Pearl S. Buck, Here Goes

In 1984, I had just returned from a year teaching in China. I was regretful at having returned to the US, (apparently) “stuck” in a marriage the wasn’t working and would ultimately end, kind of lost and looking for something meaningful and engaging. My thesis advisor and his wife came to our apartment in Denver for dinner and as we talked, he said, “You should write about Pearl S. Buck. No one is and someone should. You could do that project.”

Surrounding us were packing boxes. The Good-X had just gotten a job in San Diego and we were moving. Just a few weeks after we moved, I got a teaching job at a language school attached to San Diego State University and access to a wonderful library. I had a beautiful typewriter that could erase a whole LINE of type or just a word; even just a letter! State of the art!

I began the project. I remember a few things from that time — one, for a while my typewriter sat on the floor. Then, we found our real apartment and the dining room table (like now) held the writing tools. I remember a Saturday afternoon when I was really stuck under a mountain of research and not sure at all WHERE I was going with this or WHAT I was doing and I thought (and wrote in my little journal), “I don’t know. Maybe this is the way I write a book.” I realized that’s what I was doing.

So. now I’m typing it onto my MacBook, trying NOT to edit that 30 something woman who wrote it. Just because I’ve written a LOT since then and am older, doesn’t make me the god of this project. I want to let it unwind as she wrote it. There are better works about Pearl Buck out there now. She became interesting in the 1990s (my thesis advisor was right) both here in the US and in China, and China became a lot easier to visit. The have also restored a house that is believed to have been hers, though (as I read yesterday) there’s some skepticism about that. Anyway, she’s not in that house, not even the house in Pennsylvania that is a National Historic Monument. She’s in her books and in the great work still being done by the Pearl S. Buck Foundation helping children.

Here goes…

Most ninth grade students have heard of Pearl Buck. My mother’s generation, born in the early years of the twentieth century, smiles when you mention Pearl Buck’s name. My mother wrote in the margin of a book of selected quotes, “You can’t beat Pearl Buck.” The clerk in the used bookstore where I did most of my shopping for Pearl Buck’s novels back in the 1980s when I originally wrote this manuscript smiled whenever I purchased one. More than once she launched into a paeon of reminiscence about the time she read this or that novel as a young girl. 

Pearl Buck’s books are very readable, enjoyable, and difficult to put down. They show deep sensitivity into universal human feelings. the motives of the characters, their problems, and their lives are vividly depicted and true in all the languages into which the novels have been translated.

The Good Earth — Pearl Buck’s most famous novel and the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature — brought the lives of the Chinese peasant into average American homes, giving them an enduring interest and sympathy for China. 

As China opened its doors to the West, Americans have been eager to enter — as tourists, scientists, business people, and teachers. How much of this feeling of goodwill could be traced to Pearl Buck’s novels is certainly impossible to gauge, but it was one of her hopes as a writer to bring her two worlds together. 

In 1972/73 Pearl Buck was denied a visa to enter China. Already in her eighties, with little chance to appeal the decision of the Chinese Bureau of Foreign Affairs, she wrote an open letter to the Chinese people. During her life, the Chinese had access to her books, and she had every reason to believe that her letter would be read by someone in China:

…I shall never see you again, my beloved people of China. My feet will never again tread the hills, the villages, the cities I know so well. Yet, though this is true, it no longer matters…You formed me, you fed me, you shapped me as I am forever…All that China gave me, the friendships, the beauty, the excitement, the dangers — Yes, there were dangers to my very life and the lives of my family and we were saved by Chinese friends — all my experiences for many years, I have poured into my books. My books have taken me, and you with me, far and wide upon our earth. I am glad for your sake that I am the most widely translated author my country ever had, for that means that you, too, are also widely known. To the best of my ability, I have tried to speak for you…

As the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1938), Pearl Buck achieved a large share of fame and notoriety, but not as an author of “great” fiction. Critics generally agreed that The Good Earth was her first and last great novel, and that, perhaps, she should not have been given the Nobel Prize but that it should have gone to one of the more “deserving” contenders:

Outclassed by earlier prize winners like William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann… who have won it before her, Pearl Buck would be placed below such U.S. possibilities as Theodore Dreiser, Carl Sandburg, Van Wyck Brooks…but politics have always played a big part in the Nobel Prize selectios…in politically conscious Europe, Pearl Buck is famed for The Good Earth and for her pungent telling attacks on dictators, for her tribute to the common people of China. (Time Magazine, 11/21, 1938)

It may be that when evaluating literature in the rarified atmosphere of a graduate program, Pearl Buck doesn’t stack up against Mann, Yeats, or Shaw. Still, the eyes of the clerk in my used book store don’t mist over at the sight of The Magic Mountain (which I also bought in her store) or “Major Barbara.” I couldn’t imagine her — sensible, book-loving, well-educated woman that she was — rhapsodizing with a stranger over hours spent as a girl, beneath a tree, reading “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes.”

Critics of Pearl Buck’s Nobel Prize also contended that she wasn’t even really an American writer. After all, she had spent all but four years of her life, roughly 40 years, in China. 

