Henry Seidel Canby

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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,...

(The entire section contains 5781 words.)

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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

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[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 of Wang will sink back into the poverty from which it arose, now that the great principle of honest toil has been forsaken. Thus, despite its Chinese setting, The Good Earth is another ethical-moral American drama acted out against the relentless cycle of history which raises up one generation and causes the downfall of the next. (p. 90)

One can see why The Good Earth might have appealed to the Pulitzer jurors as it did to many other American readers in the early 1930's—before the effects of the depression went very deep or very far. There was, first of all, the escapism offered by the exotic setting of far-off China, the lavish descriptions of poverty and famine which doubtless made the hard times at home seem a minor, transitory affair. Moreover, those inclined to seek a moral for a troubled nation did not need to probe very far below the surface of Mrs. Buck's narrative. In the rise and fall of her Chinese dynasties, one could discern the recent pattern of events at home, and perhaps one could find a guide for the future. Weren't the poverty and suffering of the 1930's a result of the extravagance of the 1920's, when America had strayed from the rocky path along which Americans had traditionally traveled, abandoning the old virtues—thrift, hard work, sobriety? As the career of Wang shows, such conduct leads to softness and moral flabbiness, and then to poverty and to hunger. One need only renounce the easy life and the primrose path, take up the hoe and shovel, and moral strength would come again, and every man would be saved. (p. 91)

It is another interesting reflection of the times that instead of proclaiming that individualism leads to great wealth—as both Tarkington and Edna Ferber had—Mrs. Buck says, rather, that it leads to security and safety, not only for oneself but also for one's descendants. In this we have a clear presentiment of the next thematic phase of the Pulitzer novel. Another significant and somewhat more subtle difference between this prize book and some of the earlier ones is that it does not attempt to reconcile money-making and morality. (p. 92)

[In] spite of its consistency and good intentions, The Good Earth is a childishly simple book in which good and evil are neatly labeled. Mrs. Buck always stays outside her characters, judging them sympathetically, but at the same time from a superior and somewhat patronizing altitude. The book's unity of tone is a mark of its superiority over the typical Pulitzer novel, but the pompous style by which that unity is achieved is another of the book's serious limitations. Whatever is gained in smoothness and uniformity is lost by the author's inability to make real, to dramatize thought and feeling. Its "folk poetic" or "Biblical" rhythms give the narrative a kind of factitious authority for allowing mere statement to screen psychological abysses which the author is unable to bridge. At a crucial point in the narrative, for example, when Wang is about to quit his good life as a farmer and become an idle rich man, Mrs. Buck simply says: "Then Wang Lung took into his head to eat dainty foods…." Mrs. Buck tries to make a sentence do what a better novelist would need half a novel to accomplish. (pp. 92-3)

W. J. Stuckey, "New Themes: Sex and Libertinism," in his The Pulitzer Prize Novels: A Critical Backward Look (copyright 1966 by the University of Oklahoma Press), University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, pp. 68-94.∗

Walter G. Langlois

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[The Good Earth illuminates the death of Confucian China.] Pearl Buck defends [the premise that China's vitality would continue to flow upward from the land]…. As the title of Mrs. Buck's novel suggests, land was the basic social and economic value in Wang's life. (pp. 3-4)

In the early part of the novel at least, Wang is the epitome of farmer virtue…. Yet it is impossible for his family really to prosper. (p. 4)

In the south where he flees [a famine,] it is the great commercial activity of the city, encouraged by the West, which is able to provide work for uprooted and miserable agricultural laborers such as himself. True, such an existence was marginal, and Wang Lung and his family would certainly have died slowly on the fringes of the urban mass, still unable to break out of their poverty, had it not been for an exterior gratuitous event. The raid which the starving poor make on a great palace gives Wang Lung some capital. This enables him to begin the long climb out of the abject misery that had oppressed his family for generations. Revolutionary violence was able to accomplish what Confucian virtue had not been able to do.

In keeping with the Confucian ideal—and like farmers in most areas of the world—Wang buys land with his new wealth; otherwise, he seems to have little social ambition…. [The] lives of his three sons reflect the decay of much of the traditional ethic of Confucian society and the rise of certain new social values.

