Analysis

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Between the publication of The Good Earth  in 1931, and her death in 1973, Pearl S. Buck was one of the best-known women in the world. Her books and her humanitarian activities brought her both wide acclaim and occasional hostility. Even as she was regularly singled out as one of...

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Between the publication of The Good Earth in 1931, and her death in 1973, Pearl S. Buck was one of the best-known women in the world. Her books and her humanitarian activities brought her both wide acclaim and occasional hostility. Even as she was regularly singled out as one of the most admired women in the United States, her FBI file grew thicker, support of international cooperation and racial equality being, in the eyes of J. Edgar Hoover, subversive activities. Yet by 1992, the centennial of her birth, she had almost faded from the public memory, except as the author of one novel often assigned in high school English classes. Peter Conn’s fine book, at once scholarly and readable, should do much to awaken awareness of her significant place in twentieth century American history.

Conn subtitles his work a “cultural biography,” explaining that his goal is “to situate Pearl Buck’s career in the many contexts that are needed to understand her development and her significance.” Drawing on his academic training in American Studies, he sets the events of her life against a rich background of Chinese and American political and social history. The impressive range of his research can be seen in the extensive notes, which fill almost seventy pages.

Central to any understanding of Pearl Buck, Conn argues, is her background as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. Although she was born in her parents’ home state of West Virginia, she spent almost all of her first forty years in China, speaking and reading Chinese as fluently as English. Her future was indelibly shaped by her parents, the subjects of two of her finest books. The Exile recounts the life of her idealistic and deeply unhappy mother, Caroline Stulting Sydenstricker, while Fighting Angel tells the story of her father Absalom Sydenstricker, a single-minded fanatic, who neglected his own family to save “heathen” souls.

As a young woman Pearl did not challenge her father’s theology, but Conn suggests that she built up considerable resentment of his callous treatment of his wife and children, his lack of appreciation of the culture of the Chinese, and his condescension to women. She loved her mother deeply and shared her view that ministering to the physical needs of their Chinese neighbors was far more effective than preaching to them. From her mother she also derived a highly idealized vision of the United States as a haven of justice and morality.

Pearl (called by her first name throughout the book) left China to attend Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia and might have chosen a very different path for her life had her mother’s serious illness not drawn her back to China after her graduation in 1914. The next decade was to be critical in the shaping of Pearl S. Buck the author. She began teaching under the auspices of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions and added the role of missionary wife in 1917, when she married John Lossing Buck, a specialist in Chinese agricultural practices. The marriage was not a success, but it was by accompanying Lossing on his research trips that she came to know the life of the Chinese farm families who would populate her best works.

Much in her early life pushed her toward a career as a writer. She was a voracious reader in both English and Chinese. She was an avid student of the traditional Chinese novels, which she valued because they “provide a more revealing portrait of China’s ordinary men and women than the abstract writings of philosophers can offer.” Her sense that fiction should speak to ordinary people contributed much to the wide appeal of her own work.

In Conn’s view, however, the greatest impetus for her writing career came from a pragmatic need: to provide for her daughter Carol, who was born in 1921 with a metabolic disorder that caused profound mental retardation. After several years of anxiety and futile hope, she faced the fact that her daughter’s condition would not improve, and she began to make plans for her lifetime care. Lossing’s apparent indifference to Pearl’s grief and Carol’s condition produced rifts in the already-shaky marriage. Political upheavals in China, where Chiang Kai-shek was fighting for control, made it advisable that she find a home for Carol in the United States.

In 1929 Pearl made the wrenching decision to place Carol at the Vineland Training Center in New Jersey. She borrowed two thousand dollars, payment for the first two years, from the Presbyterian Mission Board, promising to write a children’s story in return. Fortuitously, in the same year the John Day Company accepted her first novel, East Wind, West Wind (1930). Conn notes that the publisher, Richard Walsh, cast the deciding vote for publication “not because he thought East Wind, West Wind was very good, but because he believed her next novel would be better.” His judgment was affirmed by the phenomenal success of The Good Earth a year later. Walsh was to guide Pearl’s literary career for the rest of his active life, first as her publisher, then, after 1935, as her second husband.

