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Buck was a prolific author who wrote over one hundred works during her lifetime and enjoyed great popularity with readers. The winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature, Buck helped to introduce American readers to Asian culture.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Living in China
Pearl S. Buck was born in 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia, but she was raised by missionary parents in Chinkiang, China. She was privately educated and learned to speak Chinese before English. in 1900, the family fled to Shanghai during the Boxer Rebellion, an uprising of Chinese peasants who believed that foreigners were taking advantage of their country. The family returned to Chinkiang two years later, and Buck attended boarding school in Shanghai from 1907 to 1909. At the age of seventeen, she traveled to the United States in order to attend Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynch-burg, Virginia, and returned to Chinkiang upon graduation in 1914.
In 1917, she married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist who had come to China to work on methods of applying statistical analysis to improve Chinese farming. The couple settled first in Nanhsuchou and then moved to Nanking in 1919 when Lossing Buck was offered a position at Nanking University. Beginning in 1921, Buck taught English literature at the University of Nanking.
Unhappiness in Personal Life
On March 4, 1920, Buck gave birth to a daughter, Caroline Grace, who suffered from the metabolic disease phenylketonuria (PKU), which had not at that time been diagnosed and which profoundly affected her mental development. Her daughter’s condition was a lifelong source of grief, shame, and guilt for Buck. In addition, the discovery and removal of a uterine tumor in July 1920 necessitated a hysterectomy. Buck was also unhappy that Lossing Buck was absorbed in his work and distanced himself emotionally from her and from Carol, in a way that echoed her father’s treatment of her mother. The marriage, which seemed to begin happily, soon disintegrated, though it ultimately lasted for seventeen years.
Buck’s mother died in 1921. To comfort herself, Buck began writing her mother’s biography as a private memorial to be shared with family members. Years later, this book became The Exile, which was one of Buck’s most successful books. In 1924 the Bucks returned to America so that both of them could enter graduate school at Cornell University and so that they could have Carol’s mental disability properly assessed. At Christmas time they adopted a baby girl, Janice.
Tumult and Success in China
Buck shortly resumed her life in Nanking, but the political situation in China was extremely unstable. In March 1927, the Nanking Incident, a violent two days of bloodshed and looting aimed particularly at foreigners, forced the Bucks and other family members to flee Nanking after a terrifying day of hiding in the home of one of their servants. They retreated to the Japanese town of Unzen with little more than their lives and some clothing; the losses included the manuscript of Buck’s first novel, though Lossing Buck managed to save the survey manuscript on which he was working. They were able to return to China in October 1927, settling in Shanghai; Lossing Buck then returned to Nanking, and Buck and the children joined him in July 1928.
During that time, Buck began her writing career. After her story ”A Chinese Woman Speaks” appeared in two installments in Asia in 1926, she began work on a novel. Her first novel, East Wind: West Wind, was issued in the United States in 1930. Her second novel, The Good Earth, was awarded the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction as the best novel of the year. Her first collection of short stories, The First Wife, and Other Stories, was published in 1933.
Buck’s father died in 1931, and since he could no longer be harmed by the unflattering portrait of him in the work, Buck decided she could publish her biography of her mother. The Exile was released in 1936 and was such a success that she quickly produced the sequel, Fighting Angel, in which Buck depicts her father’s religious zeal, which caused him to neglect his wife and family, and his misogyny; she also chronicles the loneliness and disillusionment of her mother, who was isolated from everything familiar and suffered the losses of her children, her own illnesses, and her husband’s disdain.
Movement Away from Fiction
Buck moved to Pennsylvania in 1934, beginning permanent residence in the United States. In 1938 she became the first American woman awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which was bestowed in honor of her works as a whole—though special mention was made of the biographies of her mother and father. Despite this honor, her literary reputation began slipping steadily in the years and decades that followed.
Buck suspected public interest in stories about China would begin to wane, and she felt she should start writing stories set in America. From the late 1930s, Buck’s priorities began to shift away from writing fiction and toward humanitarian and philanthropic activities. Buck’s activism was such that the FBI had begun keeping a file on her in 1937, when she expressed her support for the Spanish Loyalists and for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. During World War II, her support for racial equality escalated, as did FBI interest in her.
Throughout her life, Buck continued to receive awards and honors, more for her philanthropic work than for her writing. Although her literary reputation waned steadily throughout her later life, she wrote profusely until her death in 1973, sometimes publishing several books in a single year.
Works in Literary Context
Although Buck is probably best remembered for her fiction, her best work may have been her nonfiction. Peter J. Conn, one of her biographers, asserts that her fiction was hobbled by the way she ”used her novels as political and educational instruments, exchanging the challenges of novelistic art for the easier satisfactions of melodrama, propaganda, and protest.” Nevertheless, he argues that ”her achievements as a writer remain considerable.” She was one of the most multicultural and inter disciplinary writers of her generation, and her impact on literature and cultural studies is now being increasingly appreciated.
Among these achievements, her most noteworthy and best remembered is the contribution she made to the understanding of Asian culture— particularly Chinese life—by the Western world. As Conn writes, ”For two generations of Americans, Buck invented China.” Critics widely praised Buck’s portrayal and interpretation of life in Asia, especially her representation of conflicts arising from oppression, political upheaval, and the shock of Westernization. Some commentators, such as Malcolm Cowley, contend that her greatest skill was the ability to reveal the common bond shared by humanity irrespective of race or culture:
She has a truly extraordinary gift for presenting the Chinese, not as quaint and illogical, yellow-skinned, exotic devil-dolls, but as human beings merely, animated by motives we can always understand even when the background is strange and topsy-turvy.