Moreover, certain of the social changes mirrored in The Good Earth now seem to be occurring outside of the traditional Confucian institutions, suggesting that a radical modification of the entire social structure has begun. (pp. 4-5)

Although the social unrest of the city was to a certain extent an element of the old Chinese social cycle, it was intensified by the breakdown of central government control and by increasing pressure on the land. Moreover, certain new elements, new ideologies brought in by the West, were further altering the traditional situation. These forces are symbolized by the missionaries and the student political agitators, usually Communists, whom Wang Lung sees in the city. (pp. 5-6)

For Wang Lung, a farmer who saw life from a completely different, Confucian viewpoint, happiness could not be defined in terms of social change. To be himself and to find his meaning in life, he had to return to his land, his good earth. He remained basically unmarked by the interlude in the south and blissfully unaware that what was happening in the city was altering—both subtly and violently—the face of the old China he knew. (p. 6)

Walter G. Langlois, "The Dream of the Red Chamber, The Good Earth, and Man's Fate: Chronicles of Social Change in China," in Literature East and West (© Literature East and West Inc.), Vol. XI, No. 1, March, 1967, pp. 1-10.

G. A. Cevasco

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To understand the wellsprings of her own art, her creativity, [Pearl Buck] had to examine in depth and to explain at length the scope and the limits of her work within the tradition of the Chinese novel. Now that more than twenty-five years have elapsed since her lecture on the Chinese novel before the Nobel Committee, her judgments can be dispassionately reconsidered, objectively commented upon, and critically evaluated. Her conception of the Chinese novel, moreover, can be utilized as a yardstick in an estimation of what Pearl Buck has attempted to do in her fiction, how well she has succeeded, and what value should be placed upon her literary endeavors. (p. 438)

In China, art and the novel have been dichotomous subjects. The novel was hardly ever considered belles lettres, nor did the novelist look upon himself as an artist. (p. 440)

Many are the reasons for the ignoble history of the indigenous Chinese novel. One important consideration, undoubtedly, lies in the interdict of Confucius: fiction was supposed to have an immoral influence, especially in turning the mind away from philosophy and virtue. (p. 440)

One theme Mrs. Buck emphasized before the Academy was relative to the natural growth of Chinese fiction. "Happily for the Chinese novel," she noted, "it was not considered by the scholars as literature." It did remain unfettered by pedantic norms. "The Chinese novel was free," she continued. "It grew as it liked out of its own soil, the common people, nurtured by that heartiest of sunshine, popular approval, and untouched by the cold and frosty winds of the scholar's art."

The excessive freedom of growth enjoyed by the Chinese novel accounts for its popular appeal, but lack of critical, scholarly direction may be responsible for some of its deficiencies…. The traditional Chinese novel, like many of the inferior English novels of the late Neo-Classical period, was seldom planned from beginning to end: it just grew and grew with incident added to incident, necessitating the introduction of one new character after another. (p. 441)

Professional storytellers spun tales, recorded some, and delivered them to available audiences. Legends, myths, romance, intrigue, and war formed the framework of their narratives. Characters were etched in. Fascinating individuals were created and made to run the gamut of various experiences. Their motivation was wholly external; they lacked interior causation….

Psychological penetration of character and detailed analyses were not considered important by the Oriental teller of tales. Their audience did not expect it, and the storyteller was most concerned with pleasing his audience….

The professional storyteller would usually forego anything that did not embellish the framework of his tale, while yet adding certain touches and flourishes in his characterization in order to make each major character more appealing and unique. As for plot development, the author was omniscient, never allowing his presence to intrude upon the narrative. Above all, he desired "tse ran"—that is, a naturalness, a flexibility, a seemingly effortless presentation of material. The Chinese novelist sought to be, in Pearl Buck's words, "wholly at the command of the material flowing through him." (p. 442)

Pearl Buck may be somewhat too melodramatic and pollyannish for some readers and too didactic and sociallyminded for others, yet most readers are forced to agree that several of her novels are minor masterpieces. Mainly because she is an "insider" rather than an "outsider" in the writing of her Chinese fiction, her Oriental characters seem real and her settings authentic. (p. 443)

The Chinese reality in her fiction cannot be over-emphasized. Without it, she would be just another Western writer exploiting Oriental themes in her books. With it, her narratives, her characters, her locales are so completely Chinese that the reader feels convinced he is experiencing life in ancient China. For literary critics, this Chinese reality is important only if it is fictionalized successfully by a novelist. The sights, the smells, the joys and the sorrows of the Chinese people, their customs, their traditions—all give reality to Pearl Buck's fiction and delight to her devotees.

