Pearl S. Buck Buck, Pearl S. - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Good Earth (novel) 1931, reprinted 1982
Sons (novel) 1932, reprinted 1975
The Young Revolutionist (juvenile literature) 1932
The First Wife, and Other Stories (short stories) 1933, reprinted, 1963
A House Divided (novel) 1935, reprinted, 1975
The Proud Heart (novel) 1938, reprinted, 1965
The Chinese Children Next Door (juvenile literature) 1942
The Big Wave (juvenile literature) 1948; reprinted, 1973
My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (autobiography) 1954; reprinted, 1975
Imperial Woman (novel) 1956; reprinted, 1977
Letter From Peking (novel) 1957; reprinted, 1975
Friend to Friend: A Candid Exchange between Pearl S. Buck and Carlos P. Romulo (nonfiction) 1958
Command the Morning (novel) 1959; reprinted, 1975
A Desert Incident (drama) 1959
A Bridge for Passing (autobiography) 1962
The Living Reed (novel) 1963; reprinted, 1979
Death in the Castle (novel) 1965
The People of Japan (nonfiction) 1966
The Time Is Noon (novel) 1967
The Good Deed, and Other Stories of Asia, Past and Present (short stories) 1969
The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (novel) 1969
Mandala (novel) 1970
Pearl S. Buck's America (nonfiction) 1971
Secrets of the Heart: Stories (short stories) 1976
The Old Demon (short stories) 1982
Little Red (short stories) 1987

Kirkus Reviews (review date 1 September 1954)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Margaret Parton (review date 6 November 1954)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Florence Hanton Bullock (review date 7 November 1954)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Fanny Butcher (review date 7 November 1954)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 [39]—especially The Good...

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Silence Buck Bellows (review date 1 January 1956)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 594 words.)

Fanny Butcher (review date 1 April 1956)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 641 words.)

Virgilia Peterson (review date 9 November 1958)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 532 words.)

Huston Smith (review date 22 November 1958)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Taliaferro Boatwright (review date 3 May 1959)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Fanny Butcher (review date 3 May 1959)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Sullivan (review date 3 May 1959)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 343 words.)

Eleazar Lipsky (review date 16 May 1959)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 575 words.)

Elizabeth Gray Vining (review date 15 April 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 727 words.)

Edward Weeks (review date May 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

J. C. Long (review date 14 July 1962)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 523 words.)

William Clifford (review date 5 October 1963)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Josh Greenfield (review date 9 October 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Horace Bristol (review date 5 November 1966)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 577 words.)

Edward Weeks (review date July 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Aileen Pippett (review date 8 August 1969)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 554 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(The entire section is 216 words.)