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Buck, Pearl S(ydenstricker) 1892–1973
Buck was an American novelist, short story writer, playwright, essayist, editor, biographer, autobiographer, author of juvenile literature, and translator. The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, Buck spent almost forty years in China, and in her published work strove to interpret China for the Western world. Her work has generally been regarded as skillful in its portrayal and interpretation of Oriental life, but weak artistically. A champion of many humanitarian causes, Buck often allowed a didactic quality to override artistic objectivity in her work. Her third book, The Good Earth, was both a popular and critical success, however, winning for the author the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, becoming the first American woman to achieve that honor. In addition to her novels of Chinese life, Buck wrote several novels with an American setting under the pseudonym of John Sedges. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed.)
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[It is] as novelist, as pure literary artist, that Mrs. Buck regards herself and prefers to be regarded. It seems worth while, therefore, to consider her books as novels, works of art, to analyze them as fiction, without prejudging them by applying any label. Let us, that is, for a moment forget that Mrs. Buck is famous as "the novelist of China," "the author of those Chinese books," and inquire simply, as with any unknown novelist, into her choice of material and her technique. Such an analysis is in her case difficult, for there is a firm unity in her work which makes its component parts not easily distinguishable, but I am sure that the degree of permanence to be achieved by any fiction can only be ascertained by assessing it as a work of art. (p. 791)
Mrs. Buck's chosen scene—and it is part of our scheme to state it thus coolly—is modern China. There are parts of that vast country where modern China means the same as ancient China; there are parts where the change of date implies a profound social change. These two Chinas, the old and the new, form the material for Mrs. Buck's art….
[The] attempt is made to present China from within, as the Chinese see it…. [The] landscape in Mrs. Buck's novels is always presented as seen by familiar eyes. Now this is one of the great difficulties of the novelist who chooses to write about a land not native to him; he is likely to write of the scenery as he, the stranger, sees it, not as the man who has lived with it all his life; the dawns are lurid with beauty to the stranger, where the native sees the coming of rain or the rising of a wind…. Mrs. Buck has lived in China so long that she really knows the landscape, and she never once, in all the volume of her work, forgets it and goes into raptures as over an alien scene. (p. 792)
In the same way Mrs. Buck aims to present the Chinese customs as familiar, natural and correct, because so would her characters regard them. The customs at birth and death and marriage and new year, the earthen gods, the family ceremonial, the slavery of women, are all copiously illustrated, but always presented, as it were, unself-consciously, as part of the natural process of living; never by the slightest word or turn of phrase does Mrs. Buck call our attention to the difference of these customs from our own. This may be thought a commonplace, but, in fact, an identification with one's characters so complete and so well sustained is rare in fiction; nor is this an unimportant matter, but a quality which goes far in welding the firm unity we have already mentioned. Her picture of the Chinese civilization is highly remarkable, then; for she presents to us China as the Chinese see it, but in language (of both lip and mind) which we understand. (p. 793)
[The] language in which Mrs. Buck presents this material shares the same dual character. It is English—very plain, clear English; yet it gives the impression that one is reading the language native to the characters all the time. This is very largely due, I think, to the entire absence of Chinese words in the prose…. The prose which is broken by many foreign words in italics accentuates our sense of being English-speaking people reading a book written in English about an alien race. Especially is this the case when the foreign word is followed by an explanation of its meaning. Pearl Buck never uses a Chinese word, never needs to explain one. Even "Mah-Jongg," for example, is called "sparrow dominoes"—and very rightly, since that is what the Chinese word means to the Chinese. On the other hand, Mrs. Buck never, I think, uses a word for which a literal translation into Chinese could not be found. The effect of her prose is to translate what the Chinese mean into language which means that to us. That it is also exceedingly beautiful prose is just our luck, so to speak, and a remarkable instance of Mrs. Buck's skill. The grave, quiet, biblical speech, full of dignity, in which Mrs. Buck, without ever "raising her voice," is able to render both the deepest and the lightest emotions—the feeling of a mother over her dead child and the excitement of an old man over his tea—is a fine example of an instrument perfectly adapted to its task. (pp. 793-94)
Mrs. Buck's main characters in each novel, always Chinese, always belong to one family, the action being seen through the eyes of that family alone…. There are other characters, but they are subsidiary; the main drama is not that of clash between house and house, but consists in the varying fortunes and happiness of one house alone. This is probably deeply true to Chinese life, and forms part of Mrs. Buck's essential theme. It does not result, however, in a limitation of scope; indeed, our author's range of character is remarkable. She is equally successful with characters of every age, sex, class, and type, and in the indication of the differences between these various types. (pp. 794-95)
Her presentation of character is objective; that is to say, she does not color her characters too much with her own feelings about them, but allows them to be just and righteous, even though she disapproves of them, and a little peevish and weak, even though they be her heroes…. The parents who cling to the old ways, the children who revolt to the new, are each presented sympathetically; and it is this impartiality which helps to make of Mrs. Buck a novelist, instead of a mere propagandist writer on China. (p. 795)
This reveals itself, too, in her treatment of the minor characters who are present, plentifully though not confusingly, in all her books. The reader feels always that these characters are not in any way to be despised or thought of as less important; they are just as alive as the major persons and have their own deeply interesting story somewhere about them. We do not hear it only because at the moment we chance to be busy with something else…. They add their separate life to the book and enrich its substance. (pp. 795-96)
We may, I think, perceive one or two indications of Mrs. Buck's methods. She observes external appearances closely, and presents them with a detailed accuracy….
Mrs. Buck observes with equal clearness the personal mannerisms of her characters, how they speak and walk and eat and cough. (p. 796)
Any young writer desirous of improving his characterization could learn volumes from Mrs. Buck's choice of verbs, adverbs and adverbial expressions….