Of the more than 250 Western novelists who have used China as backdrop, she is quantitatively and qualitatively the most outstanding….

The Good Earth is undisputably Pearl Buck's best Chinese novel and one of her outstanding literary achievements. (p. 444)

Possibly The Good Earth should be criticized because of poor characterization or faulty style. Characterization, after all, is an acid test for any novelist; yet Pearl Buck's characters, with the exceptions of a few subsidiary ones in her minor works, have been ingeniously created, carefully differentiated, and effectively dramatized in all sorts of conflicts. Her characters are embodied with both good and bad—but always credible—human qualities. True to life, they are neither idealized nor intrinsically evil. They behave the way they do not because they are moved in puppet-like fashion by their literary creator; their actions are a consequence of their inner nature reacting to and upon external forces. Wang Lung and his family are as real as any flesh and blood individuals who have ever lived in China. (p. 447)

As for Pearl Buck's style, it has been designated biblical by some critics, Chinese by others. A biblical flavor can be found in her easy-flowing, dignified, and graceful narratives mainly because of her frequent use of conjunctive elements to link simple sentences. The Testament has undoubtedly had some influence upon her writing, but she once commented that her style "is not biblical, it is Chinese." What she meant by her Chinese style she made clear by stating, "When I wrote in China of Chinese things about Chinese, I used the Chinese tongue…. The consequence is that when … writing about Chinese people the story spins itself in my mind entirely in the Chinese idioms, and I literally translate as I go."

The more important question is not whether Mrs. Buck's style is biblical or Chinese, but whether it is effective. That her Chinese style is appropriate for her Chinese novels has been acknowledged by most critics. They concur that her style is an excellent vehicle for rich and genuine sentiments expressed in poignant terms. Her prose is unmarked by labored passages and rhetorical flourishes: it is always clear and central to her characterization. (p. 448)

Pearl Buck's supreme success with The Good Earth has given critics the opportunity to measure all her other novels against this one work. Virtually everything else she has written has been measured against her magnum opus—and usually found wanting. In one way, The Good Earth was written too early in her career, for she has not been able to surpass this brilliant achievement with any of the more than fifty books that have followed. Regrettably, the more facility she displayed in plotting, character creation, invention of incident, and dialogue after writing The Good Earth the less impression her books seemed to make upon contemporary critics, most of whom were caught up with such avantgarde considerations as archetypes, symbolism, the subconscious, the unconscious, interior monologues, and stream-of-consciousness techniques to be interested in the quintessential element of the novel—its narrative quality.

Experimentation in the novel, however, has just about come to an end. When it ultimately does, Pearl Buck's reputation is bound to grow. After being virtually ignored for so many years by critics, she will be "rediscovered." When this general reevaluation does take place, it will undoubtedly become increasingly proper to say that her Oriental novels display a full measure of greatness.

What can be definitely posited now is that of all she has written, her best works are her Chinese novels. According to their overall quality they should be ranked after The Good Earth as Sons, Imperial Woman, Mothers, The Patriot, East Wind: West Wind, and Dragon Seed. Mainly because they conform to the norms of Chinese fiction, these novels are her very best. In writing them she has tried to entertain and delight, to reach a large audience, to follow the traditional Chinese practice of emphasizing event and characterization. It is likewise true that conformation to the norms of traditional Chinese fiction is responsible for some of the shortcomings American critics detect in her work, although it may be somewhat uncritical of them to judge her fictional efforts according to artistic dogmas and aesthetic criteria she herself does not accept or attempt to emulate.

A good critic, Pearl Buck once wrote, judged a writer "on how well he had accomplished the goal he had set for himself". It is plainly obvious that her goal has been to model her novels on the plan of the orthodox Chinese novel, that she always wanted to be a storyteller, not a literary innovator extending the bounds of the novel. (pp. 448-49)

G. A. Cevasco, "Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel," in Asian Studies, Vol. V, No. 3, December, 1967, pp. 437-50.

