Pearl S. Buck Buck, Pearl S(ydenstricker) (Vol. 18)

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Henry Seidel Canby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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[The standards of the Swedish Academy] are high, but evidently they are also flexible; otherwise it would be difficult to account for the recent award [of the Nobel Prize in Literature] … to Pearl Buck. For Mrs. Buck is clearly not the destined subject of a chapter in literary history, and would be the last to say so herself. She has no series of novels to her credit, like Sinclair Lewis, each one fitting into a pattern of achievement which has become a part of durable American literature. She is not the author, like Eugene O'Neill, of works of the imagination which have set up new points of view of universal human nature and new techniques of expression. Indeed it is questionable whether she is preëminently a novelist at all, in spite of the easy flow and readability of all her fiction. Her art of fiction is inferior to that of several other American writers—Miss Cather and Miss Glasgow among them—sometimes markedly inferior.

Where she excels is in biography, and particularly autobiography. But even in this field, which, it must be remembered, depends for its success upon a creative imagination, her two best biographies, "The Exile" and "Fighting Angel," sympathetic and penetrating studies of her remarkable and not always sympathetic parents, would surely never have reached up into the high air where the lightnings of the Nobel Prize strike. As for fiction, let the questioner read her last novel, "This Proud Heart," a biographical—in a symbolic sense, an autobiographical—novel, and decide for himself. It is a good story, well written, significant, but not the stuff of which greatness is made.

Evidently the commissioners of the Nobel Prize had their own idea in this award, and it is not hard to guess what it must have been. They are not crowning a lifetime of achievement; they are, they must be, crowning one book, a masterpiece which richly deserves exalted recognition—"The Good Earth."

For "The Good Earth," the first volume bearing that name, not the trilogy, is a unique book, and in all probability belongs among the permanent contributions to world literature of our times. It was the effective contradiction of Kipling's dogmatic assertion that the West and East would never meet; it was the first interpretation in English of the Chinese variety of human nature to reach and stay in the Western imagination; it was the living commentary we had all been waiting for upon the pattern of life, and particularly upon the pattern of emotion, of a great nation which, thanks to steam, electricity, and gasoline, had suddenly come to be next door to our own.

"The Good Earth" was built up by the imagination out of the memories of a child who had lived and thought in the Chinese pattern without losing the detachment of her Western perspective. It was a document in human nature, in which questions of style—so long as the style was adequate, and of depth—so long as the surfaces were true and significant—were not important. It did not have to be as well written as it was, in order to be distinguished….

We do not wish to be unjust to Mrs. Buck. Her total achievement is remarkable even though it contains only one masterpiece…. Her biographies of her parents are unquestionably the best studies ever done of the unique personal traits developed by the missionary fervor of the nineteenth century, which, some day, will be recognized as a very important part of the social history of Western civilization in that departed epoch.

Henry Seidel Canby, "'The Good Earth': Pearl Buck and the Nobel Prize," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1938 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XIX, No. 4, November 19, 1938, p. 8.

W. J. Stuckey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[If The Good Earth] is not about America, it is "American" in the Pulitzer way. The Good Earth is the story of how Wang Lung rises from his lowly position as a poor farmer to lordship of a great house; how his rich sons are softened by the idleness to which they are bred; and how the house...

(The entire section is 5,781 words.)