SOURCE: A review of My Several Worlds, in Kirkus Reviews, Vol. XXII, No. 17, September 1, 1954, p. 603.
[In the following review, the critic praises the message and impact of the personal narrative in Buck's My Several Worlds.]
Not only Pearl Buck's most important book, but—on many counts—her best book, this autobiographical account of more than half a century comes at a time when its message is a challenge to all thoughtful readers. Born of missionary parents and brought up in a China that suffered successive internal upheavals and areas of peace and repose. Pearl Buck knew the Chinese as few white people have been privileged to know them. It took the defeat of Chiang Kai-Shek to determine the permanence of her residence in her American home, though her identification with China today is rooted in a China that she feels will triumph ultimately over Communism. The major portion of her book treats her Chinese years and opens new windows of comprehension, appreciation and knowledge to those who will read. It is an absorbing tale, personal to the extent that one shares with her the impact of what she saw and knew and experienced. On the level of her personal relations she is singularly objective, almost detached, though one knows the facts, one does not enter into the intimacy of the details. Fighting Angel and The Exile, superb tributes to her parents, published some years ago, are further set in the perspective by this her own story, and together give an extraordinary portrait of China from the time of the reign of the old Empress Dowager, through the Boxer Rebellion, on up to today. Almost inevitably the last part of the book, her twenty years of putting her roots down in her native land, suffers by being less dramatic, less pictorial, but they add to the sum total of a rounded personality. A good deal of space is devoted to her absorption in the problem of the unwanted children of the world and the constructive action she has taken in the founding of Welcome House; there is a running account of her various homes, of the children of her adoption, of her second marriage, of her journeyings, her friendships, the people of many lands that came and went. And always there is the deepening of a philosophical outlook, an inward searching, and a tempered view of what should be our goals, our responsibilities, in relation to Asia today and tomorrow. On Pearl Buck's name this should reach an audience that might otherwise sidestep a book which challenges our thinking. Don't miss it.
Pearl S. Buck 1892–1973
American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor, biographer, autobiographer, author of juvenile literature, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of Buck's career. See also Pearl S. Buck Criticism (Volume 7) and Pearl S. Buck Criticism (Volume 11).
Buck is best known for her lifelong mission to ease tensions in East-West relations and increase understanding between the two sides. Through fiction and autobiographical accounts of her life in both worlds, Buck achieved her goal. Many Western readers have learned about the East by reading Buck's work.
Buck was born in the United States in 1892, but her parents moved to China when she was only three months old. Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries who made the unusual decision to live among the Chinese instead of isolating themselves behind the protective walls of the missionary. Buck grew up living a dual life in a formal English home with Chinese playmates. The Boxer Rebellion forced Buck's family to flee to Shanghai, changing Buck's...
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relationship with China and its people. After leaving China for four years of college at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Buck returned to China after marrying an American agriculturalist stationed in the Far East. When she returned, Buck noticed a distinct rift between Chinese and whites. Constant wars and revolutions in the country, along with her divorce, convinced her to return to America. Once home, Buck began writing about her experiences in China. Buck married her editor. Tom Walsh, and adopted five children in addition to her daughter from her first marriage. Buck'sThe Good Earth (1931) won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. In 1938, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, becoming the first American woman to earn that distinction.
My Several Worlds: Personal Record (1954) is Buck's autobiography, which is about her experiences in China and America. Imperial Woman (1956) is a fictional account of the reign of China's Empress Dowager, Tzu Hsi, that speculates about life behind the walls of the Forbidden City. The novel follows the Empress's humble beginnings as a servant in her uncle's household, as an imperial concubine, and finally as regent for her son and nephew. Letter From Peking (1957) tells the story of Elizabeth and her son, Rennie, who comes with her to America after leaving her half-Chinese husband because of the dangerous Communist upheaval in China. Her husband Gerald decides to remain in China instead of abandoning his post as the head of a university. The story follows Gerald's letters home and change Elizabeth's life forever. Friend to Friend: A Candid Exchange between Pearl S. Buck and Carlos P. Romulo (1958), is an exchange between Buck and Carlos P. Romulo on the subject of East-West relations. The book attempts to unmask some of the myths about both sides, in hopes that better understanding will promote better relations. With Command the Morning (1959), Buck mixes historical figures and events with a fictional story about development of the atom bomb. The story revolves around personal lives of the scientists and how they balance them with their careers—including how they keep their work secret from their wives. The novel is historically accurate about the bomb's development. Buck's A Bridge for Passing (1962) is an autobiographical account of Buck's trip to Japan to film her book, The Big Wave (1948). During her journey. Buck observes changes in Japan that happened during her twenty-five absence. Most significantly, Buck's second husband Tom died from a protracted illness while the author was in Japan. The book describes the dichotomy of her life at this time: dealing with producers during the day, while working through grief and loneliness at night. Death in the Castle (1965) departs from Buck's usual setting and genre. In this novel Buck tells the story about an English noble family forced to sell their family castle to an American industrialist. In The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (1969), Buck combines the story of a modern Chinese woman who runs a Shanghai restaurant with the love stories of her three daughters.
Most reviewers note Buck's underlying impulse to teach her readers and show them the universality of mankind. Fanny Butcher said, "Pearl Buck is obviously a woman of uncommon good will, a believer in man's inherent potentialities for understanding and loving his fellow men even when his actions belie those possibilities." Many reviewers credit Buck with using a light hand and humor—a trait that saves her work from a preachy tone. Margaret Parton said that, "she is far removed from a severe schoolmarm. An old hand at this sort of thing, she knows well how to combine instruction with entertainment…." However, many of Buck's critics feel her art suffers because of her focus on her message. Some have even accused the author of didacticism. Reviewers found the characters weak in Command the Morning, and felt the personal stories of the scientists to be out of scale with the subject of the nuclear bomb. Earl W. Foell complained that "The characters for the most part remain wooden, or at best become symbols." Critics credit Buck most for her splendid depictions that make the East familiar and accessible to Western readers.
SOURCE: "The Call of China," in Saturday Review, Vol. 37, No. 45, November 6, 1954, p. 17.
[In the following review, Parton praises the delicacy and restraint of Buck's writing in My Several Worlds.]
"Two worlds, two worlds, and one cannot be the other, and each has its ways and blessings, I suppose," Pearl Buck sighs, as she visits a lonely farm woman in a mechanized South Dakota kitchen and remembers nostalgically the chatter of Chinese women beating their laundry by the edge of the communal pond.
Of these two worlds Mrs. Buck has made a magnificent synthesis, writing of the world of China from the perspective of twenty years in the United States, of the world of America from the perspective of forty years in China. Those who have read all her books—as this reviewer has not—may feel that My Several Worlds is her finest achievement. Those who have not can take it as the rich autumnal flowering of a varied and sensitive mind whose roots are in the common soil of all humanity.
"We have no enemies, we for whom the globe is home," she writes, "for we hate no one, and where there is no hate it is not possible to escape love." With love, then, she has written her autobiography, and where there was hate or at least discord she writes with delicacy and a restraint almost too noble for contemporary taste, grown used to malice and vindictiveness.
If there are any toward whom Mrs. Buck reserves her anger, it is those who sowed the seeds which the innocent must reap today in whirlwind: the English who immobilized China for a century with opium wars and condescension and who for three centuries exploited India while giving nothing in return; the French in Indo-China, the Dutch in Indonesia, the Americans who must share guilt by the very reason of their silence. And Chiang Kai-shek too, with his limited military mind and his government of contemptuous young intellectuals who failed to understand the people they governed and most particularly failed in understanding that nationalism must be supplemented by idealism if a government is to survive.
As everyone knows, Mrs. Buck is well qualified to write of these matters, to tell us of the China that is gone, and why it went. The daughter of missionary parents who first went to China in 1880, she was born in the United States but taken to China to live when she was three months old. And there, in the idyllic days before the Boxer Rebellion, she grew up in the strange dual world of the missionary child, slipping easily from Chinese patter with playmates to formal English with her parents, from a poached-egg breakfast in the dining room to rice dumplings in the kitchen, from Mark Twain to Confucius. Then the Rebellion forced the family to flee to Shanghai, and in 1909 the observant little girl saw the signs in the parks: "No Chinese, No Dogs." Seeds for the whirlwind.
China was never quite the same afterward. Each time the young Pearl returned from a trip to America, and particularly after her four years at college, she found the rift widened between Chinese and white. And yet she lived on, because it was her home, because she had undertaken a marriage "which continued for seventeen years in its dogged fashion" to an American agriculturalist stationed in China, and most of all because she loved the country about which she was at last beginning to write.