An aspect of Mrs. Buck's skill in this branch of her art which cannot be illustrated within the limits of an article because the examples are … so closely woven into the text, is her handling of the moods and changes of mind of her characters. How Yuan in A House Divided cannot make himself love the girl revolutionist and yet cannot free himself from her; how Wang Lung slips into bondage to Lotus out of sheer ennui; the fatal quarrel over a mere length of blue-cotton cloth between the Mother and her husband—these deserve study for their beautifully living quality. One thing buds from another, and the mood grows, as is only possible in living organisms.
One of the severest tests of a writer's power of characterization is his handling of heredity. Does he portray children as the mechanical duplicates of their parents, or as having no resemblance to them at all …? Mrs. Buck's success in this difficult task is well known. The Mother's lads, though so different, are truly brothers; and every child of the horde which crowd the Wang courts is the child of his father and mother, the descendant of Wang and O-Lan, yet a separate person too….
This careful and vigorous presentation of the power of heredity is an essential part of Mrs. Buck's true theme. (p. 797)
Her stories take the epic rather than the dramatic form; that is to say, they are chronological narratives of a piece of life, seen from one point of view, straightforward, without devices; they have no complex plots, formed of many strands skilfully twisted, but belong to the single-strand type, with the family, however, rather than the individual, as unit. East Wind: West Wind tells, it is true, the tales of two marriages in modern China…. Both tales, however, are seen and told by the girl who has bound feet, and are thus wound into a single strand….
It is now time for us to seek the figure in Mrs. Buck's carpet, the theme on which she threads her pearls.
Is it her deep intention to present China to the West? Yes, I suppose it is; and she succeeds in it to admiration. But I do not feel that this is the only figure in the carpet; indeed, at times I feel that China makes the colors of her design rather than the pattern. (p. 798)
Is it her aim to present China in contact with Western civilization, China in revolution, the transition, in a word, from the old China to the new? Yes, I suppose it is; though personally I do not feel this to be the most successful part of her work. In East Wind: West Wind, and still more in A House Divided, some of her truest art is lacking. (p. 799)
For my part I consider that the figure in Mrs. Buck's carpet, her true theme, is the continuity of life.
One aspect of this continuity is beautifully revealed in that miniature masterpiece, The Mother. All the characters in this novel remain anonymous, it will be remembered…. [What] they say and do is deeply true to all human motive, so that we sympathize and understand. This again is a hallmark of quality in a novelist; for those only tell the truth who make us feel the biological certainty that all men are made of the same elements, differently arranged.
Another aspect of this continuity is the one most generally recognized in Mrs. Buck's work—the passing of life on from generation to generation. The sense of this continuity is strongly present in every detail of our author's work, as has already emerged in our discussion of plot and character. It is especially strong in the Good Earth trilogy, and is summed up for us in Sons, where Wang the Tiger is riding to his father's funeral. "Riding thus at the head of his cavalcade," writes Mrs. Buck, "his women and his children, Wang the Tiger took his place in the generations…. he felt his place in the long line of life." (pp. 799-800)
[For] the interest of her chosen material, the sustained high level of her technical skill, and the frequent universality of her conceptions, Mrs. Buck is entitled to take rank as a considerable artist. To read her novels is to gain not merely knowledge of China but wisdom about life. (p. 800)
Phyllis Bentley, "The Art of Pearl S. Buck," in English Journal (copyright © 1935 by The National Council of Teachers of English), December, 1935, pp. 791-800.
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["The Good Earth" is] a parable of the life of man, in his relation to the soil that sustains him. The plot, deliberately commonplace, is given a sort of legendary weight and dignity by being placed in an unfamiliar setting. The biblical style is appropriate to the subject and the characters. If we define a masterpiece as a novel that is living, complete, sustained, but still somewhat limited in its scope as compared with the greatest works of fiction—if we define it as "Wuthering Heights" rather than "War and Peace"—then ["The Good Earth" is a masterpiece].
But it wasn't intended to stand alone…. Miss Buck planned to write three novels that would fit together and become a sort of Chinese "Buddenbrooks."
"Sons," the second novel, is a long step toward achieving this purpose. Considered by itself, I'm not sure that it isn't even better than "The Good Earth."… Once again the plot falls into a legendary pattern, since the career of Wang the Tiger is based on one of the oldest and most exciting stories in Chinese folklore, that of the Good Bandit…. Besides this drama, the book has a quality that one doesn't associate with Pearl Buck—a rather earthy humor, most of it rising from the contrast between the traditional place of Chinese women—who are supposed to be household slaves—and the real power that they exercise over their lazy and self-indulgent husbands.
But "A House Divided" is a different story. It doesn't matter whether you judge it by itself or by what it contributes to the trilogy; in either case it is surprisingly inferior….
Its most obvious weakness is its style. In the course of the three novels, Miss Buck has changed her setting from past to present, from an old walled city to modern Shanghai…. Meanwhile her style has remained the same; if anything, her mannerisms out of the King James Version have become exaggerated. They seemed appropriate to Wang the Farmer and even Wang the Tiger, both figures in a legend; but they are out of place in the Shanghai drawing room of Wang the Landlord. (p. 24)
And the plot of "A House Divided" is essentially even weaker than its style. Miss Buck has always had trouble constructing a novel that deals with contemporary material, partly because of her strong sense of fidelity to the events that actually happened; she refuses to rearrange them into a harmonious pattern. Her best books have been parables or legends. But even a writer used to inventing plots would have been baffled by the problem she set herself in "A House Divided." She explains in the foreword … that she wanted to trace the original vigor of Wang Lung as it reappeared in his descendants. "That vigor, first found in one figure, is dissipated, as time goes on, into many sons and many places. In 'A House Divided' the vigor seems quite scattered." But how could anybody make a unified novel out of such material?… The truth is that her trilogy does not end at all. It declines into mere scaffolding, then stops in the middle like a great unfinished bridge. (pp. 24-5)
"The Patriot," is based on the same material as "A House Divided."…
From the very first, "The Patriot" seems a better novel, partly because Miss Buck is now writing modern prose, with extreme simplicity as its only mannerism, but also because of a greater subtlety and detachment in handling her material. The Wu family seems to belong in Shanghai—unlike the Wangs—and the political background is more credible. The second part of the novel, which passes in Japan, is an even greater improvement over "A House Divided." Miss Buck does something here that very few Western novelists would even attempt: she describes the impressions of a Chinese visitor to Japan and his courtship of a Japanese woman. Without being able to pass on the ultimate truth of her picture, I found it altogether convincing….