A Controversial Legacy
Buck’s literary legacy, much like the 1938 Nobel Prize, is a subject of controversy and disagreement. Detractors suggest that humanistic preoccupations dominated Buck’s works as her career progressed, introducing sentimental, didactic, and propagandistic qualities that overshadowed her literary artistry and that her writing was hampered by a dearth of symbolism, myth, and technical experimentation. Others con tend that Buck should be remembered as the author of sympathetic yet realistic depictions that relate—in an engaging, story-telling manner—the underlying commonality of human experience and that her critical reputation was most significantly harmed by her prolific output and best-seller status, two characteristics that are often seen as incompatible with literary merit.
Works in Critical Context
Buck was an immensely popular writer during her life time, but she was the subject of much critical derision, and after an early rise, she suffered from a steady decline in her literary reputation. The Good Earth, along with the 1936 biographies of her parents, established Buck’s early literary reputation and served as the basis of comparison for her later works, which critics viewed as generally unimpressive with a few exceptions such as The Patriot (1939), a study that contrasts the national character of the Chinese and Japanese people, and The Living Reed (1963), a history of a Korean family.
The Good Earth
Buck’s second novel, The Good Earth, was a tremendous success upon its publication. As Buck’s biographer, Peter Conn, noted, ”Every leading newspaper and magazine gave the book a major notice, and almost all the reviews were ecstatic.” The Good Earth would not only become the best-selling book of both 1931 and 1932, it brought fame and praise to Buck. As one Bookman reviewer observed:
The strange power of a western woman to make an alien civilization seem as casual, as close, as the happenings of the morning is surprising; but it is less amazing than her power to illuminate the des tiny of man as it is in all countries and at all times by quietly telling the story of one poor Wang Lung.
Critics have offered several reasons for the tremendous popularity of The Good Earth. Buck has been praised frequently for creating recognizable, even familiar characters with universal concerns, despite a setting and race that were previously alien to Western readers. Most Americans in 1931 knew little about China, and what they did know was clouded with clichés of the ”heathen Chinese” whose cultural differences were regarded with disdain. Buck’s depictions of Chinese life, drawn from her own experiences and observations, presented a vivid and sympathetic portrait. Conn also observes that ”Underneath its alien details, the novel is a story of the land, a rather familiar American genre,” and Depression-era audiences could especially relate to the struggles of farmers. In addition, the novel, like others of the period, ”celebrated the traditional American virtue of simplicity.”
Controversy over the Nobel Prize
When Pearl S. Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, she became only the third American and the first American woman to do so. She also became a figure of controversy. The citation that accompanied the award praised the ”rich and generous epic descriptions of Chinese peasant life” in Buck’s novels and also singled out The Exile (1936) and Fighting Angel: Portrait of A Soul (1936) as “masterpieces.” Her detractors, however, felt the Swedish Academy had shown poor judgment in selecting Buck over other writers, such as Theodore Dreiser, whose work they considered of superior literary quality. The prevailing attitude in literary circles was one of hostility about the award.
Among the charges leveled at Buck by her detractors was that her prose style was facile, clumsy, and cliched. Buck’s selection tainted the reputation of the prize in some literary circles. Robert Frost was quoted as saying, ”If she can get it anybody can.” In 1950, William Faulkner wrote in a letter about the possibility of his own nomination: ”I don’t want it. I had rather be in the same pigeon hole with Dreiser and Sherwood Anderson, than with Sinclair Lewis and Mrs. Chinahand Buck.” Others defended her, however, as the anonymous reviewer for Time did, stating, ”The influence of her writing far transcends its importance as literature.
Critical and public interest in Buck s writing has been renewed somewhat by centennial celebrations in 1992, Conn’s biography in 1996, and the re-emergence of The Good Earth as talk-show host Oprah Winfrey’s book club selection for the fall of2004. Jane M. Rabb, in her analysis of the reasons for Buck s critical neglect among literary and feminist scholars, notes, ”The current academic enthusiasm for the multicultural and the interdisciplinary should revive interest in the best works of Buck, who is nothing if not multicultural and interdisciplinary. Conn concludes that Buck s ”best work, by and large, was probably her nonfiction.” Nevertheless, he argues that ”her achievements as a writer remain considerable—surely more notable than her virtually complete neglect by scholars and critics would imply.
- Block, Irvin. The Lives of Pearl Buck: A Tale of China and America. New York: Crowell, 1973.
- Conn, Peter J. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
- Doyle, Paul A. Pearl S. Buck, revised edition. New York: Twayne, 1980.
- Gao, Xiongya. Pearl Buck’s Chinese Women Characters. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2000.
- Harris, Theodore F. Pearl S. Buck: A Biography, two volumes. New York: John Day, 1969, 1971.
- Liao, Kang. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Bridge Across the Pacific. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
- Rizzon, Beverly. Pearl S. Buck: The Final Chapter. Palm Springs, Calif.: ETC, 1989.
- Sherk, Warren. Pearl S. Buck: Good Earth Mother. Philomath, Ore.: Drift Creek Press, 1992.
- Spencer, Cornelia. The Exile’s Daughter: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck. New York: Coward-McCann, 1944.
- Stirling, Nora. Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict. Piscataway, N.J.: New Century, 1983.
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