These China years are really the meat of the book, absorbing in their detail of friends, food, literary life, glimpses of Chinese history and philosophy, and the constant, tragic movement of current history. In the end the history, the continual wars and revolutions so ominous of the future, drove her from China as surely as did the dissolution of her own marriage, and her life broke in two, as does the book.
In America she found a Pennsylvania farmhouse, a happy second marriage, four new children to be adopted, and a host of new interests. But like so many Americans who have returned home after years in Asia, one thing she sought and did not find: and that was any curiosity on the part of most Americans about the life of the common man of Asia—a disinterest which is reflected in the ignorance of our statesmen and politicians.
Ah well, says Mrs. Buck with philosophical Chinese acceptance, "a nation, like a child, cannot comprehend beyond the capacity of its mental age. To teach calculus to a child of six is absurd. One has to begin at the beginning, one has to wait for maturity and it cannot be hastened."
While Mrs. Buck is, of course, giving a lesson in mature world thinking to beginners, it should be hastily added that she is far removed from a severe schoolmarm. An old hand at this sort of thing, she knows well how to combine instruction with entertainment—as witnessed by the fact that this reviewer tried conscientiously to skip here and there, and found it impossible to do.
The Good Earth (novel) 1931, reprinted 1982Sons (novel) 1932, reprinted 1975The Young Revolutionist (juvenile literature) 1932The First Wife, and Other Stories (short stories) 1933, reprinted, 1963A House Divided (novel) 1935, reprinted, 1975The Proud Heart (novel) 1938, reprinted, 1965The Chinese Children Next Door (juvenile literature) 1942The Big Wave (juvenile literature) 1948; reprinted, 1973My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (autobiography) 1954; reprinted, 1975Imperial Woman (novel) 1956; reprinted, 1977Letter From Peking (novel) 1957; reprinted, 1975Friend to Friend: A Candid Exchange between Pearl S. Buck and Carlos P. Romulo (nonfiction) 1958Command the Morning (novel) 1959; reprinted, 1975A Desert Incident (drama) 1959A Bridge for Passing (autobiography) 1962The Living Reed (novel) 1963; reprinted, 1979Death in the Castle (novel) 1965The People of Japan (nonfiction) 1966The Time Is Noon (novel) 1967The Good Deed, and Other Stories of Asia, Past and Present (short stories) 1969The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (novel) 1969Mandala (novel) 1970Pearl S. Buck's America (nonfiction) 1971Secrets of the Heart: Stories (short stories) 1976The Old Demon (short stories) 1982Little Red (short stories) 1987
SOURCE: "Pearl Buck's Full, Rich Life," in New York Herald Tribune, November 7, 1954, sec. 6, p. 1.
[In the following review, Bullock discusses the juxtaposition of Buck's life in China and her life in America.]
In My Several Worlds Pearl Buck, with attractive humility and grace of spirit, gives us a step-by-step account of her pilgrim's progress, in China and the United States, from little girlhood into mature and effective womanhood. Mrs. Buck's writings have had a wide and enthusiastic acceptance and her literary honors include the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. But it becomes evident in My Several Worlds that all the novels, biographies and other more obviously purposeful volumes that she has turned out over the years have been but the season-to-season fruit of her development as a woman and a human being. "Life," she says, "must be lived full tilt for its own sake before it becomes material for a novel." Seventeen years of close association with the Chinese peasants—whom she profoundly loves and admires, and whose humor, wisdom, philosophical acceptance of life she has made essentially her own—went into The Good Earth. Yet the actual writing of that long, full, immensely rich novel took but three months.
Born in West Virginia, into a family rich in the traditions of the ministry and teaching—her father was "a severe man of God and a missionary"—Pearl Sydenstricker was transplanted early to China, and put down deep roots into that "old and sophisticated" civilization. Her parents, loyal to their spiritual insights and democratic principles, refused to live—as most missionary families lived—within the shelter of a white man's compound, and their small daughter's earliest—often her only—friends were the children of their Chinese neighbors whom she loved and accepted, as they accepted her in spite of her white skin and golden hair. So it was a rude shock to an affectionate eight-year-old when the growing hostility against "foreign devils" in the days just preceding the Boxer Rebellion alienated her from her playmates. Pearl's mother explained that her friends had not ceased to love her: they were merely afraid to be seen playing with her. And her father made it clear that he did not blame the Chinese for resenting the arrogance of the white men toward them in their own country.
The lesson was well learned. For during half a lifetime spent in China, as a child, as the wife of a man who was trying, without too much success, to teach Western methods of farming to the peasants, and as a teacher in the Chinese University in Nanking when that city was Chiang Kai-shek's bloody capital, Mrs. Buck suffered both danger and loss from looting, murdering anti-Western mobs. But she was always able to accept with genuine sympathy the point of view of the Chinese. "As a child I had watched so often the Chinese bearers trembling under the weight of too-heavy loads carried up from the English ships in port … I was troubled because the load was too heavy and the white man did not care that it was … and that trouble has followed me all the days of my life." In My Several Worlds, without bitterness and with only a sorrowful regret, Mrs. Buck points out the mistakes that the white man has made which have led to a divided world in which the Chinese who are, basically, she thinks, so much like ourselves, are not on our side but against us.
How successfully was such a woman able to transplant herself into the United States of the 1930's? "Roots," she says, "must be put down if one is to live." After a few months spent floundering about among the literati in Manhattan—she had dinner a deux with Alexander Woollcott at Wit's End, and Chris Morley took her to her first speakeasy, which she hated—she consciously and deliberately took steps which any social psychologist would approve: she bought herself an old house in a part of the country where her forefathers had lived, and settled into it. She began to study—and grow deeply fond of—her fellow Americans and some, at least, of their ways. The American pattern, she thinks, is to be patternless. She finds us "wonderful in emergency … a generous, impulsive, emotional people, unstable, not only from nature but from environment…. The years are rich with living, but life does not flow in a river as it did in China."
She speaks out frankly about several matters of interest to Americans: our way of rearing our children, of which she does not greatly approve and (angrily) of the obstructive methods of social workers in the adoption of children. (She and her husband rejoice now in a whole houseful of much-loved adopted children.) And she has wise words to say about divorces, including her own.
Mrs. Buck's great fecundity as a writer has resulted, it seems to me, from her wonderful faculty for participation, imaginative and actual, plus an unusual feeling for beauty and meanings, and a remarkable capacity for retaining her vivid impressions.
My Several Worlds has a deep humanity. For Mrs. Buck's approach to life—and writing—is one of rich and loving tenderness quite untinctured with sentimentality. And her basic creed runs through every line she writes.
SOURCE: "Memoirs of Genius at Large," in Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, November 7, 1954, p. 1.
[In the following review, Butcher asserts that "Pearl Buck has a genius for making readers see pictures and know human beings, often with humor. Nowhere has she used that genius more tellingly than in parts of My Several Worlds."]
There are few writers who could so aptly use the title, My Several Worlds, for an autobiography. Few have lived so close to so many worlds. To most Americans Pearl Buck is best known as the first American woman to receive the Nobel prize for literature, the author of an unremembered number of books —especially The Good Earth, which touched readers deeply.
To those who have read any of those books, Pearl Buck is obviously a woman of uncommon good will, a believer in man's inherent potentialities for understanding and loving his fellow men even when his actions belie those possibilities. Readers sense, even if they do not know, that in her life there must have been reagents—different from those in most lives—which have clarified her philosophy—the way that a cloudy test tube is chemically clarified.
In My Several Worlds, Pearl Buck tells of those reagents—literally different worlds in which she has lived. The book is subtitled, "A Personal Record," and personal it is in the sense of being a record of what her very seeing eyes saw and what her heart understood. It is not personal in the sense of being outspokenly self-revealing.
Her autobiography is in a new pattern, with no personal intimacies, but surprisingly intimate in its revelations of man's relationship to man in the world of yesterday as well as of today and tomorrow.
Pearl Buck has a genius for making readers see pictures and know human beings, often with humor. Nowhere has she used that genius more tellingly than in parts of My Several Worlds. Not only the Chinese, but, more briefly, Indian, Japanese, Indo-Chinese. All Asia lives in these pages as it has lived in few books of our day. The more familiar American scenes and people in the book are, perhaps by their very familiarity, less vivid.