Dody Weston Thompson

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[Why was the response to Pearl Buck's early works so sweeping when they were so far from the literary vanguard?] Because they spoke to the poverty and uncertainty of the times. There hovered over them the certitudes of an inner-directed and Victorian spirit with a large and generous view of life, which could present values rather than seek them in a troubled world. In those Depression years The Good Earth's vivid and compassionate picture of the bare subsistence level of the Chinese masses fed the fires of protest against social injustice, while at the same time offering the satisfactions of a rags-to-riches tale. The rise of Wang Lung and his wife O-lan, by dogged thrift and industry, from starvation in a drought year to a position of wealth and the establishment of a family dynasty is a success story par excellence in which the underdog wins against all the odds of man and nature…. (pp. 90-1)

There were other aspects of The Good Earth and The Mother that must have been especially appealing to those times. To an East wracked by social revolution, and a West whose moral and economic fabric increasingly gave way, the strong, dignified, and uncomplex narratives of the immemorial Chinese peasant life, told with a simplicity that could be translated readily and understood anywhere, stressed the eternal verities of soil and season, of the fruit of the earth and the womb, the quintessential human facts of birth, love, laughter, sorrow, death. The Good Earth—how meaningful a title to all those dispossessed by want in cities. How comforting, in the midst of devastating material and spiritual flux, to glimpse stability, to be so convincingly reminded of life's perpetual self-renewal, the ever returning spring after winter in the changeless cycle of the earth's turning. It was the expression of a peculiarly Eastern view, its symbol the cycle, the circle, its source in conceptions of karma and reincarnation. Certainly the cyclic form appears over and over in Pearl Buck's novels of the thirties. (pp. 90-1)

If there was any public and critical consensus before her Nobel award (she was ignored by some of the highbrow critics from first to last), it was typified by the words of J. Donald Adams of the New York Times, who wrote, "She has rendered the life of a people deeply alien from ourselves in terms of universal human values." (p. 93)

The modern reader, in fact, is struck by a curious paradox in this regard: it is exactly how un-foreign these novels seem. Moving in a vivid world of Chinese custom, in a spiritual landscape seen always understandingly through Chinese eyes, Pearl Buck's major characters of that period were, nevertheless, so "universal," so recognizable anywhere, as to seem only incidentally "Chinese." One gets no real sense in these novels of an ethos that was in actuality profoundly different from the West. Nowhere, for example, is it shown what constitutes a Taoist, Buddhist or Confucian, their distinctions and similarities, or their considerable distances from European thought (although some pervasive aspects of their philosophies affected her writing). Pearl Buck was not interested in stressing differences. Out of intense conviction she aimed, unconsciously in these first books perhaps, to demonstrate similarity in order to promote understanding, to allow the West to cross the gap—or rather to show there was no human gap at all, only a factitious cultural one. (pp. 93-4)

The biographies [of Pearl Buck's parents] were powerful considerations in swinging the award that year, and Selma Lagerlöf personally told Pearl Buck that they were the decisive factor in her own favorable vote.

Of greater significance in explaining the Swedish response, however, was Pearl Buck's transmutation of her religious heritage into a lively egalitarianism that might be said to parallel the Swedish translation of its historically intense religiosity into the most advanced social legislation of the Western democracies. Each was putting the Christian ethic into action. If O'Neill sought God, Pearl Buck accepted Him and went on to do good works. Neutralist Sweden responded heartily to this apolitical, supra-national idealist, whose dual cultural tradition and subsequent world-wide travel had given her an objectivity of vision beyond the usual national myopias, who had widely proclaimed in print her antitotalitarian principles…. (pp. 95-6)

No doubt the committee members felt that in Pearl Buck they had found a happy combination of art and idealism; and they were, after all, only following the dictum laid down for them; but the literary world, whose initial enthusiasm for The Good Earth had cooled under the uneven quality of the following works, was under no such constraint. The critics insisted on an assessment by standards of literary excellence alone and continued to grumble at the choice. They were thinking, of course, in terms of the twentieth century, in terms of Joyce, Eliot, and Kafka, while Pearl Buck's style and spirit alike stayed firmly planted in other times and other worlds, whose influences acted to confound the aesthetics by which the West was judging her…. [Her] manner was realism, strung out along the straightforward chronology of a presumed objective time. Her work contained neither experiment with form nor investigation of the psyche: one could read it, safely unaware that it had been written in the era ushered in by Freud. Her leading characters were everyman—and everywoman—whose various characteristics, displayed serially in time, represented not so much the inevitable responses of a unique individual as typical and generalized human reactions in a given situation. Her minor characters were what the West had once called "humours," physical and temperamental types with the flatness natural to such creations.