Pearl’s life in China ended, paradoxically, soon after she became its best-known portraitist in Europe and America. The end of her marriage and impending war in China sent her back to her native country in 1934. Yet in many respects China would remain a primary focus of her life. Conn suggests that she, like her mother, was in the end an exile, a person without a true homeland.

Soon after her return to the United States, she created a national furor by attacking the American missionary enterprise for its “indifference, narrow-mindedness, and racism.” Yet she was to prove herself as impassioned and single-minded a missionary on behalf of her own causes as her father was for his. Conn notes, “Pearl’s progressive politics had been shaped, inadvertently, by Carie’s tales of America. Pearl would spend the rest of her adult life trying to force America to live up to its own promises, to become the country Carie had told her about when she was a girl. Her exertions would do belated honor to her mother’s memory.” She would work tirelessly for the next three decades to improve race relations, promote American understanding of Asia, advocate meaningful work for women, and improve the lives of children.

As Japan overran China in the late 1930’s, her efforts centered on help for her first homeland. Her books and film versions of them made the Chinese people real for American readers. Through Asia magazine and the East and West Association she and Walsh tried “’to help ordinary people on one side of the world to know and understand ordinary people on the other side.’” They were also active in China relief organizations and supported efforts to repeal the Chinese exclusion laws in the early 1940’s. Although Asia and The East and West Association did not survive into the 1960’s, Pearl continued her efforts to promote international understanding through such novels as The Living Reed (1963), set in Korea, and The Three Daughters of Madame Liang(1969), a picture of life in Communist China, which she knew only secondhand. When President Richard Nixon announced plans to visit China in 1972, she hoped to be able to accompany him, but her longtime opposition to the Communist regime made her persona non grata, and she was refused a visa.

Her early life in China also spurred her efforts to promote racial equality in the United States. She had more than once been in mortal danger because of the color of her skin, and she was convinced that her country could not call itself a true democracy so long as it practiced racial discrimination. She and Eleanor Roosevelt became friends and colleagues in their efforts to improve conditions for non-whites.

Pearl was also far ahead of her time in her attention to women’s issues. Her novel This Proud Heart (1938), deals with the personal struggles of a woman sculptor, a semi- autobiographical figure. Conn writes that her collection of essays, Of Men and Women (1941), “speaks with an eloquent and still-relevant voice in the continuing debate over women’s place in American society.” It comes as no surprise that she offered praise and support to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963). Friedan’s trapped middle class housewives are prefigured in Buck’s “Gunpowder Women,” in danger of exploding without outlets for their talent and strength. Conn sees Buck’s feminism as an inevitable outgrowth of her father’s misogyny, her mother’s frustration, and her own belief that all human beings need meaningful work to do.

In the postwar years, as interest in Asia waned and McCarthyism cast suspicion on internationalists, Pearl turned her attention to new issues. In 1950, she acknowledged publicly for the first time that she was the mother of a handicapped child. The Child Who Never Grew (1950) expresses the anguish of a parent coming to terms with her child’s limitations. It aroused an enormous response. In no small measure because of her openness, American attitudes began to change. Parents would no longer feel the need, as she had, to hide their retarded children out of a sense of shame or guilt.

Her commitment to children, racial harmony, and Asia came together in her most lasting legacy, two organizations that still carry on her work: Welcome House, an adoption agency founded to find homes for mixed-race children, and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which meets the needs of Asian children fathered by Americans. It was, in fact, the first of these that led indirectly to the writing of this book, as Conn explains in his final chapter. His own acquaintance with Pearl Buck’s work began with his adoption of a Korean daughter through Welcome House.

