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...
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