The West, meantime, had been busily exchanging this horizontal novel form for a more vertical and static one of depth exploration…. (pp. 97-8)

But delineation in depth … was not Pearl Buck's mode. She was working in an idiom older even than the objective realism of the nineteenth-century West, one which had come to her by way of the folk tradition of the indigenous Chinese novel, where, as in all folk-telling, from Icelandic sagas to Homeric tales, from the Morte d'Arthur to the Shui-hu, character is given, not explained. (p. 99)

The foremost attribute of this Chinese folk tradition was, as might be expected, fast-moving action coupled with simplicity of style and vocabulary…. Furthermore, the portrayal of character had to be "by the character's own action and words rather than by the author's explanation." What an amount of European work would be excluded by such a condition, almost the whole of the modern novel and certainly all of Henry James. (pp. 100-01)

[It] seems that the frequent and accepted use in Chinese fiction of the anecdotal, the apparently fortuitous happening, coincidence, or any unexpected turn of the story, has to do with an age-old preoccupation of the Chinese mind with the chance aspect of events, as opposed to the emphasis the West places on causality….

All these influences bear directly on Pearl Buck's work. We note the strict authorial distance kept in most of her early Chinese novels. (p. 102)

To explain, however, is never to explain away. We may illuminate the forces in her working against a unified approach, but it is the question of that final lack that is important. For the trouble was not that Pearl Buck used an outdated Western novel form, modified by Chinese influences (or the other way about), but that she never mastered either form in its purity, nor succeeded in her efforts at a synthesis. She came closest in her pre-Nobel novels, and of these The Good Earth remains by far the best, in its proportions and in its unity of style and content. Both The Good Earth and The Mother have an emotional coherence lent by the passionate respect and admiration for the Chinese peasant that came pouring out when she sat down to write of them. (pp. 102-03)

But in the sequels to The Good Earth her technical deficiencies dominate. Sons has all the ingredients of a major tragic figure in the character of Wang Lung's son who becomes a smáll-time Chinese war lord…. But it is never realized…. A House Divided pursues Wang the Tiger's son through increasingly complex modern urban environments (including the United States and Shanghai), following the unfolding of his mind as it comes to grips with China's revolution and the modern world in general. But the simplified style of the peasant epics, though still employed, is no longer fitting; the "show, not tell" dictate of the Chinese novelists is left behind, yet without the benefits that modern Western techniques would have conferred in the exploration of inner growth; and the formless sprawl of this novel, while perhaps true to life, needed the shaping of an artist's control to carry the conviction of truth that is the only essential for the reader. (pp. 103-04)

[Pearl Buck] seemed gradually to cease caring about development of the novel as an expressive art form and to pursue more and more its uses as propaganda, making less and less distinction between her aesthetic and her "missionary" aims. Many of her later novels became largely vehicles for her humanitarian themes. She was her father's daughter; there was something of the sermon or the tract about them: story was the mere sugar-coating to make the medicine go down. (p. 106)

There seems to be no real quarrel with the low critical estimation of the main body of her work. Pearl Buck wrote in careless haste (her books now total over seventy) with predictable results. A good tale well told has always been a solace and a satisfaction to mankind. But even when the dross settles from her prodigious and uneven output, it will be difficult to redress the balance of her later books, which display at one time or another, and sometimes all at once, careless lack of control of point of view, cliché characters, a sentimental Pollyannaism, a scarcely veiled didacticism, and a lack of depth despite a breadth of theme. (p. 108)