"A House Divided" is a failure that ought to be destroyed. In its place, Miss Buck should put "The Patriot"; she would have to change the names of the characters and their family trees, but not much else. (p. 25)
Malcolm Cowley, "Wang Lung's Children" (reprinted by permission of the author; renewal copyright 1967 by Malcolm Cowley), in The New Republic, May 10, 1939, pp. 24-5.
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East Wind: West Wind [Pearl Buck's first book] is usually spoken of as a novel, but, actually, it consists of two definite short stories with a decided break between them. The first narrative is more poetic and romantic; the second, more sparse and moralistic. The Dreiser influence, which we are to see displayed particularly in The Good Earth, is non-existent in this book.
East Wind: West Wind is written in a much more delicately wrought and self-conscious style than is found in the later works of Pearl Buck. While basically simple in form, the style in this work is somewhat artificial. The style tends to be choppy, slow-paced, heavily romantic, often strikingly exotic, reminiscent in many of its colorful images of Edward Fitzgerald's translation of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The prose is often too consciously flowery, and several "purple passages" also appear too obviously calculated for effect. The framework of having Kwei-lan write the details of the story to the foreign lady who has lived in China becomes increasingly artificial, forced, and wearisome as the narrative progresses.
A certain amount of extraneous description occurs; for example, there are some rather unnecessarily detailed portraits of the concubines in Kwei-lan's father's house. Such descriptions are yanked into the narrative for evident background and coloring, but the majority of Miss Buck's descriptions serve the useful purpose of enumerating the manners of aristocratic Chinese families and of underscoring the complete differences in customs between China and the West. Here the book is most successful. Both the situation and the reality of the problem present themselves in a credible fashion, and the book does manage to convey a definite flavor of setting, scene, and authenticity of locale—later a basic characteristic of Pearl Buck's fiction.
At times sentimentalism predominates…. Perhaps Miss Buck overlabors the point that, in their basic emotions and feelings people the world over are, regardless of race, much alike.
In spite of its deficiencies, East Wind: West Wind contains several effective passages, and the theme is meaningful. The characters are caught in a modern dilemma, and the happy resolution in Kwei-lan's case and the semi-tragic resolution in her brother's are convincingly rendered. The objections of the Chinese mother and father to a foreign daughter-in-law strike a common chord, and the tensions produced from their prejudices and instinctive attitudes bring focus to the problem. Truth is at the core of East Wind: West Wind, but at times the veneer of romanticism and sentimentalism blurs and softens this truth.
In an overall view, East Wind: West Wind remains more interesting for its promise than for its effectiveness as a book in its own right. Although it reveals several weaknesses—uncertainty in handling a story framework, tendencies to stylistic artificiality, and a pronounced sentimentality—it points up the fact that Miss Buck has a thorough knowledge of her subject and possesses a fundamental narrative sense. Her first book of fiction also demonstrates that she is a novelist who is in the happy position of understanding both sides in various conflicts between two different worlds, and between the old and new customs. Miss Buck has established a solid hook on which she can hang innumerable stories revolving around these themes.
Perhaps the most important aspect of East Wind: West Wind was that it gave Pearl Buck the necessary confidence to continue in the field of fiction since she now realized that a market for stories using Chinese materials was available. (pp. 33-4)
The impetus for [The Good Earth] was the anger she had experienced because the common people of China were so often oppressed and abused.
When she was prepared to write The Good Earth, she acknowledges that "there was no plot or plan. Only the man and the woman and their children stood there before me." Later, she came to realize, however, that these people were not just Chinese; they were representative of farming people the world over. They were universal in their struggles, in their joys, in their disappointments. (p. 37)
A vividness of both character and scene … distinguishes The Good Earth….
Part of the reason for this vividness rests in the universality of the novel's various portraits. (p. 38)
[Portrayed] with graphic authority is the ebb and flow of life, its change and perpetual movements, not only seasonally from spring to winter, from seed planting to harvest, but also a cycle of both family and humanity. Past links with present, and present links with future…. [A] sense of "being shaped by eternities" is one of the characteristics of The Good Earth. (pp. 38-9)
In addition, careful handling and emphasis on both the precise and the appropriate descriptive details … enhance the [universality] of experience…. The descriptions are never overdrawn or excessive; their conciseness always centers on concrete, closely observed, "essential" details; and, although the scene which we behold is unfolding in a distant land and many of the practices and traditions are exotic or picturesque, we see the essential logic and reality of these customs in their time and place. In its economy and in its laconic but vital lyricism, the descriptive passages in The Good Earth often remind us of Ernest Hemingway's writing. The style bears no dross; only descriptive details necessary to convey the scene or to reinforce the mood are recorded.
The style of The Good Earth is one of the novel's most impressive characteristics. This style is based on the manner of the old Chinese narrative sagas related and written down by storytellers and on the mellifluous prose of the King James version of the Bible. (pp. 39-40)
Pearl Buck's writing in The Good Earth is characterized by simplicity, concreteness, a stress on long serpentine sentences, parallelism, balance, and repetition of words. Although the majority of the sentences are lengthy, they break into shorter, sometimes choppy, segments of thought which undulate in movement. The style, generally slow-paced, evinces a quiet stateliness and seriousness. It does not at all rival the color or richness of the biblical imagery, principally because it follows the simplicity of word choice of the Chinese saga rather than the more imaginative and exotic coloring of the Old and New Testaments. At certain times Miss Buck's style achieves poetical suggestion, but never is the imbalance between the normal and the more poetic so pronounced as to produce isolated "purple passages," as was the case in East Wind: West Wind.