Miss Buck's Chinese world is only one of her several worlds. There are her worlds as a writer, a teacher, a farmer, a mother of her own retarded child [whose future as much as China's upheaval brought her back to America to live] and five adopted sons and daughters; her world of helping despondent parents of other retarded innocents and of finding homes for unwanted babies of mixed blood; and over all her world of friendships.
Foell, Earl W. "Mrs. Buck's Bomb-Makers." New York Herald Tribune (3 May 1959): 4.
Foell complains that "in concentrating on getting this formula for scientific endeavor scrupulously accurate [in Command the Morning], Mrs. Buck has somehow managed to turn her characters into types that fit the research equation but not the human equation."
Rennert, Maggie. "Blue-Blood Pudding." Sunday Herald Tribune Book Week (4 July 1965): 11.
Rennert asserts that although Buck's Death in the Castle is often cliché and unbelievable, it is still an enjoyable read.
Rogers, W. G. "Pastor's Brood." New York Times (19 February 1967): 44.
Rogers concludes that Buck's strength in The Time Is Noon is her well-drawn good characters, but her weakness is in the unbelievability of her villains.
Rogers, W. G. A review of Mandala. New York Times Book Review (25 October 1970): 57.
A brief review of Mandala, in which Rogers states, "The appeal of [the book], I suppose, lies in the mysticism that fills its last half."
SOURCE: "Inside the Forbidden City," in New York Herald Tribune, January 1, 1956, p. 1.
[In the following review, Bellows discusses the difficulties of developing a fictional story around an historical figure, and how Buck approaches the problem in her Imperial Woman.]
General events in the Chinese Empire from the early 1850's to the early 1900's are now a matter of history. What went on in the separate world inside the walls of the Forbidden City is less well known and subject to conjecture and dispute. What went on in the mind of Tzu Hsi, Empress Dowager of China, strong ruler and unpredictable woman, is anybody's guess and a challenge to the imagination. She was not a person to share her private thoughts with another, or to leave a record of them; and any attempt to cast her as the point-of-view character in a novel must necessarily be a matter for speculation.
Imperial Woman begins with the summoning of Orchid (her girlhood name), one of 60 Manchu maidens, to the palace of Emperor Hsien-Feng, there to become "Yehonala," his favorite concubine. It follows her elevation, upon the birth of her son, to the rank of Empress, her assumption of the power behind the weak throne, her regency over three child emperors, her absolute and tyrannical rule as Tzu Hsi the Empress Dowager, her final concessions to the Western powers, and the tottering of the Manchu dynasty.
Where there is so much uncertainty concerning the private life of a prominent figure, a novelist assumes a considerable responsibility in deciding which "facts" to accept as true. Pearl Buck has not evaded this responsibility. Her development of the Empress' story and character tallies closely enough with most accounts of historians and memoirs of close associates of the Dowager. But in each instance where the facts are uncertain, the author has made a clear-cut decision. She could hardly do otherwise, since her story purports to take the reader into the Empress' mind and heart and to follow her private acts; and in most cases the decision seems the logical one, judged in the light of other books.
Even so, it was an arbitrary and spectacular choice to assume that the royal heir, Tung Chin, was in reality the son of Jung Lu, the Empress' Manchu kinsman, childhood sweetheart, trusted adviser, and lifetime adorer in an idealistic love which was only once consummated; especially since historians in general seem not to have advanced this theory, although they recognize, in varying degrees, some sort of liaison between the Empress and her kinsman.
The atmosphere and the authenticity of era and conditions are beyond criticism. The reader is taken inside the walls of the Forbidden City. He threads the terrifying mazes of court intrigue. He meets Tzu Hsi in all her contradictory charm, beauty, gentleness, rage, relentlessness and cruelty. There are accounts of debauchery and atrocity that may offend some readers. But there could be no authentic picture of the Forbidden City without them.
The style is eminently suited to the tale. Some of the scenes have all the dramatically static quality of Chinese figures painted on porcelain.
To mold an historical character to the form of a novel is always a little precarious, especially when the figure has not yet receded so far into the past as to be almost legendary. In the case of so persuasive a writer as Pearl Buck, the casual reader may find himself accepting as factual history incidents and conversations which must be imaginary. Imperial Woman is enhanced and clarified, rather than otherwise, by the use of supplementary reading.
SOURCE: "Pearl Buck Recreates the Last Empress of China," in Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, April 1, 1956, pp. 1-2.
[In the following review, Butcher asserts that only Pearl Buck could have written Imperial Woman.]
Perhaps in all of history there never was a woman whose life was more of her own making, whose power was more absolute, whose fate was more spectacular than the life pattern of Tzu Hsi, the mortal woman so revered that she was called "The Old Buddha" and worshipped as a living god. The world knows much from books of other great empresses, like Catherine II of Russia and Victoria of England, and of the many court favorites whose hands guided history through the men who succumbed to their beauty, their wit, or their intelligence [or a combination of those qualities]. But no one, before Pearl Buck wrote Imperial Woman, has told fully the amazing story of the life of the last empress of China.
Imperial Woman is a novel which probably no other pen in the world today except Pearl Buck's could have produced. No Chinese writer could have written it dispassionately, nor could anyone who had not lived in China and absorbed, with the air she breathed, its ways of life and thought and action. And probably no man would have seen the heroine of this historic novel in the revealing light in which Pearl Buck shows her, driven by relentless ambition, often ruthlessly and often uselessly cruel, and yet true [after her fashion] to the one love of her life.
This fabulous heroine starts as almost a drudge in the household of an uncle who, when her father died, had taken her and her mother into the family quarters. She was deeply in love with her kinsman, Jung Lu, but, because she was beautiful and a Manchu maiden, she was sent with her cousin to the imperial court as a concubine. Her own cousin was the imperial consort, she merely a prisoner in the imperial palace until one day the weakling emperor summoned her and from that moment was under her spell.
The imperial consort's child was a weakling girl, but when her own was a son who, the author suggests, was her lover's, not the emperor's, her power began and never until she died in her seventies did it really fail. It tottered precariously, however, many times; when the weakling emperor died; during her years of regency for her son, who became emperor; in treacherous days just before and after his death; in the regency of her nephew, whom she put upon the imperial throne; and most seriously when China was invaded by angry foreign troops protesting the massacre of their nationals, the foreigners whom the Old Buddha hated.
The history of these 46 years of absolutism of the Old Buddha is a panoramic background for an intimately detailed study of Manchu imperial life lived against it. It is also an intimate study of a beautiful, imperious woman who was an enigma even to herself at times, cruel with much of mankind but a lover of helpless animals and birds, a poet, an artist, a musician sensitive to beauty but often as cold of heart as one of the marble bridges which she insisted on building.
Pearl Buck's descriptions of fabrics, of embroidery, of jewels, of golden and bronze chrysanthemums in a courtyard are so vivid that one can almost feel the golden dragons on the imperial yellow satin or the cooling comfort of a piece of jade held in the hand on a hot day.
Everyone, of course, will want to know whether Imperial Woman is as great a book as The Good Earth. That is a question which each reader will answer himself. That it is the great obverse of her literary medallion of a China of the past everyone will agree.
SOURCE: "All in the Family of Man," in New York Times Book Review, November 9, 1958, p. 4.
[In the following review, Peterson asserts that "The people in Buck's Letter From Peking are informed with magnanimity; and it is this magnanimity, inherent in Miss Buck herself as well as in her characters, that lifts Letter From Peking far above the level of a treatise on understanding and makes it a moving and memorable tale."]
Throughout her writing life, Pearl Buck has been building bridges of understanding between an old and a new civilization, between one generation and another, between differing attitudes toward God and nationality and parenthood and love. Not all Miss Buck's bridges have withstood the freight of problems they were designed to bear. But The Good Earth will surely continue to span the abyss that divides East from West, so long as there are people to read it.
Now, once again, in her latest novel, it is primarily as a builder of bridges that Miss Buck should be judged. Letter From Peking, taut, spare and nobly wrought, stretches from Vermont to China to link the loyalties and longings, the joys and sufferings that constitute the endless variety and the unchanging sameness of the family of man. Letter From Peking is one of the best of Miss Buck's bridges.
The story begins in 1950. Five long years have passed since Elizabeth, the narrator, and her son Rennie, left Peking and her beloved half-Chinese husband, Gerald MacLeod, to wait on a Vermont farm for the Communist upheaval in China to die down, Gerald himself had made them go, and had decided, as the head of a university, that he must stay behind. After months of silence, the twelfth letter from Peking, the last she will have from Gerald—as she knows when she opens it—arrives. It is, and it is not, what Elizabeth has so patiently and painfully awaited, for while it brings her reassurance of love, it seals her fate.
