Buck, Pearl S(ydenstricker) 1892–1973
Pearl Buck, an American raised in China, wrote novels, plays, short stories, essays, biographies, and children's books in her lifelong mission to teach the West about Asia. Her best known novel, The Good Earth, won for her a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. She received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. In later years she wrote under a pseudonym several novels set in America. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 41-44.)
[It] would have seemed a great deal better if [A House Divided] had appeared … before the publication of Man's Fate and A Chinese Testament. This doesn't mean that [Mrs. Buck] has been even slightly influenced by Malraux or Tretiakov. On the contrary, she has completed her trilogy of Chinese life exactly as she must have planned it from the first, taking what she regards as the three most vigorous Chinese types—the farmer, the war lord, the student—and treating them in three long novels that together summarize fifty years in the life of a family and a nation. It happens, however, that the student-hero of her new novel strongly resembles the student-hero of A Chinese Testament—not for any reason of literary derivation, but simply because the type is widely prevalent in China and because both Tretiakov and Mrs. Buck have portrayed it honestly. It also happens that the first section of A House Divided deals with the same period of the Chinese revolution that was more fully treated in Man's Fate. The two comparisons force themselves on the reader. Mrs. Buck suffers in both cases, for the other books, in their different ways, are better as literature, more vivid, more compelling.
I would not say that they are truer to Chinese life. Mrs. Buck has spent so many years in the country, has studied the language so well, has lived on such terms of friendship with the people, that she makes Tretiakov and Malraux seem like tourists dropping ashore from a round-the-world cruise. She has a truly extraordinary gift for presenting the Chinese, not as quaint and illogical, yellow-skinned, exotic devil-dolls, but as human beings merely, animated by motives we can always understand even when the background is strange and topsy-turvy. The Chinese themselves are in general eager to praise her work; many of them say that no native writer has painted a more accurate picture of their country…. She seems to know China so well that she no longer judges it even from the standpoint of "the native Chinese"—whoever he may be—but rather from the standpoint of a particular class, the one that includes the liberal, three-quarters Westernized scholars who deplore the graft and cruelty of the present government but nevertheless keep their heads on their shoulders and hold their noses, and support General Chiang Kai-shek because they are afraid of what would happen if he were overthrown.
The hero of A House Divided belongs to this class. Mrs. Buck presents him with deep sympathy, but she does not succeed in making his character seem admirable or even likable. (pp. 251-52)
In the classical age of Corneille and Racine there was a rule that only kings or queens could be the subject of tragedies. The rule, I think, was not entirely nonsense, for it meant that tragedies enacted themselves on a high stage built, as it were, of human conflicts and aspirations. Translated into modern terms, it would mean that novels and dramas should deal preferably with men and women who are in a high degree conscious of themselves, of the parts they play in the world, of the social conditions by which they are molded (and which in turn they help to mold). They should deal, in other words, not with the typical or average but with the representative. Particularly in a novel that describes a revolutionary crisis, it is a mistake, I think, to present a hero who sees only the blank underside of events and cannot even choose the side he wants to fight for. The real dramas take place among the planners, the agitators, the new leaders thrown up violently by the masses like rocks from a volcano—and, on the other hand, among the capitalists and generals who are organizing their counter-plots and trying to buy or bully a mass support for themselves. This is the sound principle that André Malraux followed in writing Man's Fate, and it is one of the reasons why the climax of the novel has the power of a great tragedy.
His revolutionists are in a prison yard waiting to be burned alive—but they have all known the cause they were fighting for, they have calculated the risks they were running, and now, at the moment of death, they find a bitter and exalted reward in their feeling of nearness to one another…. It happens that Mrs. Buck describes a similar scene in A House Divided. Scores of Chinese students are arrested for having revolutionary literature; they are kept moaning in a cell overnight and then, in the morning, they are driven out to be killed. It is pathetic and strong enough, but it is also rather futile, for the victims have no very clear idea of the cause for which they are dying. The cutting short of all their lives seems less a tragedy than a regrettable and essentially meaningless accident. (pp. 252-53)
Malcolm Cowley, "The Good Earthling," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1935 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 23, 1935 (and reprinted in Think Back On Us … A Contemporary Chronicle of the 1930's, edited, with an Introduction by Henry Dan Piper, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, pp. 251-53).