The style of The Good Earth is unusually appropriate for the saga story. The simplicity and the slow but steady movement of the prose fit harmoniously the heroic and epic-like qualities of the narrative. (pp. 40-1)
In structure, The Good Earth uses a chronological form which proceeds at a fairly regular pace. Some climaxes occur, although they do not reach too much higher than the normal incidents in the story. The movement is slower and somewhat less arresting after O-lan's death, but some slackening is inevitable in a roman-fleuve. (p. 42)
Although The Good Earth places much emphasis on the family unit, and the analysis of the family fortunes is pivotal, the main characters are studied in detail. The portrayal of Wang Lung's character is starkly frank. His strengths and weaknesses are candidly examined and bared before the reader; and while, on the basis of a superficial reading, he might appear to be a one-dimensional figure, he actually runs the whole gamut of human emotions. (pp. 42-3)
Mention should be made of the haze of romanticism which hovers over and about the novel. Miss Buck has wisely avoided the artificial romanticism and the obvious sentimentalism which marred East Wind: West Wind. Yet the story of The Good Earth, although it maintains a convincing realism, takes on a certain exotic remoteness which lends additional charm to its episodes. The strange is made familiar, and the familiar is made pleasantly strange…. The faraway coloring of The Good Earth lights the familiar elements with new freshness and appeal. Realism and romanticism blend in just the right proportions. Life is given the glow of legend, and legend is given the aura of life. (pp. 44-5)
Pearl Buck has acknowledged the influence of Zola, and it is almost immediately evident. Certainly The Good Earth is Naturalistic in many ways: in its documentary approach to its material, in its detached and objective presentation, in its stress on factors of environment and heredity, in its accuracy of setting and descriptive details, and in its interest in impoverished and earthy people who dwell on the lower strata of social class. Yet, at the same time, several differences exist between Miss Buck's approach and Zola's. She is much less interested in sordidness, brutality, and squalor; and her emphasis on these factors arises out of a more balanced and wholesome interest in things as they are than from a deliberate stress on the seamier aspects of life in order to shock and horrify. (p. 46)
Realism rather than Naturalism would be a more accurate term to apply to Pearl Buck's work. The pessimism and despair of a writer like Zola are far removed from Miss Buck's more affirmative approach to things as they exist and from the basic meliorism which her writing in general displays. She stands as an optimist rather than as a pessimist, although she often hears and records the "eternal note of sadness." (p. 47)
As a novel, Sons [sequel to The Good Earth] labors under the handicap which all sequels to famous books must face. A narrative to equal The Good Earth would have to be more powerful and absorbing than Sons. Yet, within its own limitations, Sons is an interesting, worth-while novel and a work of no mean effort. It perhaps suffers in that the emphasis on brigands and war lords, on their characteristics and activities, seems somewhat remote to a Western audience. (p. 59)
The fundamental defect of Sons is the weakness of the characterization of Wang the Tiger. (pp. 59-60)
In contrast to [actual war lords throughout Chinese history], Wang the Tiger is a considerably more limited and colorless individual. Although the reader comes to know him quite well, a particular remoteness about him persists. His motives and behavior are analyzed at some length, but he does not come fully alive as a flesh and blood character. And he does not arouse interest or sympathy as Wang Lung and O-lan do. (p. 60)
It is difficult to sense tragedy here, at least from the way the story and characters present themselves.
The style of Sons follows the same biblical-Chinese saga influence displayed in The Good Earth, and, in general, repeats this pattern beneficially. Many of the long sweeping sentences are especially lyrical and mellifluous, and numerous passages of thoughtful beauty recur…. [However, in] The Good Earth, the style was absorbed in the humanity of the characters and their difficulties; consequently, the style took on a special life and feeling. In Sons, Wang the Tiger does not maintain the same interest to carry along the style with him. Thus, the prose of Sons occasionally seems utilitarian, a mere archaic-flavored ordering and recital of events. While it may not actually be determined that Pearl Buck felt her story and people more deeply and more vibrantly in The Good Earth than in Sons, this conclusion is strongly suggested by the style and characterization of Sons.
Sons, of course, possesses social and historical value as an illustration of a way of life in China…. The novel also has merit as a pointed, ironic commentary on the differences between generations in the same family…. The individual differences between Wang Lung's sons and their wives display a universality which rings true and is an easily remembered aspect of the story.
But, in the final analysis, Sons falls short of The Good Earth because it does not have the same universal quality of timelessness, the same inevitable moment of birth and death, of success and failure, of tragedy and of joy. Universality has been narrowed to the rise of a war lord and the subsequent—but never powerfully felt by the reader—misunderstanding between father and son. Even the time movement of Wang Lung's descendants seems to sink into secondary significance in the emphasis given to the story of one rather colorless military chief. (pp. 63-4)
A House Divided [the final volume of the trilogy], which studies the development of one young man's mind during a turbulent and crucial period of modern Chinese history and also probes the changes wrought in one family over a period of several generations, is actually the weakest volume in the House of Earth trilogy. Part of the reason for this situation is that Yuan does not hold the same reader interest as did Wang Lung or even Wang the Tiger. Yuan does not come alive as a believable individual. None of the characters in A House Divided arouses any particular interest; and, while much happens, the events do not involve the reader in the action.
As an examination of one man's mind, A House Divided fails to be appealing primarily because Miss Buck's technique is not thorough and conclusive enough in its introspective probing. Yuan seems to wear his heart on his sleeve, and his sudden shifts of emotion and feeling are not presented logically…. Miss Buck's technique is more effective in analyzing external events and elements than in presenting internal aspects. Too much explaining of Yuan's thoughts and character occurs. (pp. 68-9)
The reader is also too conscious of authorial manipulation in the handling of Yuan's character. He is a puppet who dances the same tunes on constantly shifting strings, strings which are observed by the audience. The romance between Yuan and Meiling is, for instance, shamelessly managed and rigged by the author….