There was much that Elizabeth had never learned about her husband, about his Chinese mother, about his Scottish father from Virginia, and about his inmost reasons for the decision that had torn them apart. Little by little, as the story unfolds, she acquires the knowledge she lacked. Little by little, she comes to understand not only the husband who chose a Communist China that he did not believe in rather than the American wife he loved, but also his son who, at 18, cannot accept what he is or what his parents have done to him.
"You don't understand," Rennie cries to his mother, in an agony of rebellion. "You are American, your ancestry is pure—"
"O pure-" Elizabeth cries back at him, "the rebels of half a dozen nations in Europe—"
"None of that matters," Rennie replies. "You are all white."
This book is peopled with men and women incapable of self-pity and unwilling to blame life for their allotted pain. They are informed with magnanimity; and it is this magnanimity, inherent in Miss Buck herself as well as in her characters, that lifts Letter From Peking far above the level of a treatise on understanding and makes it a moving and memorable tale.
SOURCE: "Empire of the Mind and Heart," in Saturday Review, Vol. 41, No. 47, November 22, 1958, pp. 15-6.
[In the following review, Smith argues that Buck's half of Friend to Friend is more penetrating than that of Carlos Romulo because it adds something new to the East-West dialogue.]
Toward the close of [Friend to Friend] Pearl Buck quotes an Asian as reminding her that "the criticisms of enemies need not be regarded, but faithful are the wounds of a friend." The civil but open criticism that pervades this entire attempt by an Oriental and an American to explore the troubled psychological relations between the United States and the Afro-Asian world makes of its brief pages two deep, reciprocally-inflicted, faithful wounds.
Carlos Romulo, Philippine Ambassador to the United States, opens the discussion. His thesis is not unexpected. America's relations with the Afro-Asian nations are of decisive importance. Consequently it is imperative not only that Americans shed all feelings of superiority over these peoples and inclinations to dominate them, but also that they remedy their "underdeveloped" understanding of the East. Understanding does not require agreement, but it does require knowledge of what makes other peoples tick (the author's colloquialism).
Specifically, with respect to Asians and Africans it requires awareness of the psychological scars left by generations of Western colonialism and the mental set of peoples flexing their muscles for the first time in modern history. It demands an appreciation of "the grinding power of poverty, which has new meaning every mealtime to angry human beings who care little for ideological disputes when their stomachs are empty; and the heritage of pride and resentment, the curious mixture of self-reliance and inferiority complex, the dreams of glory and the days of disappointment, the ambition and the fatalism, all of which are combined in the Asian and African world."
All this is true, so true that to many readers it is likely to sound obvious. I disagree. What Ambassador Romulo says along these lines we still very much need to hear.
A few points which relate to the complexity of the problems considered in Ambassador Romulo's half of Friend to Friend are:
1. Mr. Romulo's message adds up to a plea for understanding. I have just affirmed that this is desperately needed. But what else? When psychologists got to the point of reducing virtually everything in child care to love, a Bettelheim was needed to write Love Is Not Enough. A parallel volume is now needed in international relations titled Understanding Is Not Enough. Did our own Civil War spring essentially from misunderstandings between North and South?
Or suppose we were to understand Communism perfectly, would this resolve our conflict with it? Mr. Romulo is excellent on understanding, but on what is needed in addition he is cursory. Equality and respect seem to be his only other general recommendations; but would observance of these settle the problems of power politics? Our respect for the Russians has risen astronomically, but this does not seem to have quieted our difficulties with them.
2. One of Mr. Romulo's brief chapters deals with myths he thinks are clouding America's understanding of the world situation. One of these—the notion that the American way is the only way to freedom—is most pertinent. But for the rest it is not a perceptive list. Some beliefs—e.g., that absolute weapons are so terrible that we ought not to fight to defend our freedom, or that the United States and the Soviet Union will be socially indistinguishable before long—are not sufficiently widespread to be classed as important American myths. With others his analysis is too summary to show that they are myths instead of truths.
3. In providing aid Mr. Romulo thinks the United States should not require "that the recipient country should conform to certain concepts and practices that may be valued in America but are irrelevant to the recipient country's institutions." Granted. But the inclusion of the word "irrelevant" suggests that there may be some conditions the United States should require. What are they? Capitalism? Democracy? Free institutions? Honest administration? Benefit to the masses? Feasible plans for national economic progress? Can a nation insist on any conditions without opening itself to charges of interference and domination?
4. Mr. Romulo thinks it is desperately important for the United States to take the initiative in making peace. "The peoples of the world must be shown that America really wants peace and to do that she must not content herself by replying to Bulganin's or Khrushchev's letters." But how Mr. Romulo can pass in five sentences from this statement to praising "the inflexibility … and uncompromising … position of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in dealing with the Kremlin [as] a tower of strength of the free world" I cannot understand. I thought it was this posture more than anything else that is making Asians and Africans wonder if the United States is actually the world's leader with respect to peace.
Pearl Buck's half of the book is more penetrating. One of the real blessings of genuine friendship is the conditions it provides for self-understanding. In this sense Mr. Romulo's contribution serves its purpose admirably, for it prompts Mrs. Buck to one of the most insightful brief probings of the American temper I have seen. It is here, in asking why we appear as we do to the rest of the world, that Friend to Friend actually advances the East-West dialogue. Where Mr. Romulo says things more Americans need to hear, Mrs. Buck says some new things. What things, specifically, may appropriately be left for the reader to discover from the book itself. Here I will only say that they add up to a strong justification of America—a bit too strong. I am inclined to think. But this flaw, if it be such, is outweighed by two virtues: the freshness of Mrs. Buck's observations which I have just mentioned, and their healthy antidote to the excessive self-condemnation into which many Americans, this reviewer included, tend periodically to slip.
Mr. Romulo thinks that if America were ever to found an empire it would have to be "an empire of the mind and heart." Regardless of who founds it, this book looks toward such an empire.
SOURCE: "A Novel of the Atom Bomb," in New York Herald Tribune Book Review, May 3, 1959, p. 4.
[In the following review, Boatwright argues that, "This essentially romantic portrayal of life weakens and diffuses the force of the author's moral argument [in Command the Morning], which is foursquare on the side of life and against the use of the bomb for destruction…."]
Since the second world war, Pearl Buck tells us, she has been increasingly preoccupied by the atom bomb. This absorption, which has embraced the theories of nuclear physics, the construction of the bomb and the nature and problems of the men who designed and developed it, has resulted in short stories, a play, A Desert Incident, which appeared briefly on Broadway earlier this year, and now a full-scale novel, which she has called, in recognition of the illimitable potentialities of nuclear power, Command the Morning. As might be expected of a writer of Mrs. Buck's sensibility, the principal concern of the book is the moral issue that confronted the scientists who worked on the bomb: whether they could in conscience devote their talents to the building of an instrument of destruction, a device which would cause untold death and suffering and, conceivably, might trigger the extinction of man.
In some ways "novel" is a misnomer for her book, for it is in large part a factual and accurate history of the construction of the bomb, and includes as characters a number of real persons. Most, including Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, Vice-President Wallace and Vannevar Bush, are identified obliquely, as are the settings—the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge, Hanford, Los Alamos. Some are thinly disguised; a few, notably the late Enrico Fermi, play their own parts. However, the principals, Burton Hall, the fiftyish scientist who organizes and spearheads the project, Stephen Coast, the brilliant young physicist who is his chief lieutenant, and Jane Earl, the beautiful Anglo-Indian who becomes Hall's assistant, are completely fictional.
In so far as the book sticks to the exciting and still not widely known story of the making of the bomb it is excellent. The in-gathering of the scientists, the decision to proceed, the dramatic first self-sustaining chain reaction at Stagg Field, the construction of Oak Ridge and Hanford, the first mushroom cloud over the mesa, the agonizing qualms of the scientists over dropping the bomb on Hiroshima—all these are ably handled.
Not as much can be said for the "human interest," which seems to have been conceived with an eye to a bonbon and chaise lounge readership. This is true not only of the plot, which is concerned with such questions as whether a scientist can find happiness if he cannot share his innermost thoughts with his wife and whether a woman scientist can be both a woman and a scientist, but also of the book's general tone, that is, its system of values and its portrayal of contemporary behavior and motivation. Thus we are presented with a society of superhuman scientists and their loyal wives, a world in which the only sin is neglect, and that only as a consequence of service to the all-demanding god Science, a world from which malice and evil have been banished, along with passion, in any sense other than the romantic love of the troubadours. A few nods are made in the direction of sex: Burton Hall is represented as lustful. Coast's wife has an affair with a defecting English scientist, Jane Earl comes close to falling in love with both Coast and Hall. But Hall is all talk, Helen Coast's affair is bloodless, and Jane's loves turn out to be mostly renunciations.
