hut of a poor neighbor woman, Buck and her family watched as their home was looted and burned. They were rescued by American gunboats and taken to Shanghai. The family returned to Nanking as soon as possible. Buck and her husband resumed their former life, yet their peaceful work within their adopted culture was gone. By the time Buck and her husband returned to the United States in 1932, Chiang Kai-shek’s government had all but disintegrated and civil unrest had erupted. Although Buck returned to Nanking in 1933, the level of hostility toward foreigners was such that she was forced to leave China permanently in 1934.

Life’s Work

By the time Pearl S. Buck left China in 1934, she had already published East Wind: West Wind (1930), The Good Earth (1931), Sons (1932), The First Wife, and Other Stories and All Men Are Brothers (both in 1933). She had won the Pulitzer Prize for The Good Earth in 1932, and became the spokesperson for the Chinese people in America. In 1935, her trilogy, House of Earth which contains The Good Earth, Sons and A House Divided was published. This year, too, she divorced John Buck and married Richard Walsh, head of the John Day Company and publisher of all of her early books. The following year her biographies of her parents, The Exile and Fighting Angel (1936), were published. These two biographies and The Good Earth were cited by the Nobel Foundation when it awarded Buck the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938. Her selection as the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize aroused a furor among critics. William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis, and Theodore Dreiser were alive and writing at the time, and all had published considerably more work and had achieved more critical acclaim for their literary achievements than Buck. Nevertheless, the Nobel committee cited Buck not only for her literary achievements but also for her compassionate and rich portrayals of rural Chinese life, the first to appear in American literature.

Although Buck’s literary output in the wake of the Nobel Prize was considerable, it never achieved the level of excellence of The Good Earth and her two biographies. Instead, Buck used her influence as a literary figure to work for the causes she championed, such as rights of women. From the cultural vantage point of her life in China, she viewed American women from a new perspective. In This Proud Heart (1938), Buck portrays her heroine as a female genius torn between her career as a sculptor and her duties as a wife and mother. While the book does not match The Good Earth in literary excellence, it is one of the few works of its time to explain and study female genius.

Two of Buck’s essays, “America’s Medieval Women” (1938) and “America’s Gunpowder Women” (1939), examine the difficulties and characteristics of American women. In the first essay, she describes American women as medieval because, even though they might be well rounded and well educated,...

(The entire section is 2248 words.)

Pearl S. Buck Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Pearl S. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in West Virginia on June 26, 1892. Her parents, Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, were missionaries who took her to China when she was still an infant. China was her home, except during her college undergraduate days, until 1932. When she was ready to go to college, Buck’s parents sent her back to the United States, where she attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, in Lynchburg, Virginia, graduating in 1914. While she was an undergraduate, Buck distinguished herself by becoming president of her class and by winning collegiate literary prizes.{$S[A]Sedges, John;Buck, Pearl S.}

In 1917, she married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural expert working for the Presbyterian mission board. Their first five years of marriage were spent in the highly unsettled regions of North China. When her husband accepted a position at Nanking University, Pearl Buck began to teach English at the same institution, serving until 1924. She later taught at National Southeastern University (1925-1927) and at Chung-Yang University (1928-1930). The Bucks took a leave of absence in 1925; they returned to the United States and studied at Cornell University. While working on her master’s degree, Buck learned that her daughter, Carol, was mentally retarded. Even though the doctors recommended that Carol be institutionalized, Buck did not do so until 1929. Another daughter, Janice, was adopted, and she returned to China with the Buck family.

The publication of The Good Earth in 1931 made Pearl S. Buck world-famous as a popular novelist. With that book, she achieved fame, not only as a novelist but also as the foremost interpreter of China to Westerners. She, John, and their two daughters returned to the United States for a year’s leave. On the return trip to China, she requested and received a year’s separation from John. During that year, she traveled extensively through Asia. In 1934, she left for the United States with Janice. Pearl divorced John Buck on June 10, 1935; the next day, she married Richard J. Walsh, the president of John Day, her publishing company. They settled on a farm in Pennsylvania and later adopted nine children. Richard died in 1960 after a lengthy illness.

