Pearl S. Buck Buck, Pearl S(ydenstricker) (Vol. 11)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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.)

Phyllis Bentley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 9,813 words.)