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.)