Further, the book wanders about somewhat aimlessly. A House Divided treats of a number of places and a number of events, and its canvas often becomes episodic and unwieldy. Malcolm Cowley has observed that the material in this last volume of the trilogy is too scattered and does not progress to any significant conclusion [see excerpt above]. (p. 69)
Miss Buck's style, effective in the early scenes when Yuan returns to his grandfather's earthen house, often appears flat and ordinary—a mere recording of events. The prose of A House Divided is, in general, much too dull and undistinguished to do more than merely tell a story. A particularly heavy burden is placed on the style to describe internal events; and while at times some poetry filters through the external description, the style is not adequate to the needs of so much internal analysis. (pp. 69-70)
A House Divided has appeal as the final view of a family that we have seen at its best and at its worst…. Yet, while [its] events themselves have great significance, the people in A House Divided who participate in them appear awfully pallid and lifeless in comparison.
In 1934, between the publication of the second and third volumes of her House of Earth trilogy, Pearl Buck issued one of her most unusual novels, The Mother. This narrative was intended to give a universal portrait of the eternal mother, to present the various cycles of her life, and to capture some of the timelessness of her existence. In a sense, this novel was attempting to describe one woman in the same manner that The Good Earth had endeavored to analyze one particular family. (pp. 70-1)
The Mother is an extremely important work in the canon of Pearl Buck's writing. The never-ending cycle of birth and death and the eternal round of a mother's life with its joys and sorrows stir the reader because of their proportions and the novelist's insight into life. Here is a portrait of a perennial mother, with universal implications. (pp. 72-3)
In many ways The Mother is one of Miss Buck's finest books. It possesses many distinctions: for example, the cyclical flow of time, the eternal mater dolorosa caught in this movement, the tragedies and hardness of existence, the mistakes and crises revolving around the life of a mortal woman. Nevertheless, in an overall estimate, one comes to admire the book for its ambitious attempt rather than for its complete realization of achievement. Several reasons support this viewpoint.
In the first part of the novel, description predominates, and the mother speaks very little. In the latter part, however, she becomes, comparatively at least, quite garrulous and even naggish. While this change is logical under the impact of increasing age and sorrow, it tends to forfeit reader sympathy…. [Her] failings can be justified on the basis that such events happen in life, but in the novel they tend to emphasize the main character's weaknesses and, hence, to diminish sympathy. (p. 73)
A prime weakness exists in the failure to involve the reader in a sense of the mother's toughness and power of endurance…. The basic fault with the mother is that she becomes too much a type and too little a realized individual. (pp. 73-4)
Pearl Buck seems to feel that her mother character was too far removed from common experience to be popular…. If characterization is vivid, complete, and penetrating [however], the strangeness of person and subject matter is conquered. In her portrayal of the mother, Miss Buck has not succeeded in rendering her character with accuracy and thorough discernment.
The prose of The Mother is reduced to the barest simplicity. It is less rich, poetic, and varied than The Good Earth; it possesses an economy which, while it often approaches biblical phrasing and is often pleasingly lyrical, eventually becomes monotonous. Although the style is deliberately reduced to the utmost simplicity in order to balance with the stark and basic movement of time and with the plight of the universal mother caught in this movement, about half-way through the novel one realizes that the prose is too plain and too sparse for the theme; more richness and variety are needed—more poetry, more of the coloring found in The Good Earth. The style found in The Mother suggests that the biblical-Chinese saga style, which Pearl Buck has often used very effectively, can be drawn too thin or be too simple in a lengthy narrative and, hence, lacks a vital heightening and variety of tone and harmony.
In general, The Mother is an interesting, ambitious attempt to effect a monumental achievement in both theme and style. The attempt does not succeed, but the effort was desirable. The theme is worthy of a truly great work, and the material is there; but Miss Buck has miscalculated the stylistic effects, and she has not thought out nor developed thoroughly enough the characterization of her central figure. In addition, the reader is told about a great many things happening too suddenly in the universal movement of time. This suddenness is not prepared for and seems incongruous. The Mother definitely needed more patient revision. (pp. 74-5)
The Nobel Committee citation, which accompanied [Pearl Buck's Nobel award] read: "For rich and generous epic description of Chinese peasant life and masterpieces of biography." Selma Lagerlöf, the Swedish novelist … who was a member of the Nobel Committee, revealed that she cast her vote in favor of Pearl Buck because of the excellence of Miss Buck's biography of her father. These two facts indicate the importance of what may be called, with incontrovertible accuracy, the Nobel Prize biographies: The Exile, a study of Miss Buck's mother, and Fighting Angel, a portrait of her father. (p. 76)
While The Exile is an amazingly and genuinely frank and complete picture of a missionary wife, it is not without fault. At times the biography becomes too sentimental…. When Pearl is married and when Caroline's beloved brother Cornelius dies, for example, not only does the thought dwell too much on the emotions involved, but the style life itself becomes a bit too flowery, too tender, too romantic for modern taste. Further, The Exile is at times too diffuse and repetitive; on occasion it needs to be tightened, to be fixed more firmly on the main materials. But, with all these obvious weaknesses, the portrait drawn of Caroline Sydenstricker remains imprinted in one's memory; and the character analysis is rendered with persuasive depth. (pp. 80-1)
If The Exile is a fine biography, Fighting Angel (despite an old-fashioned ring in its title) is an even better one. While The Exile is on occasion too wordy and too repetitive, Fighting Angel is much more taut and focused. Now and then The Exile becomes sentimental because Miss Buck admired her mother deeply and was exceptionally devoted to her. Toward her father, however, she is less sympathetic and more objective; hence, the portrait of Absalom Sydenstricker unfolds in a harsher, rougher fashion. (p. 81)
Besides a vividly realized portrait of a human being, there emerges from Fighting Angel a compelling delineation of the nineteenth-century type of crusader—the very essence of rock-ribbed individualism, a fiery zeal which, depending upon the direction in which it was channeled, could produce a General Charles Gordon, a John D. Rockefeller, a David Livingstone. Pearl Buck sees her father as a manifestation of a spirit which especially permeated America at a particular time. (p. 84)
In addition to the individual portrait, Pearl Buck graphically depicts missionary life in China, particularly in a closely knit missionary community…. [The] realism and vividness of the work sear into the mind of the reader.