I’m happy to make a sweeping generalization and admit that, in many respects, her novels don’t fit into the mainstream of fiction being written at that time in the West. Her influences were not the same as those of Western writers. Her work fits much better into the mainstream of work being written in China at that time. She claimed the same herself, writing that except for an acknowledged “debt to Dickens,” her novels rely more on the traditions of Chinese fiction. In them one sees the influence of the traveling storyteller and the thoughts of the twentieth century “literary revolutionists” who were rapidly redirecting the development of the novel in China. Like many of her Chinese contemporaries, she wrote out of two traditions and found her own voice.

What criteria would Pearl Buck have wanted the critics to use looking at her work? “…amazingly few literary critics are able to obey that simple basic rule of criticism—to ask, ‘What does the novelist want to do and has he done it?’” 

I hit this point in my typing this morning and took advantage of some current technology (back in the 80s I was reading microfilm, haunting the library at San Diego State and buying used books to read sources) to see what books were selling in the 1930s. I remember them from my childhood when I was riding my bike to the library in Bellevue, Nebraska to find something to feed my then-voracious appetite for novels — readable, engaging writers like Edna Ferber, Rebecca West, Daphne du Maurier, Rachel Field, John Galsworthy, and John Steinbeck. (Source)

30 thoughts on “Pearl S. Buck, Here Goes

  1. I was never aware that Pearl S. Buck translated the Shui hu chuan. I should do some research as it seems I undervalued her. As far as I can tell, European scholars have never paid that much attention to ner.

    • She loved the Shui Hu Chuan. I have the theory that the reason European and American scholars didn’t pay much attention to her was because of the times. She was a woman and so much of what she’d experienced growing up in China and her education was really inaccessible. I also believe there was universally a pretty strong prejudice against the Chinese. They were really treated like non-people at the Versailles Conference when so much of their territory was handed over to other countries as “custodians.” I’m no expert, but now I think it’s very wonderful that kids in school in the US can choose Chinese as their language to study. When I was in school it was French, German, Spanish or Latin. Still good choices, but…

      • The Opium Wars – and the lies of the British with it – Versailles Conference, the role of the West in the Boxer uprising ….. Some western politicians would do well to study Chinese history first, especially as the West has tried again and again to Chine to divide up among themselves (as in Africa) and then to make their mostly arrogant statements.
        Yes, learning Chinese is definitely an enrichment and helpful in opening up new areas in our thinking.

        BTW, may I name one of my favorite examples of the Chinese language:
        遛狗 (liù gǒu) to walk a dog
        狗遛 (gǒu liù) the place where dogs pee
        only 2 characters, the sequence exchanged, and another idea is expressed 🙂

        • That’s wonderful! 🙂 I wish I had really studied Chinese and done more than just daily life/survivall language which was really OK for daily life survival, but it’s the absolute surface. Speaking of arrogance, the United States NOT recognizing mainland China as China for all those years as IF the Chinese didn’t have every right in the world to follow Chairman Mao, as if all those millions of humans were not even there. Chiang was no hero…. Grrrr….

          • Long way to go for the west. One first step could be to find out what is the surname and what the given name of a Chinese. Sometimes I just don’t know if I should laugh out cry…..

            • Yeah, it’s weird how westerners can’t understand that simple thing. Maybe it’s because we didn’t have surnames for much of our history and families are certainly less important (understatement…)

              Here’s a sweet story. My Chinese surname is 黄 even though my “given name” is just a combination of characters to sound like Martha, they are beautiful. I became close friends with our “spy” and his family while I was in Guangzhou and ultimately sponsored him to come to America to study. But before that happened, his mother adopted me and that’s how I got my name. I know that at the time many of the friendships between Chinese and foreigners were transactional, which I believe is OK and understandable at the time, but this wasn’t. In part of my heart, I’m 黄老师 My brother and I are still close.

  2. I remember those super fancy typewriters! My Grandmother got me one when I went to college.

    I’m glad you are working on this project and sharing it with us. I think she does stand up and was very worthy of he Nobel Prize. We can not all travel to China, but we can empathize with people through her work. Isn’t that what literature is all about?

    • You’ve summed it up. That’s what she believed her writing was all about, why and everything. ❤

      There is no Frigate like a Book

      There is no Frigate like a Book
      To take us Lands away
      Nor any Coursers like a Page
      Of prancing Poetry –
      This Traverse may the poorest take
      Without oppress of Toll –
      How frugal is the Chariot
      That bears the Human Soul –

  3. This is exciting. I am learning new things and now I believe I need to reread some of her works. Yes, definitely read The Good Earth again… it has been too long ago.

    • I’m glad you liked it — it’s a little academic and literary but that was where I thought I was going at the time. I’m a little surprised at how much the project focuses on Chinese fiction but I think Pearl Buck would have approved. 🙂

  4. I enjoyed lesson #1! What an extraordinary woman. I can’t remember if my high school English classes included her novels, but now I think I would remember if they did. It’s unfortunate she got criticism for receiving the Nobel Prize – interesting (and perhaps not surprising) that the “better” contenders were all men. Being the first woman in anything like that usually has an extra high bar. This time attributing politics for her success in winning the prize.

  5. Pearl Buck was never mentioned until I entered college in the late 80’s. Everything I know most is what I’ve learned from you. Here we go! ❤️

      • I have! My brain has hit a wall after a week of marketing and learning new things, setting up Fall Festivals for our special friends, and today taking my own special niece and sister to pumpkin patch and corn maze. It was time to unwind and sit by you to listen. 💛🤗🐶

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