This essentially romantic portrayal of life weakens and diffuses the force of the author's moral argument, which is foursquare on the side of life and against the use of the bomb for destruction, but cannot dim the story of the achievement of the scientists and the possibilities unleashed by the unlocking of secrets of nuclear power, the "divine fire" which, as Mrs. Buck rightly points out, will enable us to "ride into space on the wings of power" to command the morning, indeed.
SOURCE: "Pearl Buck's New Novel a Tour de Force," in Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine of Books, May 3, 1959, p. 1.
[In the following review, Butcher calls Buck's Command the Morning "one of the most memorable and rewarding reading experiences of our day."]
The title of this commanding novel [Command the Morning] by our country's first woman to receive the Nobel award in literature, comes from the Bible: "The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind and said … 'Hast thou commanded the morning?'" The question implied in these unforgettable pages is one which every thinking human being must be asking: Did the discovery of atomic power command the morning or the night of mankind?
This is a novel about the most past-shattering and future-building period of modern times, the months of secret research which culminated in the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima. Were those months to destroy or to free mankind? That is the question posed here.
Pearl Buck does not offer the answer. What she does is to tell the story of those momentous days in terms of the scientists through whose brains, whose chemical retorts, and whose hearts the world has changed. One of them, the only woman in a key position in the project, was uncompromisingly opposed to the use of atomic power as a weapon—ever. One young scientist, who was as violently in opposition to its use as she, changed his mind when he was convinced that the evolvement of such a weapon was inevitable and could have been used for, not against, Hitler.
There are real people in Command the Morning. The great Enrico Fermi appears often. The hero of the book, the scientist who had over-all charge of the entire project, is on first name terms with Washington personalities, including Vice President "Harry" and "the Chief." Real places come alive—Oak Ridge and Los Alamos from their beginnings, and that fantastic spot under a University of Chicago football stadium where the tensest of all of the moments took place, when it was found that chain reaction could be controlled and, therefore, the world-shattering power could be used.
The author's finest powers of giving intimacy to reality are evident here. Never has she had a more difficult task or a more momentous one. To most of her readers the secret of the atom will still remain esoteric despite her simplified explanations of the sciences involved. For, let's face it, how many casual readers know or can understand even the basic principles of fission? However, everyone will leave the book with a mind sharpened to the future, with the question plaguing him: Shall it be the annihilation of man or a better life for all mankind?
The story of the epochal discovery is told as a great novelist always records fact, in terms of human beings. Command the Morning is a magnificent fictional history of the days which could preface a new morning for the world, but it is primarily a story of men and women. It is, too, a subtle explanation of the power of creative work in men's lives. These creators were scientists, but what Miss Buck has written is true also of writers, musicians, painters, anyone dedicated to the thing he is creating. Creators really live, in the truest sense of that word, within the walls of their art or their science. They may find love, companionship, stimulation, even a kind of understanding, in those who don't know what they are talking about. But with those who do there is a tie, no matter how tenuous, which is essentially the nourishment of the soul.
Already, as the book ends, the characters feel their day is past. "The kids of today have their sights on soaring off into space," one says, just as "the kids" of the beginnings of the atomic age had theirs on harnessing the atom. "Space travel is the coming thing," is said to one of the head nuclear scientists. "It'll keep us too busy to think about wars maybe. I'll say this for the big blast you men made in the desert—it's sent us ahead a thousand years."
Command the Morning is no quick and easy book to read. It must have been a terrific one to write. But it is one of the most memorable and rewarding reading experiences of our day.
SOURCE: "Science and the Bomb," in New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1959, p. 29.
[In the following review, Sullivan complains that the prose is limp and the characterization is weak in Buck's Command the Morning.]
No question about it, since the writhing, mushroom-shaped cloud first rose over the original burst of The Bomb, we have all lived in a changed world. Regardless of race, sex, religion, age or income bracket, we are all instantly subject to reduction to cosmic dust. The means seem to be at hand to crack this old planet, like an aged croquet ball, right in two. And ironically, wonderfully, we possess these means out of our innate tendency to know and capacity to learn and find out and discover.
What Pearl Buck writes about in Command the Morning is inexpressibly important. This novel deals with the making of The Bomb and the dropping of The Bomb. Grave moral questions abound in both activities. The ideas which this book will cause its readers to ponder are serious. The intention of the author is obviously and most honorably serious. Yet this is a poor novel.
Any novel is first of all a stretch of words set down. It is desirable that these words be fresh, bright, alive and illuminating. The words have to captivate the reader, somehow. The prose of Command the Morning is limp and colorless.
The principal characters include an organizing-type scientist who has an eye for pretty women, an ingrown-quiet-type scientist whose wife doubts him because he thinks in equations, a couple of anxious-type European scientists, a spy-type, an industry-type, a military-type, and as a kind of topper a gorgeous beautiful-girl-type scientist. If any of these broadly conceived scientist-types had been individually characterized, this novel might have come alive. If all of them had been seen as persons rather than as thin caricatures, this might have been a fine novel.
As it stands, Command the Morning remains a bland and dull scenario for—with photogenic casting and some sharpening of the dialogue—a movie to make us all think.
SOURCE: "Man and Mushrooms," in Saturday Review, Vol. 42, No. 20, May 16, 1959, p. 31.
[In the following review, Lipsky asserts that the scientific story dwarfs the human story of Buck's Command the Morning.]
In Laura Fermi's account of her life with Enrico Fermi, Atoms in the Family, there appears a photograph of Fermi waiting to receive the Nobel Prize for science in 1933 at Stockholm. In that same picture, there also appears Pearl Buck, waiting to receive the prize for literature. The scientist seems unimpressed by the occasion, but Mrs. Buck appears tense and deeply affected.
Perhaps it was this encounter that first aroused Mrs. Buck's interest in science, for Fermi looms large in her latest novel, Command the Morning, which deals with the human side of the quest for nuclear energy. Her concern for the problem is well known. She has spent many days at Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos, she has studied atomic physics from textbooks and talked with the wives as well as the men who developed the first sustained nuclear chain reaction and the bomb dropped on Japan.
Inevitably Mrs. Buck has turned her interest in nuclear physics to play and novel form. Closely following the historical facts, she deals here with the special problems—emotional and domestic and moral—which arise when the arts of peace are turned to war. The central characters are fictitious, but actual scientists and political figures appear under their own names, or thinly disguised, to express contrasting views regarding the central moral issue: whether or not to develop and drop the bomb. Against this larger story, Mrs. Buck describes marriage strains and unhappy love affairs leading to the decision of her protagonist, a woman scientist, to return to her birthplace in India and the ways of peace. It is a solution not open to everyone.
Of course, all this is not really a scientific problem at all, except in the central sense that the quest for knowledge calls for an initial choice of the field of exploration. Once the scientific process has begun, the remaining problems, moral and political, are those common to humanity. Properly speaking, no scientist either dropped the bomb or made the decision: It was a soldier who executed an order of the political and military head of the nation. All those who supported or approved that order shared the responsibility. The bomb is merely one example of the more generalized problem of our times.
Mrs. Buck is earnest and intelligent and her science is accurate. The crucial episodes showing the explosion of the first bomb are charged with excitement. But, through no fault of hers, the science fails to support the human story. The atomic blast over New Mexico seems to destroy by overexposure the more truly significant, but (in this context) petty problems of the scientists. That one scientist should see in that first blinding explosion the resolution of a problem in marital infidelity is inappropriate to say the least.
It is not true (as a leading critic has suggested …) that the novel of science should deal only with the "big bang" to achieve contemporary significance, for the proper field of the novel is humanity, and the cosmic stage may be too large for its dwarfed actors. It is all a matter of scale. For all the author's intellectual discipline and technical accuracy, one cannot say that this novel reaches its goals, or that it satisfies the appetite for greater insight into the matter.
SOURCE: "Encounter With Grief," in New York Times Book Review, April 15, 1962, pp. 18-20.
[In the following review, Vining discusses the different strands that weave together to create Buck's A Bridge for Passing.]