Pearl Buck's fiction is indeed too simple for adults in our effete and complex age. For when the means are crude, illusion, on which all realistic art depends, collapses. Such work is then convincing only to the young, which is to say the unsophisticated of any age, who are credulous, and, like all primitive beings, more open to illusion than the worldly. Only a Candide can believe Pangloss, and events teach him not to. Now that her work is no longer a revelation of the Orient (though this quality gives it some lasting historical value), it is read not so much by all the people as by the young…. [Everywhere] it is the idealist, one whose youthful hopefulness has not been eroded by experience. He can share her essential optimism, her belief that human nature is basically good and the world perfectible by rational means. (pp. 108-09)

Nevertheless, a contemporary evaluation depends on whether Pearl Buck is to be judged as an artist or humanitarian, and as always that decision turns on the bias of the commentator. Thus Kenneth Tynan, reviewing in 1959 her play A Desert Incident, which debated the degree to which scientists are morally responsible for the use to which their knowledge is put, first tore the piece to shreds on aesthetic grounds, but then supported the author because of her thesis and conclusions. "I realize that considerations like these are not supposed to affect the judgment of a theater critic," Mr. Tynan concluded, "yet she chose the most important subject in the world, and though she handled it vaguely and emotionally, she came down on the side of life…. Because of her choice and her commitment, I am prepared to forgive Miss Buck a good deal." (pp. 109-10)

Dody Weston Thompson, "Pearl Buck," in American Winners of the Nobel Literary Prize, edited by Warren G. French and Walter E. Kidd (copyright © 1968 by the University of Oklahoma Press), University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, pp. 85-110.

Valentine Cunningham

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Like many another woman writer excessively drawn to the kind (and unkind) hearts and coronets scene—or to its American counterpart—Pearl Sydenstricker Buck escaped downright badness only by a hairsbreadth…. Certainly, it's hard now to conceive Miss Buck trawling in a Nobel Prize—and for literature at that—even as a Buggin's Turn candidate in a lean year. [The Woman Who Was Changed, the] latest collection from under the belt of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation Inc.—only two of its tales have been published before—confirms once again a talent that's agreeable but markedly striated with flaws.

Five of these stories, for instance, enjoy happy arrangements at their endings. Emphatic endings are, of course, the formal prerogative of short stories. With so generally scanty a middle to go on with, even in a nouvelle-length piece like Miss Buck's title story, short fictions inevitably press rather hard on the ending they have chosen so rapidly to press on to. But plots offering you gladness as a consolation prize for the briskness of the dash you have just been made to put in are no part of the form's necessities. On the contrary, the better short stories frequently end with just the sort of tougher wryness that Miss Buck cannot keep up, with the reversals, puzzles and shock that she makes it her finales' business to phase out.

[In the title story, her] ur-feminist writer, for example, who quits a greyly enclosing bank-manager spouse for isolated freedom and writing, finds at the end a charming Swede who gives her … light and air, as well as the writing space she's craved…. Repeated instances of this final upbeat seem to seal Miss Buck's endings into the cosier nooks of Home Chat.

Far toughter than these wistfully soggy endings, however, are the frequent manifestations of Miss Buck's indignation over the way a male world commonly treats women and girls…. [There] is no denying the power with which she can organize a quite raw anger. In "If It Must Be So" a woman whose husband has not worked since the depression and who must keep her job as a waitress and cannot possibly afford more children, winkles an illegal abortion out of a front-street doctor, shocked into helpful action by his own daughter's confession of horrid dealings with backstreet aborters. The readers of Home Chat are just the sort of women—the doctor's wife and mother-in-law are particularly trite in their moralizings—the story is pointfully aimed at. And yet, after all, this tale ends as another sob-jerker, as our doctor's daughter Looks Up Again At Her Daddy With the Old Pride in Her Eyes.

The disappointment is as great in the title story. For much of its length this is as nice an articulation of the uprising married woman theme as one can find anywhere. The narrative is shrewdly detailed…. The writing is frequently stylish, rising on occasion to a quite Jamesian irony. And the way Virginia Woolf's point about letters being "the unpublished works of women" is expanded as part of Eleanor's awakening is deft as could be: married, she missed writing all those letters to her fiancé; their absence compelled her into fiction. And yet, what Pearl Buck rewards Eleanor with is a Swede-packing future up mountains on cream-coloured ponies.

Valentine Cunningham, "A Novelist and Her Knitting," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission). No. 4017, March 21, 1980, p. 326.

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