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 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's The 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.