Aside from the elimination of some repetitiousness of idea here and there, perhaps the only way Fighting Angel could have been improved would have been to include more instances of Absalom's experiences on his long missionary journeys. (p. 85)
Thematically, This Proud Heart is most interesting. The problem of a woman genius—a woman who has both an excellent mind and natural creative talent—who at the same time is desirous of love, motherhood, and normal family life is posed with feeling and realism. (p. 89)
While treatment of the male genius is not especially uncommon in writing, This Proud Heart is one of the few mature attempts in fiction to explain and study a woman genius…. [The] author has presented Susan's characteristics on a credible level and … the conflict between her artistic drives and her romantic needs is sharply defined. Yet Susan is not a completely satisfying creation, principally because Miss Buck's viewing-on-the-outside method of storytelling does not enable us to get deeply enough inside her mind…. [We] do not really become convinced by Susan: she is too often aloof and remote from the reader. While external narration may be effective in saga-like chronicles or in biographies, it does not go far enough or deep enough to help us understand Susan's genius more completely and to render her an unforgettable character. A more mental technique of introspection, such as the stream-of-consciousness method, appears necessary in order to bring the problem of genius to a more thorough visualization. The novel is also not helped by surrounding Susan with a handful of stock and type characters. While they never quite succeed in dragging her down to their level, they do dull her luster and weaken our appreciation of her uniqueness.
While the thematic problem posed in This Proud Heart intrigues, and the explanation of the problem carries us to about as satisfactory a solution as possible, the novel loses considerable impact because of its stylistic weaknesses. Coming from a reading of the Chinese novels, from a reading of The Exile and Fighting Angel, one notices immediately the lack of poetic beauty, the lack of exquisite descriptions, and the pedestrian nature of the writing. Many of the phrases are nothing but clichés…. The word choice is exceedingly simple, and Miss Buck's selection of nouns and adjectives lacks both variety and a sense of freshness. Further, the dialogue is frequently stiff, forced, and stilted. So ordinary and flat is the style and mechanics of presentation that the overall effect of the novel is reduced. (pp. 89-90)
What is especially evident in this novel is the hard core of mental activity in Pearl Buck's work which continually helps to elevate it above the superficiality of ordinary bestsellers. In her fiction she usually presents some theme which the reader can wrestle with intellectually. Even if the book does not succeed, one feels that he is in the company of an alert and challenging mind which offers much valuable thought and insight. Stylistically, This Proud Heart is a disaster; thematically, it has several rewarding moments. (p. 90)
Too often today, Miss Buck is judged on the basis of her work after receiving the Nobel Prize. While it has become a critical commonplace to remark that a writer's best work is always completed before the Nobel Prize is granted (the reward itself seeming always to mark a decline in the writer's talent), this situation is particularly true of Pearl Buck's efforts. In the 1930's she produced several fine books; after this decade she never again reached the same level of achievement. (p. 92)
That Pearl Buck's decline as a novelist was not immediate and that she still could write novels worth attention and discussion was proved by the publication in 1939 of The Patriot. (p. 104)
The Patriot possesses considerable value for its insights and explanations of relatively recent Chinese history, so that it furnishes a historical account of political and social importance….
Part Two of the novel, which deals with I-wan's stay in Japan, is by far the most effective section. It presents one of the most realistic and convincing portraits of the Japanese character found in literature. Japanese attitudes of love of country, duty, and endurance are particularly well delineated; and Japanese qualities of delicacy, mannerliness, and love of beauty contrast sharply with their stoicism, militarism, and cruelty. (p. 106)
In writing The Patriot Pearl Buck discarded the poetic, semi-biblical style found in the House of Earth trilogy. Simplicity of style is retained, but the prose contains no poetry and no melodic movement. Nevertheless, while the style is characterized only by its utter simplicity and its matter-of-factness, it is perfectly suitable to the story being told and fits harmoniously into the narrative movement. It often helps to add a compelling verisimilitude of setting, especially to the Shanghai scenes and to the Japanese episodes.
The third part of The Patriot is the least successful…. Much of the story manipulation in this last unit of the novel is too apparent and farfetched…. The Patriot is a cracking good story. It is such a tale as a village storyteller would relate in order to captivate his listeners, but in its final section it suffers from just such liberties as a storyteller too concerned about suspense and tying up loose ends would seize. (p. 108)
The various aspects of hero worship render [Other Gods] extremely satisfying on a problem-probing level. Unfortunately, the style does not achieve the level of the theme and the sensitive analysis of the topic discussed. But what might be called Miss Buck's American style has improved. It is more mature, more elaborate, and more pliable than that of This Proud Heart. To be sure, it is still only journeyman prose, and the writing does not delight or scintillate as does Miss Buck's Chinese style. The novel is also weakened by some obvious manipulations geared to keep up suspense…. The novel also has a peculiar bloodless quality, due partly to the style, but due also to an attempt to avoid the more realistic aspects of mob worship. It is only the problem studied in its various manifestations, the intellectual hard-core of Pearl Buck's work, which raises the book above mere popular contrivance. (p. 112)
The Mayli episode is the chief factor in the failure of Dragon Seed to achieve artistic success. The Mayli material is a disastrous attempt to intrude romantic materials into a context of realism. (p. 119)
Pearl Buck's handling of the Mayli material illustrates a pitfall of the natural storyteller's technique—a pitfall to which Miss Buck succumbs more and more in her post-Nobel Prize work and which comes to blemish most of the later novels at some point or other…. Make-believe romance has intruded on basically realistic material and has reduced the impact of authenticity of event and logic of character portrayal.
