Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2248
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.
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.
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, they are prevented from fulfilling their potential. Buck viewed the possibilities open to American women of her time as limited to roles as subservient wives or as career women without families. In the second essay, Buck identifies women frustrated by these limited roles as “Gunpowder Women” who, if given the chance, would enter professions and politics and make a difference in American society and in the world. The ideas contained in these essays came to fuller expression in her book Of Men and Women (1941). As a friend of Margaret Sanger, founder of the birth control movement, Buck advocated birth control and supported the right of unmarried women to have children. Throughout her life, Buck’s writings, speeches, radio broadcasts, and public appearances supported the self-realization of women through participation in national and world affairs.
Viewing women as natural advocates for peace, Buck herself became active in promoting international goodwill during the World War II years. In 1941, she founded the East and West Association to promote understanding between the cultures through bringing Asians into American communities. The association lasted eight years before coming under attack during the anti-Communist years of the 1950’s. As early as 1947, Buck began work on the United Nations General Assembly’s manifesto condemning the crime of genocide. Buck believed condemnation was not enough and continued to work until all the members of the United Nations declared genocide an international crime.
After World War II, Buck became concerned about the discrimination and poverty faced by children born of mixed American and Asian parentage. In 1949, she established Welcome House, an adoption agency for Amerasian children born in the United States. Hearing from Asian friends about the plight of children fathered in Asia by American servicemen during the war, she expanded Welcome House to include overseas children in its program. Buck lobbied intensely to get the restrictive immigration quotas lifted in Congress through the passage of a Refugee Act. She and Richard Walsh themselves adopted seven children of mixed parentage. Her concern for victims of the war motivated her to arrange medical treatment for young Japanese girls badly burned and disfigured by the atomic bomb. She was also instrumental in halting the detainment and deportation of Asian Americans brought to Ellis Island and questioned about communist activities.
In 1929, Buck had come to the decision to place her daughter Caroline in the Vineland Training School, a private boarding school for the mentally impaired. In 1950, she wrote a moving account of her experiences as a parent of a mentally impaired child, The Child Who Never Grew (1950). The response of the public was overwhelming. She received letters and personal visits from parents seeking help and expressing gratitude. Throughout her life, she continued her involvement by writing three nonfiction works describing advances in the field and supporting local and national organizations.
During the Cold War years, she wrote four novels condemning both Communist China and anti-Communist America, including Imperial Woman (1956), a history of the Empress Dowager Tsu Hsui. Although they sold well, they lacked the literary quality of her prewar Chinese novels. From 1945 to 1953, Buck published five novels under the pseudonym “John Sedges.” Only one of these, The Townsman (1945) received critical attention, although they all sold well. In 1959, Buck resumed her name with Command the Morning (1959), a well-researched account of the development of the atomic bomb. The following year, 1960, her husband Richard Walsh died after a long illness. She recounted these difficult years in A Bridge for Passing (1962). The public response was again astounding; women throughout the United States wrote to express gratitude for her understanding and compassion.
In 1962, Buck tried to establish the Pearl S. Buck Memorial Fund to assist homeless Korean American children living in Korea. She wanted the Fund to be a branch of Welcome House but was unable to gain support from Welcome House, in part because of her close relationship with her dancing instructor, Theodore Harris, whom she wanted appointed Director. She appealed to the John Day Company once headed by her husband, but the Company refused to lend its support. This brought about the final break with John Day. Buck established the Memorial Fund on her own in 1964, with Harris as director. In 1969, a Philadelphia Magazine article accused Harris of misappropriation of funds and the State of Pennsylvania withdrew its nonprofit status. Buck loyally supported Harris throughout the scandal and together they moved to Danby, Vermont. There Harris established Creativity, Inc., which managed most of Buck’s later projects. During the last decade of her life, she continued to publish two to five books a year, many of them collections of previously published works. She published other books of a general nature, children’s books, and fiction written earlier. In 1973, at the age of eighty-one, Pearl Buck died in Danby, Vermont.
To evaluate Pearl S. Buck’s achievements on the basis of her fiction alone would be to ignore important aspects of her life’s work. She viewed fiction as popular entertainment and was extraordinarily popular. In contrast to her contemporaries, her optimism and belief in the innate goodness of men must have come as a welcome relief to everyday modern readers, for her immense popularity extended world wide.
She is best remembered for her activism in the cause of freedom and understanding. In her liberal views of marriage and family, her advocacy of women and children, her support of China, her understanding of the dichotomy between America’s idealism in world affairs and its disgraceful oppression at home she shows her amazing foresight and awareness of events that came to pass in her lifetime. Her books describing her own sorrow as a mother and widow display her willingness to offer compassion and understanding, especially to women. Perhaps this willingness to share her time and thoughts makes her such an appealing figure. Never aligned with a single cause, Buck supported any cause that advanced freedom and equality. The literary quality of The Good Earth, The Exile, and Fighting Angel will no doubt endure, but this is only a portion of Pearl Buck’s accomplishments: She was a humanitarian, a liberal patriot, an advocate for peace and freedom.
Buck, Pearl S. My Several Worlds. New York: John Day, 1954. Buck’s autobiography describes vividly her years in China and the impact these experiences had upon her life and work. Not strictly chronological, the book offers memories and scenes from her past. She discusses marriage, family, divorce, and child rearing and shows clearly her advanced ideas on these subjects.
Doyle, Paul A. Pearl S. Buck. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1980. In this revised edition of the first book-length study of Buck’s work since the 1930’s, Doyle justly examines the most significant of Buck’s writing.
Harris, Theodore F. Pearl S. Buck: A Biography. New York: John Day, 1969. An uncritical biography that consists primarily of Buck’s selected letters and speeches edited and commented upon by Harris. Most evident in the work is Buck’s activism and her sympathy and compassion for all those who sought her advice. Harris’ comments are slanted by his adulation for Buck.
Mitchell, Barbara. Between Two Worlds: A Story About Pearl Buck. Minneapolis, Minn.: Carolrhoda Books, 1988. Although the text of this juvenile biography concludes with Buck’s acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, its coverage of Buck’s early life and her struggle to care for her daughter is excellent and the afterword draws attention to Buck’s humanitarian efforts on behalf of needy children and in support of improved cultural understanding between East and West. Contains useful bibliography of Buck’s works for juvenile readers.
Stirling, Nora B. Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict. Piscataway, N.J.: New Century, 1983. Stirling’s book is the only one written after Buck’s death in 1973 and has the advantage of time and distance from Buck as a public figure. Hers is the only detailed objective account of Buck’s final years and assessment of Buck’s contribution to various causes.
Thompson, Dody Weston. “Pearl Buck.” In American Winners of the Nobel Literary Prize, edited by Warren G. French and Walter E. Kidd. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968. An adulatory essay that discusses Buck’s popularity as a writer and argues that her works have merit precisely because of their popular appeal and lack of high-brow literary attributes.