This lovely book[, A Bridge for Passing,] is woven of three distinct strands: the making of a moving picture in Japan, an encounter with grief, and the gradually revealed portrait of a man of heart, vision and integrity. Each strand is separate, yet from the weaving there emerges a firm fabric with a pattern of the whole.
The unnamed "he" of the book, the man of the portrait, died while his wife was in Japan at work on the filming of her novel, The Big Wave. After an interlude at home Pearl Buck returned to Japan to finish the picture and there, in that land of beauty and disaster, to assimilate her sorrow and to find a bridge over which to pass back again to life.
The Japan that we see in the book is the authentic Japan of today, with people whom one knows as real, not the paper dolls and caricatures of so many books about that currently much visited and much be-written country. They are people of all kinds: the movie magnate, the diplomat's wife, the actor, the writer, the simple folk of the little fishing village in the southern island of Kyushu. All of them are experiencing the conflict between the old and the new in Japan today.
Miss Buck, who had not visited the country for twenty-five years, is alive to the changes. Not all of them are pleasing. The brown permanent curls that have replaced "the smooth straight black hair which was once the glory of the Japanese woman," the "bold looks, frank speech and frankly sexual approach to any available man" which have succeeded the modest downcast face, repelled her, but as she came to know better the bevies of pretty girls in the offices she decided that the modern Japanese woman, though she had lost her "ancient sadness," was at least "vivacious and delightful." Her special friend, the mature woman executive, she found "cosmopolitan and sophisticated in the true sense of the word … One could never mistake her for any but a Japanese and yet this national saturation of birth and education was only the medium through which she communicated universal experience, and with wisdom and charm."
The movie, which involved a live volcano and a tidal wave, was a story of human hope and courage in the midst of natural disasters. An American film company was making it in Japan with a Japanese firm as co-producer. People who work in the theatre, comments Miss Buck, are "a group apart by temperament, whatever their race, color or nationality." There is humor as well as drama in the account of the interplay of personalities, of the casting, of the filming of the picture as they found first the volcano and then, moving south, the perfect fishing village; absorbing interest in all the details of actors and villagers, in the glorious beauty of the scene, excitement in the final trip to the volcano and a near-shipwreck.
Woven in and out is the moving experience of the woman who after a rarely happy marriage of twenty-five years must meet sorrow and learn to live with it. After the days of intense activity on location came the lonely evenings walking the Ginza or tramping the seashore, spending long healing hours in the embrace of a hollow rock looking out to sea. It was a life "lived on two separate levels, one by day, the other by night; one upon earth, the other in search of habitation not made with hands."
During the hours of reflection, of longing, of seeking for a communication that cannot be found, memories return of the man for whom she mourns, and bit by bit, a flash here and there, the portrait emerges, clear and admirable. All who know the aching loss of a beloved person can read here their own story, can walk again the path of loneliness. Here, once again, is the recognition of inexorability, of acceptance—in Wordsworth's phrase of the burden of the mystery. "Science and religion," she concludes, "religion and science, they are two sides of the same glass, through which we see darkly until the two focusing together, reveal the truth."
SOURCE: "Solace in Doing," in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 209, No. 5, May, 1962, p. 119.
[In the following review, Weeks states that A Bridge for Passing "will be a touchstone for those made desolate by sorrow, and in writing it Mrs. Buck lifts our spirits as she revives her own."]
Pearl Buck is one of those rare Americans who knows the Orient as well as she knows her homeland. She has lived through three careers and is now actively engaged in a fourth. As a child of missionary parents, she learned to speak Chinese and to love her foster country. After college, her first marriage to her missionary husband brought her back to China but not to happiness: their eldest daughter was retarded; the home ties were disrupted; and China itself became increasingly hostile. Back in the United States, struggling to find her feet as a writer, she came under the sympathetic editorship of Tom Walsh. She was determined not to commit herself emotionally, and she turned him down again and again, but when they were married and set up their home together in Pennsylvania, she entered a third career of more than two decades which was to bring her the triumph of the Nobel Prize and a companionship beatific, marred only by Tom's long last illness. The doctors finally held out no hope. It is against this background that Mrs. Buck has written her new, compassionate book, A Bridge for Passing.
She first passes over the bridge on her way to Tokyo, where she is to assist a Japanese company in the filming of her book The Big Wave. This is her first sight of Japan in twenty-five years, and although she had been here often in her girlhood, she is unprepared for the startling changes that have occurred since the American occupation. She gets on famously with the burly Japanese producer who is strenuously turning out a new picture every week; she joins in the casting and in the search for the sets that are needed, including a fishing village, a live volcano, and a tidal wave. Then comes the long-distance telephone call telling her of Tom's death, and back over the bridge she hurries. When she is released from the shock, she returns to Japan a different woman, lonelier, more given to reverie and to walking by herself. By day she is a buffer in the tense struggle between the Japanese producer and the American director; by night in the empty hotel room she finds consolation in reliving her happiness with her editor. At all times she is observing and judging the Japanese character, and these findings fill some of the most fascinating pages in the book.
"The Japanese woman," says Mrs. Buck, "has always been stronger than the Japanese man, for, like the Chinese woman, she has been given no favors." Mrs. Buck notes the effect of American courtship, of intermarriage between Japanese girls and American soldiers, and of the orphans who are cared for in organizations run by her friend Miki. She cites the courage of these people living on their dangerous islands, where there is an average of four earthquakes or tremors a day; and she remarks the combination "of delicacy and strength, of tenderness and cruelty … usual in the work of Japanese writers." This book will be a touchstone for those made desolate by sorrow, and in writing it Mrs. Buck lifts our spirits as she revives her own.
SOURCE: "In Japan, Relief from Grief," in Saturday Review, Vol. 45, No. 27, July 14, 1962, p. 31.
[In the following review, Long traces the three interwoven elements of Buck's A Bridge for Passing.]
Pearl Buck's beautifully written book [, A Bridge for Passing,] contains in its short compass a triple message, and the three elements are so interwoven that no one theme predominates.
The springboard of Miss Buck's narrative is her experience as a participant in the American-Japanese motion picture production of her book The Big Wave, and in that connection she notes that movie executives and actors are of the same breed the world over. Nevertheless, Miss Buck found a special charm in the modern Japanese: their customs, kindliness, artistic qualities, and technical skills. She regards the brutal era, when the military dragged Japan into World War II, as a passing and uncharacteristic phase. Also she reports that the American Occupation was carried on in a way to encourage friendship and confidence between the two peoples. Here is a message for international good will.
However, Miss Buck undertook this film to assuage her agony over the death of her husband. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one knows that desperate feeling of finality and rebellion against fate. For them the novelist's experience reveals that time and active, sympathetic interest in the lives of others are the great healers.
Her book is in the tradition of widows who have a compulsion to exorcise the pain of their bereavement by public tribute to the one who has passed beyond. (There does not seem to have been the same compulsion in male writers.) Some may recall An American Idyll, by Cornelia Parker, or, again, Death of a Man, by Lael Wertenbaker. Those two women write in the spirit of stoical endurance. In contrast, in A Man Called Peter Catherine Marshall testifies to a great strength and benediction coming from the grace of God and assurance of the divine purpose.
Pearl Buck's attitude lies somewhere between resignation and hope of heaven. She considers herself to be scientific rather than religious; in fact, she seems hardly to have heard of the Christian affirmation of immortality. However, she accepts a belief in eternal life as a reasonable working hypothesis fully as reasonable as a negative insistence.
I am trained in science. There are two schools in the approach. One is to believe the impossible an absolute unless and until it is proved the possible. The other is to believe the possible an absolute unless and until it is proved the impossible. I belong to the latter school. Therefore all things are possible until they are proved impossible—and even the impossible may only be so, as of now.
There is a third message in this book, namely, that for the man or woman who has had a disastrous first marriage the future nevertheless may hold romance. Both Pearl Buck and her husband, Richard J. Walsh, who had been president of The John Day Company which publishes Miss Buck, had been married previously and unsatisfactorily, and yet for twenty-five years they had a union of the greatest mutual devotion.
SOURCE: "Descendants on the Ascendance," in Saturday Review, Vol. 46, No. 40, October 5, 1963, pp. 41-2.
[In the following review, Clifford discusses Buck's The Living Reed and "regrets that this greatly respected author's use of the arts of fiction can hit so much farther from the mark than her feeling for Asians and her detailing of Asian history."]
In 1883 the United States ratified a treaty of amity and commerce with Korea, recognizing Korea's independence and promising "an amicable arrangement" in case of outside interference or oppression. Chinese influence in Korea had recently declined, and Korea was looking for someone to protect her from the Japanese and Russians. We were looking for trade.