Another defect displayed in Dragon Seed is a conscious attempt to use the novel as a vehicle for patriotic propaganda. This aspect is most obvious in the radio news scenes which bring the Chinese a knowledge that their fight is part of a world-wide struggle against evil…. [Dragon Seed] was predicated on the need and desirability of more active support for China, and it definitely had been intended to arouse sympathy for the Chinese cause.
While the intrusion of farfetched romance and evident propaganda mar the novel, Dragon Seed contains much to make it worth while. Its most attractive feature is its style. Pearl Buck had not used the early semi-biblical, semi-traditional style since A House Divided. This prose, particularly effective in The Good Earth, is handled with considerable success in Dragon Seed. Simple, often poetic, pliable, fitting the material with a picturesqueness, the prose of Dragon Seed satisfies both the eye and ear. Many of the passages could, with a few word changes, seem to be the work of Hemingway…. In the sustained excellence of its style Dragon Seed comes close to The Good Earth; its prose does not, however, possess so much poetry and color as Miss Buck's most famous novel.
Other similarities between Dragon Seed and The Good Earth are apparent. The same deep feeling for the value of the land is present in both books, and the same quiet tone and the chronological approach concentrating on the lives of two generations characterize the two novels. The Good Earth, however, rises to several climaxes; Dragon Seed tends to move in an even, steady manner without crucial elevations of interest. Both stories contain a realism which, at times, verges on Zola-like Naturalism…. The novel renders Japanese behavior vividly and disturbingly. If, in fact, Dragon Seed had kept to a more probable story line, divorced romance from realism, and retained the authorial objectivity demonstrated in The Good Earth, it could have rivaled Miss Buck's Pulitzer Prize novel in several ways. (pp. 119-21)
The Promise [a sequel to Dragon Seed] is very recent history fictionalized…. [The book] takes on historical importance because it is a thoughtful, challenging explanation of the disaster which overtook the Chinese in Burma. (p. 122)
The Promise is, in almost every way, out and out propaganda, a patriotic and stirring appeal for the Chinese cause. The prejudice of the white men, their feelings of superiority over Asians, their refusal to treat the Chinese with equality, the harm that these attitudes are causing in the war against Japan—these matters are reiterated throughout the novel….
Since the novel is so dominated by propaganda, it possesses little artistic value.
Only one of the John Sedges books [i.e., those written under Pearl Buck's pseudonym], The Townsman, is of especial importance. Unless a person had inside information, he would never guess that Pearl Buck authored The Townsman since the settings and characters are totally different from those found in her previous books on American subjects. (pp. 125-26)
The finest feature of the book is its success in presenting the authentic flavor of the early settlements in the West….
In addition to the realism of background details and of some of the basic incidents, the novel's dialogue evinces much credibility. Considerable attention is given to dialectal forms, to picturesque expressions, and to quaint oddities of word choice and sentence construction. The style of the book does not distinguish itself except where the dialectal elements and the picturesque speech give the novel a pleasantly natural coloring. The non-dialogue writing does not consist of the semi-biblical style found in the early novels about China; it is rather an ordinary, commonplace, and undistinguished prose most similar to the style used in Other Gods.
While much of The Townsman attracts because of its realistic flavor, the book also possesses definite appeal because of its central character—Jonathan Goodliffe. Jonathan is a thoughtful, prudent, upright individual "too ready to think of work instead of play." (p. 126)
Jonathan Goodliffe is well depicted. His motives and feelings make sense; his life, his ideas, and his influence on the life of Median possess the genuine feel of truth. Unfortunately, he is too drab and colorless an individual to make a Dickensian impact on the reader's consciousness. (pp. 127-28)
The Townsman has value as a chronology of an American pioneering family and of the growth of a prairie town; however, it is weakened by several story improbabilities, by several type characters, and by some overly obvious propaganda….
The sermon about racial prejudice in America jars the story line out of logical development and pushes some of the characters to a secondary role since they exist not in or for themselves but simply to help draw a moral. Didactic concerns mar certain parts of the book. (p. 128)
All of the John Sedges books are competently written, but only several sections of The Townsman and the vivid portrait of a minor character, Lew Harrow, in The Long Love exceed mere journeyman competence. Pearl Buck proves that she can write entertainingly and informatively on a wide variety of American subject matter, but the John Sedges novels display relatively little feeling for depth and for effectively realized characterization. The overemphasis on message and the general feeling of elation that everything will turn out all right give them a Victorian quality which often rests on sentimentalism and is unworthy of the talent behind their conception. (p. 129)
[Pavilion of Women has] much to recommend it. First of all, the style is poetic, lush, and colorful. Deliberately romantic in tone, it is most reminiscent of the first part of East Wind: West Wind. While the style is often exuberant and exotic, it is in perfect keeping with its subject matter. The setting of an old, rich, and comfortable Chinese family receives an added luster and charm as the style blends perfectly with the scene. Second, Pearl Buck evinces as much knowledge of the customs and activities of a wealthy Chinese family as she does of the peasant groups. The background and details are thorough and convincing; time and place sweep into the mind with genuine verisimilitude. Third, Pavilion of Women exists as one of the most vivid demonstrations of Miss Buck's uncanny ability to invent fresh episodes and to entangle her characters in imaginative situations which exemplify never-flagging interest, variety, and considerable narrative pull.