While Conn’s major focus is on Pearl Buck’s involvement in significant political and cultural movements, he also provides a balanced appraisal of her literary career and examines the causes of her rejection by the literary establishment. He suggests that she was to some extent a victim of her success, especially winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. She herself responded to the award with astonishment, and critics and other writers concurred. Conn notes, “Pearl’s Asian subjects, her prose style, her gender, and her tremendous popularity offended virtually every one of the constituencies that divided up the literary 1930’s. Marxists, Agrarians, Chicago formalists, New York intellectuals, literary nationalists, and New Humanists had little enough in common, but they could all agree that Pearl Buck had no place in any of their creeds and canons.” Conn acknowledges that she wrote too much and too quickly, particularly later in her life, when she was supporting Carol, her seven adopted children, and many humanitarian causes. But he argues persuasively that her best works are worthy of reconsideration.

Pearl Buck the public figure occupies most of this biography, but Conn provides glimpses of the complex, sometimes difficult, private woman as well. Her grief over Carol and her sense of failure as a mother acted as powerful forces in her life. Her need to compensate led her to adopt a second daughter with Lossing Buck and six more children with Richard Walsh, several of mixed-race parentage. Yet Conn’s interviews with these children suggest that she was not able to establish close relationships with them.

Her relationships with men were problematic as well. Conn discusses her affair with a Chinese poet in the 1920’s, her apparently successful marriage to Richard Walsh, and her “frankly passionate” correspondence with William Ernest Hocking, a Harvard philosopher, in the early 1960’s when she was seventy and he, ninety. Conn passes quickly over the scandal- tinged final chapter in her life. Widowed and vulnerable to male flattery and attentiveness, she put her affairs and those of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation into the hands of Theodore Harris, whom she had hired to teach dancing to her children. When, in 1969, Philadelphia magazine published an exposé of his mismanagement of Foundation funds, Pearl defended him vigorously and moved with him to Vermont. There she remained, partially estranged from her family, until her death in 1973.

Conn states in his epilogue, “I want nothing less than to force the rewriting of American cultural history to include some acknowledgment of Pearl Buck’s life and work.” His richly detailed and informative book should do much to encourage the reassessment of the life of this remarkable woman.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, October 15, 1996, p. 397.

The Chronicle of Higher Education. November 1, 1996, p. A16.

Library Journal. CXXI, September 1, 1996, p. 186.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 17, 1996, p. 4.

The Nation. CCLXIII, December 16, 1996, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, November 17, 1996, p. 13.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIII, July 22, 1996, p. 218.

The Washington Post. November 8, 1996, p. D2.

Other Literary Forms

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Pearl S. Buck’s reputation rests primarily on her novels about China, most notably The Good Earth (1931), and on her biographical and autobiographical writings. In awarding her the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, the selection committee singled out for special praise The Exile (1936) and Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul (1936), her biographies of her missionary parents. She also wrote a number of essays, plays, and children’s books and translated a classic Chinese novel.

Achievements

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Pearl S.Buck’s writings have indelibly shaped many Western readers’ images of the Far East and especially of China, where she spent the first half of her life. Her portrayal of the life of the Chinese peasants in The Good Earth won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and was a major factor in making her the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Buck’s best work provides a moving, realistic portrayal of her characters in their struggles to survive in the midst of natural disasters and social turmoil. Even when her fiction is slick and sentimental, she provides her readers with provocative themes to consider. In both her books and her extensive humanitarian activities, her major concern was to improve understanding among those of different sexes, ages, races, and nationalities.

Other literary forms

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An overwhelmingly prolific writer, Pearl S. Buck wrote short stories, juvenile fiction and nonfiction, pamphlets, magazine articles, literary histories, biographies, plays (including a musical), educational works, an Asian cookbook, and a variety of books on America, democracy, Adolf Hitler and Germany, Japan, China, Russia, the mentally retarded, the sexes, and the Kennedy women. In addition, she translated Shi Naian’s centuries-old work Shuihu zhuan (All Men Are Brothers, 1933) and edited a book of Asian fairy tales, several Christmas books, and a book of Chinese woodcuts.