Japan soon won the struggle with Russia and moved into Korea. In 1905 Secretary of War William Howard Taft signed a secret agreement in Tokyo giving Korea to Japan, provided Japan kept hands off the Philippines and did not try to stop American trade in Manchuria. President Theodore Roosevelt declared openly: "Korea is absolutely Japan's."
Woodrow Wilson aroused the hopes of Koreans, as he did of other small nations, when he declared the self-determination of peoples, but the promise was not fulfilled. During the Second World War, which Koreans regarded as their war of liberation from half a century of Japanese occupation, Franklin Roosevelt proposed that Korea be placed under the trusteeship of China, the United States, and one or two other nations, rather than restored to freedom. (Russia as usual had other plans.) When the American military government arrived in 1945, the surrendering Japanese forbade Koreans to meet with Americans, and they shot down a group that appeared at Inchon with flowers and flags to welcome the liberators. The American general commended the Japanese for "controlling the mob."
Anyone who thought that our involvement in Korea began with the Korean War needs to know this much of recent history. In Pearl Buck's fifty-sixth published book, a novel called The Living Reed, this is a small part of a panoramic story of a modern Korea told with impressive documentation, authentic background, and sympathy.
Any unfamiliarity in setting and historical event may for most readers be compensated for by the novel's familiar, old-fashioned style of storytelling. Four generations of a noble Korean family are portrayed, from 1881, when they were advisers to the king and queen, down to their unhappy division on the eve of the Korean War, when one grandson is a Mission-trained doctor and another a Russian-trained agitator. "Living Reed" is the name given to the father of the Communist, a man who fought for freedom during the Japanese occupation. It symbolizes the faith that a new supply of men to continue the struggle will spring up, like bamboo reeds, in the place of those who are cut down.
One regrets that this greatly respected author's use of the arts of fiction can hit so much farther from the mark than her feeling for Asians and her detailing of Asian history. It isn't very important that she makes the mistake of saying that Pearl Harbor Day was December 7th in Korea. (As in Japan, it was the 8th.) It is more difficult to have to accept, at the end of The Living Reed, a character named Mariko who seems to belong in Terry and the Pirates. She is a kind of Dragon Lady, part Japanese, part Chinese, and part English, who dances in the Japanese theatre in Seoul during wartime, sometime around the winter of 1944–45, yet can leave when she likes to fly direct to London, Paris, and New York, carrying letters to Korean leaders in exile. "I speak the language wherever I am … I dance. I am an artist … I belong to no country—and every country."
SOURCE: "Picture Post Cards," in World Journal Tribune Book World, October 9, 1966, p. 8.
[In the following review, Greenfield complains that in Buck's The People of Japan, she "mostly serves up the usual blend of picturesque pap and old saws."]
Not the least of the effects of the American victory in the Pacific is that we were spared the back-breaking, mind-reeling chore of having to learn the Japanese language. Instead, the burden of language learning fell upon the vanquished: each Japanese student has to face six years of classroom English before he graduates from high school. And Americans in Japan, laughing lustily, rather than nervously, at this race of little Jerry Lewises, bespectacled and back-teethed, malaproping and mispronouncing our language, could lean back upon the counsels of experts if they wished insights into the "special" Japanese culture and character.
This was one of those unfortunate developments which result in our getting dramatically involved in situations from which we don't quite know how to get out of. For experts, once established, function like Civil Service servants, their moistened fingers in the air detect the wind currents around their own position rather than the drifts of a problem; they tend to fit policy instead of shaping it, producing tired justifications rather than new analyses.
Our Japanese experts, for example, functioning in the rough Asian League not only boast a competitively high average of post-war bumbles—from the urging of the retention of the emperor system through the rebuilding of the zaibatsu (the giant interlocking corporations) down to the current encouragement of militarization—but they have even managed to convince many of us in masterful exercises of double expertise that some of their biggest bungles have been strokes of brilliance.
But then Japan has long been a natural mark for experts. Not only is the language difficult but the people differ from us radically and the living there is easy—comfortable with good pay—because one can pile up expert points through residency. First, there were the churches funneling funds to their Christian soldiers in the rice fields; and now there are Rockefellers and Fords and Wilsons, foundation grants and fellowship handouts aplenty for those who would structure their disciplines around an exotic country. The Japan business, much like any other specialization, offers both rich rewards and a power base because it is the only game in town. The expert stakes out a field, builds a knowledge barrier around it, and then lays claim to all the secrets within it; in time he proceeds to traffic in the mystique the market demands.
The resultant misinformation about Japan, not surprisingly, is staggering. The experts busily fill the orders for the image our society demands, and a two-week excursion to Japan arranged by the Japan Travel Bureau provides mostly cultural feedback that enhances the image. Yet each time a new book about contemporary Japan appears, I turn to it hoping that now the kidding will stop, the myth will be cracked, and the simple light of truth will break through.
Although an old China hand, Pearl Buck is not professionally in the Japan business. A Nobel laureate, she is also a noble woman, a grande dame, given to the right passions and supporting the right causes; she is also sensitive and tries to be sensible. But The People of Japan, which is subtitled "A perceptive portrait of their life today," only occasionally lives up to that billing. Too often it is a collection of uninspected clichés and is only fitfully discerning. Miss Buck falls into the quaint-cute trap that affects so much of the writing about Japan, and in this way her book is more revealing to us of the American attitude as reflected in even liberal opinion than it is of anything else.
Take the Japanese woman. Again she is suffering and scraping, bowing and submissive, always administering dutifully to men. Take the Japanese man. Again he is haughty and proud, manly and regal, with a license to be licentious with bar girls and geisha. And so it goes. The Japanese are inscrutable, polite, imitative, neat, clean, beauty lovers, lonely, sentimental, gentle, rigid, etc. Superficial generalities are spun relentlessly, and soon the picture of a people swims into fixed focus, ethnic characteristics are assigned, and prototypes not only emerge but are expected. Sound familiar? We don't do it with the French (are the French gentle?) or the British (are the British basically neat or sloppy?), but we always do it with the Japanese. We patronize them. For our attitude toward them we are guilty of racism.
And how do the Japanese react to this attitude? Why naturally, we're told by the experts, as Miss Buck tells us now, they love us. For if they love us how can we really be guilty of racial prejudice toward them. After all didn't we bestow upon them the honor of being the world's first recipient of a nuclear attack? Didn't we intern the Nisei in America in ersatz concentration camps? Didn't we show our true respect for Japan as a conquered power by giving her a MacArthur and his GHQ to preside over her occupation rather than a mere educator such as HICOG's Conant as we gave to Germany? And don't we still have restrictive and discriminatory legislation against their emigration to America? Of course they love us.
Miss Buck is perceptive in her discussion of student demonstrations, in realizing that they articulate a widespread feeling of the populace at large. And she is capable of sweeping aside her good-hearted sentimentality to recognize that the Japanese are not ideologues in any way, that they are guided more by the logic of simple pragmatics than by the moralism of a philosophy or by the pull of blind emotion. She is also open-eyed in her reportage of Japanese prejudice toward the Koreans and the Eta (a remnant of the attempt to impose caste in Japan) and all Eurasians, but particularly those fathered by Negroes—areas of coverage that are usually slurred over.
But mostly she serves up the usual blend of picturesque pap and old saws. Her "explanation" of the Japanese character, for example, is but still another rewording of the old web of giri mesh—the responsibility of obligation—and her recurring description of Japanese life is a simplistic "change that is not really a change." Which may sound good but means just about as much—or as little—as the two pennies in my pocket.
If we are to deal meaningfully with Japan—in fact, with all of Asia—we must first come to grips with ourselves. We must realize, no matter how difficult it is for us to accept, that we begin any confrontation there with a racist approach which our experts have always carefully catered to. That a Pearl Buck, who is no parlor Orientalist, who is full of genteel humanity and obviously loves Japan, lands in most of the familiar traps is further sad evidence of the inscrutable blinders we still wear.
SOURCE: "From Tea to Transistors," in Saturday Review, Vol. 49, No. 45, November 5, 1966, pp. 44, 74.
[In the following review, Bristol asserts that Buck's The People of Japan is more of a sentimental look at the country than an in-depth study.]
Pearl Buck unreservedly adopted China for her spiritual home when her parents, missionaries with more than a decade of experience in that sprawling, disorganized country, brought her there to live as a child. Later, when she was old enough to visit Japan, she took China's cultural offspring to her heart.