Of all the American intellectuals who have espoused Naturalism, Pearl Buck is the one writer whose literary origins can with least certainty be traced back to France. In her Nobel lecture, The Chinese Novel, delivered before the Swedish academy at Stockholm, on December 12, 1938, without denying the influence of other literatures upon her, she affirmed that she was born and reared in the tradition of the Chinese novel, a tradition which teaches that the paramount object of the novelist is the entertainment of the common people. So simple a purpose might seem to exclude the possibility of any shading of pessimism, save that the folk have always been fond of the lugubrious, as witness many an English ballad…. There is … in the tradition which Mrs. Buck cites a note of defeatism perhaps adequate to cover all that exists in Mrs. Buck's writings, and we might choose to regard her work as an accidental contribution to the main stream of Naturalism. To accept this explanation for the naturalistic elements in the author's novels, however, is to assume her too oblivious to the European tradition with which she has some affinity, too oblivious for credence when the lady's awareness of other things in the contemporary world is taken into account. Shall we posit, then, that at some formative period in her career she was attracted to the French Naturalists or their disciples? (pp. 146-47)
Certainly there are aspects of Mrs. Buck's trilogy—The Good Earth (1931), Sons (1932), and A House Divided (1935)—which strongly suggest Zola. Here is a complete history of the Wang family for several generations, a family as typical of contemporary China, we judge, as was the Rougon-Macquart family of France of 1848–1870. It is a sensual history, too, of loving, of breeding, and of death. Behind the rise of the Wangs is one man's greed for the earth, just as, behind the rise of Zola's family was the greed of Madame Félicité Rougon. Of course Mrs. Buck displays her family against a feudal-contemporary background, while Zola selected the Second Empire as his backdrop, but one has only to compare her treatment of Wang the Merchant and Wang the Landlord with her portraits of Wang the Farmer and Wang the Tiger to realize that for the nonce Mrs. Buck is nearly as hostile towards the trader class as was Zola. Bickering relatives and their quarrels, a throbbing passion for the soil, and other elements, as well as similarity in titles unite The Good Earth and La Terre. The thickness of the world between does not so much separate Zola and Mrs. Buck as does temperament; one is excitable and voluble, the other, dispassionate and controlled. The difference shows up most in style, however; not in their convictions about life. Mrs. Buck's writing is simple and unaffected—Zola's is … something different with every mood. (p. 148)
The great merit of The Good Earth … is the conviction it carries of verisimilitude to all the vicissitudes of Chinese life—nothing changes or passes which does not seem probable. And particularly well done is the portrait of O-lan whose loyalty to her lord never wavered. Earth of the earth-earthy, she triumphs in the end over her rivals, though her ugliness goes clear to the bone.
The excellence of The Good Earth prejudiced the probable success of its sequels. (p. 149)
To the field of biography Pearl Buck has contributed two volumes, The Exile (1936) and Fighting Angel (1936), adumbrated portraits of her missionary parents…. Joined, the books suggest that the missionary movement has hardly stimulated in the Chinese great enthusiasm for either Americans or Christianity. Mrs. Buck, critic of the movement in Is There a Case for Foreign Missions? (1932) for its effort at rigid indoctrination and its lack of appreciation of native needs or culture, broke with her church on this issue. Aside from their relation to the controversy over foreign missions, Mrs. Buck's biographies reveal that her Naturalism, like that of many another Naturalist, is possibly a product of a revolt against the dogmatic discipline of her youth. (p. 153)
Oscar Cargill, in Intellectual America: Ideas on the March (copyright 1941 by Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., renewed 1969 by Oscar Cargill), Macmillan, 1941.
Those of us who passed our student days, when the century was in its teens, thinking of China as a vast, vague region lying somewhere beyond the horizon, well outside the realm of probability, have emerged from the experience of the war finding it not in the least remarkable that China should be numbered among the four great powers of the world.