Aside from The Good Earth, Buck’s finest works are her biographies of her parents, The Exile (1936) and Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul (1936). The Exile portrays the unhappy and frustrating life of her mother, a missionary wife. Fighting Angel, a better biography because of its greater objectivity, shows the ruthless missionary zeal of Buck’s father. Of her early articles, “Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?,” printed in Christian Century in 1933, created a furor in its charges that missionaries, and churches themselves, lacked sympathy for the people, worrying more about the numbers of converts than the needs of the flock.

Buck also delivered several important addresses that reveal much about her own literary philosophy, including her 1938 Nobel Prize lecture on the Chinese novel. Of Men and Women (first issued in 1941; reissued in 1971 with a new epilogue) is one of Buck’s most important nonfiction works because it gives her views of Chinese and American family life and her warnings about “gunpowder” American women who are educated for work yet lead idle and meaningless lives at home.

During World War II, Buck delivered many speeches and published articles, letters, and pamphlets on the Asian view of the war, particularly on colonial rule and imperialism. Her most famous war essay is probably “Tinder for Tomorrow.” Buck’s canon further includes personal works, such as the autobiographical My Several Worlds: A Personal Record (1954) and A Bridge for Passing (1962). Several of her plays were produced Off-Broadway or in summer stock.

Achievements

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Pearl S. Buck has been enormously successful with popular audiences, more so than with the literati. She is the most widely translated author in all of American literary history. In Denmark, for example, her popularity exceeded that of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck in the 1930’s, and in Sweden, ten of her books were translated between 1932 and 1940, more than those of any other American author. The Good Earth, her most famous work, has been translated into more than thirty languages (seven different translations into Chinese alone) and made into a play and a motion picture.

Buck’s early novels received much acclaim. The Good Earth was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1935, Buck was awarded the William Dean Howells Medal by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the finest work in American fiction from 1930 to 1935. In 1936, she was elected to membership in the National Institute of Arts and Letters. In 1938, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, the third American and the fourth woman to receive it, for her “rich and generous epic description of Chinese peasant life and masterpieces of biography.” The Good Earth, a staple of high school and undergraduate reading lists, is undoubtedly a masterpiece, and Buck’s missionary biographies, The Exile and Fighting Angel, though currently neglected, have merit in the depth of their analysis. Three other novels that Buck published in the 1930’s—Sons, The Mother, and The Patriot—are noted for particularly effective passages. In all her works, Buck evinces a deep humanity, and she did much to further American understanding of Asian culture.

Buck has not fared so well with the literary establishment. Critics of the 1930’s disdained her work because she was a woman, because her subjects were not “American,” and because they thought she did not deserve the Nobel Prize. Her success in writing best seller after best seller and her optimistic faith in progress and humanity have tended to irk later critics. Buck did, however, achieve success by her own standards. Her books have reached and touched middle-class American women, an enormous body of readers largely ignored by serious writers. Her innate storytelling ability does “please,” “amuse,” and “entertain” (her three criteria for good writing), but even the kindest of her admirers wish that she had written less, spending more time exploring the minds of her characters and polishing her work.

Discussion Topics

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In chapter 18 of Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, when Wang Lung and O-Lan have a confrontation, O-Lan reveals a side of herself heretofore hidden. Characterize her as she was before and after that juncture.

In chapter 16, Cuckoo describes the decline of the Hwang family. Discuss parallels with Wang Lung’s family once he becomes prosperous.

Which qualities of O-Lan and Lotus seem “typically” feminine or “typically” Chinese?

Discuss qualities of Romanticism and of naturalism evident in The Good Earth.

The Chinese government in the 1930’s objected to much that was portrayed in The Good Earth. Discuss what you think was objectionable and why.

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