In her latest book, [The People of Japan,] a collection of memories of prewar Japan, historical facts, and more modern observations—the last based largely on a three-month tour in 1960 of Korea and Japan—Mrs. Buck takes a grandmotherly look at a country that is admittedly only a step-child: loved, but at times very naughty. It was a country, however, that sheltered her and her family from China's advancing Communism on two occasions, and, since its disastrous defeat in World War II, has reformed and renounced its reprehensible past.
Reading The People of Japan is not unlike being in a window-seat of the world's fastest and perhaps finest express train—the "Hikari" or "Light"—and watching the passing scene at 150-plus miles per hour. The verdant, ageless farms with their quaint little thatched-roofed houses flash by, almost too fast, to observe the kimono- or "mompe"-clad farm women—stooped and bent as they patiently plant each rice shoot in minuscule paddy fields—suddenly give way to a dazzling complex of immaculate white ferro-concrete factories, whose automated assembly lines turn out millions of transistors, TV sets, and sophisticated computers for both the domestic and foreign markets. Disembodied, modern-day industrial Taj Mahals, apparently floating in the center of rice fields, they represent graphically what has happened and is happening to Japan today. Pearl Buck has simply, and sympathetically, put this into words.
That Mrs. Buck does not speak or understand Japanese in no way invalidates either her memories—which are obviously, and justifiably, tinged with sentiment—or the historical facts making up the major part of her text. Nevertheless the lack places at least some sections of the book in the category of, for want of a better word, "intuitive" reporting, rather than in-depth study. It means that she was not only dependent upon her interpreter, but had to rely entirely on surface observations, for no foreigner who is not fluent in the admittedly difficult Japanese language and its idioms can hope to meet and understand the Japanese people in their natural habitat.
Few if any authors with the stature, tenderness, and sensitivity of Pearl Buck have attempted it, and those who have have all too often been taken in by the charming outward manners and mannerisms of these acknowledgedly "charming" individuals (when they want to be). Perhaps that is why one of the best, if not the best book on modern Japan was written by a woman who had never set foot in the country—Ruth Benedict. The Chrysanthemum and the Sword was not influenced by surface charm. Although Miss Benedict's wartime study of the complexities of the Japanese character may be out of date, The People of Japan is too loving and indulgent to update it. An honest, fundamentally accurate description of Japan today, it is, in the final analysis, also a rosy-hued picture of the country and its inhabitants seen through the eyes of a warm-hearted and forgiving grandmother.
SOURCE: A review of The Three Daughters of Madame Liang, in Atlantic, Vol. 224, No. 1, July, 1969, pp. 104-06.
[In the following review, Weeks praises Buck's The Three Daughters of Madame Liang as "compassionate, elucidating, and wise."]
Pearl Buck is an old China hand who cannot accept without protest what is going on between her native land and her country of adoption. She has a singular knowledge of China, of the Empress Dowager, and Sun Yat-sen, and from this, and from her secondhand sources about the China that is, she has written a novel, The Three Daughters of Madame Liang, which is compassionate, elucidating, and wise.
Madame Liang is a matriarch in her mid-fifties as the story opens; slim, lovely, and discreet, she runs a gourmet's dream of a restaurant in modern Shanghai, patronized by officials and protected by one of her old suitors, Chao Chung, a minister in Peking. In pre-Communist days she had been attracted to the Americans in the concessions, particularly to the Brandons of San Francisco, to whom after Mao's ascendancy she sent her three daughters to be educated in America. In her youth Madame Liang and her then loyal husband were fiery adherents of Sun Yat-sen; now in her privacy she repents of the ten-year chaos that followed Sun's Revolution, and has deep misgivings about the new order. "It was we who were wrong," she says, "… we destroyed the achievement of thousands of years. We thought what the West had was all good, and what we had was all useless." With dismay she watches the ruthless new order imposed by Chairman Mao. She hopes to live to see the liberation; meantime she awaits her daughters' return, and with her culinary art she bends to the wind.
Of the three girls, Grace, the oldest and a doctor, is the first to come home. Fresh from her research in South America, where she has been studying the health-giving properties of plants, she is ordered back to Peking to help prepare a synthesis of Chinese and Western medicine. Warned by her mother that she must listen and not speak out in the American way, the girl is first taken in hand by an old primitive, Dr. Tseng, who instructs her in the ancient herbal cures which she finds surprisingly relevant. In her adaptation she is rewarded with a small house of her own, and here she is politically—as he calls it "philosophically"—instructed by Dr. Liu Peng, a man of her own age whose square features, black brows, and strong hands are more exciting than his arguments.
Mercy, the second to return, is prettier and more maternal than her elder sister: she arrives on her honeymoon, determined that her children shall be born on Chinese soil, she and her husband, John Sung, a young nuclear physicist, having escaped from security relations by flying to London and then transshipping through the Chinese embassy. Their arrival coincides with the Great Leap Forward, and while John's knowledge is needed, he soon proves to be too "individualistic," and his punishment is severe.
The youngest daughter, Joy, is more painter than patriot, and she needs only the dissuasion and adoration of the famous artist in exile with whom she is studying to remain where she is in New York.
The skeins of these three love stories are wound together in Madame Liang's heart as, isolated and in increasing danger, she observes the desolation which famine and the Red Guards have brought to the land she loves. It is she who speaks for Miss Buck. It is she who in her reverie weighs the greatness and the weakness of China, the achievements and the moderation of centuries leading in time to a complacency completely isolated from the new knowledge. It is she who, remembering China's former love for Americans, says, "There is no hate so dangerous as that which once was love." And it is Madame Liang who in her loneliness as she reviews the skill and cunning of the god-hero Mao still places her faith in the rocklike tenacity of the Chinese people, remembering the ancient saying of Lao Tzu, "Throw eggs at a rock, and though one uses all the eggs in the world, the rock remains the same."
SOURCE: "New Rulers Stalk the Land, But the Good Earth Remains," in New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1969, p. 26.
[In the following review, Pippett discusses the China portrayed in Buck's The Three Daughters of Madame Liang.]
Pearl Buck's great novel, The Good Earth, described the life of Chinese peasants. Published in 1931, it was written out of intimate knowledge of actual conditions and mental attitudes; as an imaginative but truthful interpretation of East to West it deservedly won its author the Nobel Prize.
Now, 38 years and many books later, Mrs. Buck again interprets East to West in The Three Daughters of Madame Liang, a story of China today, a country vastly changed from the land she knew. Yet the barriers to communication between the United States and Mainland China seem to disappear as we read a novel that convinces us it is a true tale about real people.
Madame Liang's past reflects the changes in her country since her birth, in the time of the last Empress. Her progressive father objected to the cruel custom of binding girls' feet; she was educated in France, married a fellow-student at the Sorbonne and left him when he reverted to old ways and brought home a concubine. Once an ardent supporter of Sun Yat-sen, now disillusioned and regretful, she runs one of the few private enterprises remaining in the People's Republic, a luxury restaurant for foreigners in Shanghai.
She knows that the limited freedom she enjoys depends on the continuing goodwill of the powerful Minister who was once her close friend and would-be lover during their student days in Paris. And she hopes that her three daughters, who have grown up happily in America, will heed her secret warnings not to return to China. Her hopes are shattered when the eldest daughter, Grace, obeys a command from the Minister to give her country the benefit of her researches into the medicinal value of rare plants. She is allowed to spend a few days with her mother before proceeding to Peking, where she must study traditional Chinese medicine before she gets a home and laboratory of her own—and, eventually, a doctor husband. (Frankly, most American women would find Grace's young man hard to take, but it seems that love is love wherever it occurs.)
The second daughter, Mercy, does not have such good luck as adjustable Grace. A determined young woman, she smuggles herself and her husband into China on their honeymoon. He is a brilliant scientist, and far more Californian than Chinese in thinking. The efforts of the Communists to use him in nuclear weaponry result in a large-scale disaster at the site of a bomb test that failed. Later, he is exiled to a remote province for refusing to cooperate with the militarists. Even here, he keeps his faith in the Chinese people, his belief that their freedom will be achieved when current fanaticism gives way to practical techniques for better living.
A gentler alternative is offered by the experience of the youngest daughter, Joy. An artist, she loves and marries an older, wiser artist who paints abstracts yet remains distinctively Oriental. The character of this kindly visionary has all the allurement of a Chinese scroll, depicting a vast landscape with two human beings in just the right spot to fix the harmony of the whole.