A full share of the credit for that change of mood on the part of the Western world must go to Pearl Buck. Her series of books helped to change our minds, moving them in the direction of sanity, compassion, and understanding.
If the tone of Miss Buck's writing has changed too, if it has tended to take on oracular overtones, this is almost inevitable with a talent that has proved to be so conspicuously useful in the service of a great cause. World history may have collaborated with Miss Buck's ambitions, but Miss Buck's ambitions have never wavered from the stanch support of history's briskly accelerated march toward ideals of justice and equality.
It should be noted, too, that as Miss Buck has passed into the temple to anoint herself as a seeress, she has not failed to take the artist along. Her style, showing the powerful influence of the stately rhythms of the King James version of the Bible, upon which she was reared in the home of her missionary parents, is still strong and flexible. Her writing career has demonstrated that a storyteller can lend his talent to the great issues of the day and still preserve a fastidious concern for the interests of art, restoring to propaganda the dignity of a passionate moral concern with ideas and profound human values.
Nothing is clearer about the history of writing in our time than that the career of Pearl Buck has had the dignity, the esthetic integrity, and the significance we look for in the record of a winner of the Nobel prize. (pp. 34-5)
James Gray, in his On Second Thought (© 1946, the University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1946.
Pearl Buck has proved that she is truly "mentally bifocal" and blessed with the ability to look at two cultures at once and to understand and to love them. She has done for Korea in The Living Reed what she has so successfully done for the East in The Good Earth, Imperial Woman, or any other of her novels set in Asia. (p. 194)
It is sheer pleasure to read a novel for the enjoyment of it and find it illuminating as well. There is no hidden message or intent to be misinterpreted. Miss Buck presents her characters and the history and culture of Korea in language, though it is English, which seems to be native to the characters. She is able to translate the Korean point of view into clear, vivid English. A sustained level of interest combined with a richness of detail will bring new understanding of a little-known country to those who are familiar with Pearl Buck's works and to those who may be reading Pearl Buck for the first time. (pp. 194-95)
Carmen P. Collier, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1973 by the University of Scranton), September 15, 1963.
In [The People of Japan,] … Mrs. Buck takes a grand-motherly look at a country that is admittedly only a stepchild: loved, but at times very naughty…. (p. 44)
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….
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. (p. 74)
Horace Bristol, "From Tea to Transistors," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1966 by Saturday Review, Inc.; reprinted with permission), November 5, 1966, pp. 44, 74.
Even the general reader will recognize biographical elements [in "The Time Is Noon"]: the association with China, the missionary and ministerial background, the divorce, the birth of a retarded child and the blossoming of the broadest, most generous of Christian interracial attitudes. Now, however, Mrs. Buck—instead of inviting us to play that not always entertaining, not always instructive game of matching fact and fiction—expects us to ponder "The Time Is Noon" as a story by itself, to consider the fate so bedeviling her heroine Joan Richards that she arrives at the prospect of a rewarding life only after years of tribulation….
The parts that ordinary novelists do well stump this author, unfortunately; the parts that stump the others she handles wonderfully. Her villains are completely unbelievable—as if, in fact, she never really knew one. The minister father who steals the money hoarded by his wife, the farmer-husband and his doltish family, the scoundrel of a church organist are right out of dime novels. But her good people, customarily skimped or short-changed in fiction, often come touchingly, dramatically alive, headed by Joan herself….
[What] might once have struck us as fresh visions have staled to stereotypes. Love, religion, prejudice abide, but the frames of reference familiar then have altered beyond recognition.
W. G. Rogers, "Pastor's Broad," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 19, 1967, p. 44.
The Time Is Noon is the story of Joan Richards, Mrs. Buck's alter ego…. [Instead] of leading her own life, Joan is stuck with the care of her neurasthenic father, a strict Fundamentalist preacher soon to be retired by his parish. When Pa fails, Joan's only available rescuer is a huge red-eyed, red-haired farmer, and their life together in his parents' bleak farmhouse is not exactly an idyll. Rather, it reminds me of Grant Wood's painting American Gothic.
