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

Henry Seidel Canby

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

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 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...

(The entire section is 644 words.)

Walter G. Langlois

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 486 words.)

G. A. Cevasco

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1457 words.)

Dody Weston Thompson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

(The entire section is 1990 words.)

Valentine Cunningham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 576 words.)