Honorary degrees were awarded to Buck by several institutions, including Harvard and Yale. She was also one of the first women to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Good Earth won many awards for its author, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1935. She was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1936. Her crowning award was the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she received in 1938 for her portrayal of the Chinese people in her novels.

The Good Earth was the first novel of a trilogy, The House of Earth, which includes Sons and A House Divided. The trilogy presents the history of a Chinese family through several generations, and it has been compared to the Rougon-Macquart series of novels by Émile Zola. Similarities are especially strong between Buck’s The Good Earth and Zola’s La Terre (1887; The Soil, 1888, and also as Earth, 1954), running much deeper than the titles.

The Good Earth was an exceptionally popular novel. With its American sales approximating a million copies, and translations made into twenty or more other languages, the novel topped the best-seller lists in the United States for more than two years. Despite its vast popularity, or perhaps partly because of it, and because her books were concerned with a culture alien to the United States, critics and scholars have been slow to grant Buck’s work a place in literary history. Critical appraisals of The Good Earth and Buck’s later novels have indicated that the greatest merit of the books lies in the truthfulness with which China and its people are portrayed.

Following The Good Earth, which is a point of departure in any discussion of Buck, came other novels which had more modest success, such books as The Young Revolutionist, portraying the Chinese Communist movement, and The Mother, which relates the tribulations of a Chinese peasant woman. During the 1930’s, Buck also turned to writing books other than novels; The First Wife, and Other Stories was her first volume of...

(The entire section is 1817 words.)

Pearl S. Buck Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Pearl Sydenstricker spent her childhood and young adult years in China with her missionary parents, where she attended mission schools and studied with a Confucian tutor. Then she attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia before returning to China, where she married John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural expert. She received her M.A. in English literature from Cornell in 1926, and soon began publishing extensively. She divorced John Lossing Buck in 1935 and later that same year married Richard J. Walsh, president of the John Day publishing firm. Elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1936, she won the Nobel Prize in 1938. She founded the East and West Association, an organization working toward...

(The entire section is 161 words.)

Pearl S. Buck Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Pearl S. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker on June 26, 1892, in the family home at Hillsboro, West Virginia, to Absalom and Caroline (Stulting) Sydenstricker. Her parents were missionaries in China, home on a furlough, and after five months they returned to China with their baby daughter. Her parents’ marriage was not a particularly happy one because of their disparate natures. Her mother, fun-loving and witty, was torn by her devotion to God; her father, single-minded and zealous, had success with his mission but not with his family. Buck grew up in Chinkiang (Zhenjiang), an inland city on the Yangtze River. In 1900, during the Boxer Rebellion, her family was forced to flee, and she experienced the horrors of racism. Her...

(The entire section is 953 words.)

Pearl S. Buck Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born to Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker. The fourth of seven children, she was one of only three who lived to adulthood. Pearl was born when her Presbyterian parents were in the United States on temporary home leave from their missionary duties in China; when she was three months old they returned to Chinkiang, China. Her father’s work there took him into the countryside for months at a time; her mother remained at home with the children, managing a dispensary for Chinese women.

Educated by her mother and a Chinese tutor, Pearl became proficient in both English and Chinese at an early age. She read the Bible, traditional Chinese tales, and the writings of Charles Dickens, whose...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Pearl S. Buck Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Buck’s contribution to American letters is perhaps most obvious in The Good Earth. Her receiving the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes for literature attests to the quality of her early work. Although some of her later works are considered propagandistic (Dragon Seed [1942], for example), inaccurate in their depiction of Chinese life, or simply not especially good writing, her best works about China have not been surpassed. She was one of the most widely read authors of her time. The Good Earth is the definitive story of Chinese peasant life before the Communist regime came to power. She said whereas her critics wanted China represented by its scholars and intellectuals, she wished to present a true view of the...

(The entire section is 175 words.)

Pearl S. Buck Biography

(Novels for Students)

One of most popular American authors of the mid-twentieth century, Pearl Buck was born on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia. Her...

(The entire section is 492 words.)