Mrs. Buck's novel … is written in primary colors and in spiritual loneliness…. It is Joan who must carry the burden of the story, and I confess I feel for her as much exasperation as sympathy. Instead of marrying Bart the clodhopper for home and safety when she was left totally alone, why in the name of reason, and with her college degree, didn't she borrow money and look for a job in Philadelphia? But if Joan had been that reasonable, we should have had no story. Mrs. Buck's picture of the repressive life in a small town is fairly graphic, but it does read like a period piece. (p. 126)
Edward Weeks, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1967 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), May, 1967.
[Practically] everyone in this story laid in Northwest India ["Mandala"] winds up finer, nobler, a bit less mundane, an infinitesimal bit more godlike….
The appeal of this story, I suppose, lies in the mysticism that fills its last half. Moti cannot believe her son is dead. She has heard the priest talk of resurrection; the idea of reincarnation has been ingrained in her all her life. She despatches Jagat … to discuss the possibilities with a lama. The vision of the lama and the righteousness of the priest (plus an ingenuous gesture by the naive Osgood) set everyone back properly on the narrow path leading to salvation….
This novel comes from one of our most prolific writers. She can't lag far behind such prodigious producers as Robert Payne and Simenon; indeed the list of her titles fills two tightly printed columns on a fly-leaf. Is there perhaps a certain liability in this? Mrs. Buck hasn't changed, and we have—James T. Farrell hasn't changed, and we have; Erskine Caldwell hasn't changed, and we have. For those of us who haven't, "Mandala" will prove an enjoyable and profitable experience. (p. 57)
W. G. Rogers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1970.
No one was more astonished by the fantastic popularity of The Good Earth than its author…. Neither the foreigners nor the Chinese liked it. The missionaries felt it lost them "face"; so did the nationalist Chinese, chiefly because of its "pornography." Yet for 40 years, the picture of China that was imprinted on the Western mind was the one Mrs. Buck had drawn. She must have got hold of a piece of the truth somewhere, I thought, if not about China then about humankind in a primitive setting….
Why do the Chinese resent her writing? The reason, I think, is one seldom stated: she violated some basic taboos, ancient and modern, about sex and childbirth. It was this, also, which helped make her a best seller in the West where she was among the first popular novelists to describe in detail childbirth and menstruation. To the Chinese she did not get at the essence of their civilization, the delicacy of human relations expressed in certain social taboos, especially in speech and writing…. The Chinese feel Mrs. Buck degraded the dignity of Chinese women, which is ironic, since the chief appeal of her books in the West is to women. She was a maternal woman writing for women about the problems of women.
The Chinese Communists do not try to hide their poverty or the struggle against nature (locust invasions, famines) or the tragedy of peasant life under the "old society," and when Pearl Buck "speaks bitterness," they like it. What the Chinese Communists don't like is Mrs. Buck's glorification of the worst features of the old society, especially that of the upper classes—concubinage, for instance, and the whole pattern of the old Confucian family system, the very things the Communists are trying to uproot forever. Her strongest theme—the "yearning for sons"—is what is still making it difficult to control overpopulation in China. It was Mrs. Buck who "yearned," not Chinese women. The wellspring of her writing was that she never had a normal child and was afraid she could not have one—… she did have one retarded child in 1921 and adopted nine more. (p. 28)
Pearl Buck had everything she wanted except a normal child. And she wanted everything, as she used to say. She was an island, offshore to any land. She was also an island in time—far ahead of herself and yet isolated in a never-never past that had gone even when she lived in China. (p. 29)
Helen F. Snow, "Pearl S. Buck 1892–1973," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1973 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 24, 1973, pp. 28-9.
We are so used to Miss Buck's good works and longer novels that we sometimes forget that she was also a master of the short story. This collection [East and West] corrects that lapse of memory in no uncertain terms for each story demonstrates her talent without repeating the manner of its neighbors. The stories also illuminate Miss Buck's comprehension of the complexities of the human character as well as her immense sympathy for those complexities. (pp. 59-60)
Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1976, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 52, No. 2 (Spring, 1976).