Because of the significance of the theme—the question of personal meaning and immortality—and style excellence, Pavilion of Women should be an important and memorable novel. Such is not the case. Its failure stems from an overly evident manipulation of the narrative to support Miss Buck's didactic purpose: to prove the value of selfless love and devotion to others…. Seemingly insolvable problems are either resolved easily or simply pacified. Every knot can be untied or loosened if one acts with selfless intent and altruistic consideration, Miss Buck too obviously implies. And, while the reader would like this to be true, he knows from experience that this is simply not true—or at least not in as uncomplicated a way as Miss Buck would have it. An oversimplification and an unfortunate sentimentalism have set in. A sentimentalism, which Miss Buck would have scorned in books such as The Good Earth or The Mother, has, unfortunately, come to the forefront more and more often in Pearl Buck's post-1939 fiction. (pp. 132-33)
With the important exception of a relatively brief section of A House Divided and such novels as Other Gods and China Gold, Pearl Buck generally kept her work on American and Chinese subject matter separated. Relatively late in her writing career, however, she produced several novels of descriptive value and thematic interest in which the worlds of the West and the East met within the pages of one book. The possibilities for illuminating comparison and contrast between two countries, which Miss Buck had, up to this point, largely subordinated to portraits of one area, are best exemplified in Kinfolk. (p. 134)
Although its plot is too plainly contrived, Kinfolk is critically interesting because it is an amalgam of the strong and weak points in Miss Buck's later work. The main themes are well conceived and credible. The picture of life in Anming is exceptionally vivid, instructive, and meaningful; the characteristics of the hamlet stand forth with stark boldness. The scenes in America are less persuasive, although the Chinatown impressions furnish novelty. Unfortunately, too many popular touches are mixed into the ingredients….
In short, Kinfolk is a potpourri, a distinct example of the effect of trying to blend unsuccessfully ingredients belonging to two different kinds of novels—the "serious" and the "popular." (p. 137)
Closely related to [her didactic novel] Command the Morning in its concern with the morality of the atomic bomb's use is Pearl Buck's play A Desert Incident. (p. 140)
In order to reinforce the framework of A Desert Incident Pearl Buck does, for her, an unusual thing: she uses symbolism….
Miss Buck's venture into symbolism is disastrous, partly because she attempts to cover too many areas of life. As Brooks Atkinson noted in his review of the play, the drama is so "overloaded with points of view that it leaves its main theme as anticlimax." Further, her use of symbolism is alternately grandiose and overly simple so that a jarring incongruity results between what the symbolism intends to do and what it actually says. Her symbolism obfuscates where it should enlighten, and it is thoroughly deficient in both appropriateness and subtlety. (p. 141)
In looking back over the career of Pearl Buck, one may draw some evaluation of her literary status. Although she has been virtually ignored by critics for over twenty years, it may be maintained with much justification that she has written at least three books of undoubted significance: The Good Earth and the biographies of her father and mother. Certainly, The Good Earth is a masterpiece that will be remembered by subsequent generations as a work which powerfully and movingly describes a whole way of life. Although it perhaps seemed more immediate during the depression years, its universality of theme and the beauty of its style should render it timeless.
The two Nobel Prize biographies are among the most deeply felt and penetrating analyses in any literature of the missionary caught in an alien climate, the demands of the missionary life, and the concomitant reaction to such demands. While Absalom Sydenstricker exemplifies the very essence of the drive and intensity of the nineteenth-century missionary spirit, his wife Caroline symbolizes the perennial demands of humanity for a more compromising balance between flesh and spirit.
Several of Pearl Buck's other books—particularly, Sons, The Mother, and The Patriot—possess moments of greatness. Although they do not achieve the heights they sought, they do contain many notable sections, several compelling episodes, and make use of an intrinsically poetic and arresting style.
At about the time of the Nobel Award—actually after the completion of The Patriot—Pearl Buck's writing career certainly seemed to be in the ascent, and to promise further important achievement. After this period, however, Pearl Buck's humanitarian preoccupations seemed to increase. These interests, carried into her fiction, immediately weakened the objectivity of her creation. She began to assert didactic considerations to such an excessive degree that novels such as Dragon Seed and The Promise become propaganda efforts on behalf of China's struggle against Japan. (pp. 150-51)
After 1939 she became more facile at constructing her plots, handling dialogue, and in the technical aspects of her craft; but no subsequent significant growth in the artistic features of novel writing occurred in Pearl Buck's work. No experimentation in technique took place, and she made no attempt to penetrate more deeply into character analysis, showed no willingness to seek subtleties of tone or mood, and indicated no interest in using myth or symbolism or other elements characteristic of the modern novel. On this account alone Miss Buck must be neglected by some of the more recent literary critics because her total disregard of such concerns as myth and archetype, stream-of-consciousness, and symbolism gives critics very little to analyze and explicate. Her novels do not furnish the layers of meaning and the complexity which modern literary criticism demands. (pp. 151-52)
In addition to her refusal to adopt more modern techniques in her handling of the novel and her post-Nobel Prize obsession with didacticism, several other factors are involved in her lack of popularity with the more influential literary critics. For one thing her work has suffered from the inevitable critical reaction against her best-seller status. (p. 153)
Another factor in Pearl Buck's loss of prestige in serious literary circles stems from her optimistic, affirmative point of view. She has not lost her faith in progress, and she exalts a Rousseau-Thomas Paine Transcendental type of belief in the innate goodness of most men…. On the other hand, bleak pessimism, subjective studies of anguish, and searing indictments of humanity are very much the fashion at the moment. (p. 154)
[Let us remember] that Miss Buck is following a certain school of novel writing, and in her literary work of the 1930's she adheres to the characteristics of this school rather well. Judged by her standards—"to please and to amuse," to relate a captivating story, and to deal with significant problems—Miss Buck must be granted considerable success. (p. 155)
Even admitting Miss Buck's success with the most pronounced aspects of the old-fashioned Chinese school of storytelling, one comes, in the long run, to feel that this type of writing possesses inherent defects. For example, it tends to lead to farfetched episodes and improbable occurrences; it also usually does not probe the characters as deeply as possible. In these circumstances characterization can easily become somewhat superficial, and the characters can veer toward types rather than toward individualism. The traditional storytelling method has elements which are too limited and too narrow to lead to the highest peaks of art. This ancient form of narration pointed an easy way and, thereby, artistically hampered Miss Buck's possibilities. (pp. 155-56)
Paul A. Doyle, in his Pearl S. Buck (copyright 1965 by Twayne Publishers, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of Twayne Publishers, A Division of G. K. Hall & Co., Boston), Twayne, 1965.
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