PEARL S. BUCK: A CULTURAL BIOGRAPHY
By Peter Conn
Cambridge Univ. Press
468 pp., $29.95
Pop quiz: Who was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature? She also won a Pulitzer, and 15 of her more than 70 books were featured by the Book of the Month Club. In a national poll, she was one of the 10 most-admired women in America. When it opened, the National Women's Hall of Fame included her among the first 20 names selected. Decades before Betty Friedan and Martin Luther King Jr., she was a strong supporter of equal rights for women and minorities. And the international interracial adoption agency she established continues to find families for thousands of children. Final clue: Her best-known book is "The Good Earth."
Pearl Buck's fame has faded. But her numerous novels are still read around the world, if not much in the United States. Despite the Nobel award - or perhaps because of it - her fiction has been judged harshly by literary critics as merely popular, not worthy of the world's premier prize. Now Peter Conn has set out to redress this neglect in "Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography."
As a scholar and professor of English, Mr. Conn had himself omitted Ms. Buck from his own 600-page survey of American literature. But as the parent of a Korean girl adopted through the agency she founded, he was impressed by the scope of Buck's humanitarian work and wanted to know more about her.
His biography is a sympathetic, but thoroughly researched, account of a protean woman and the diverse political and social worlds she struggled to harmonize.
The daughter of American missionaries, Buck lived in China for 40 years, witnessing first-hand some of that nation's revolutionary turmoil. Her novels about China offered Western readers their first accurate picture of everyday life in an almost unknown culture. But her books about her mother and father - the works actually cited by the Nobel judges - and her autobiography, "My Several Worlds," which was written much later, may be better prose, according to Conn.
"Her best work ... was probably nonfiction: the biographies of her parents, her own memoirs, her lively, argumentative essays on race and war and gender.... She frequently used her novels as political and educational instruments, exchanging the challenges of novelistic art for the easier satisfactions of melodrama, propaganda, and protest."
But her books were bestsellers and earned her the wealth that enabled her to pursue the causes she strongly supported. Growing up in a country where hers was the minority race and culture and then as an adult living in her native land where race and sex were barriers to achievement, Buck was passionate and outspoken about issues of equality. J. Edgar Hoover found a place for her in his infamous FBI files.
Ironically, despite her strong disapproval of Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists, the Chinese government never allowed her to revisit the land she lived in for half her life, because she also regarded the Communists as oppressors of the working people she portrayed so realistically in her novels.
Buck's early books were published while she was married to her first husband, an American agricultural expert in China. She used his name as an author, even after she married her publisher, Richard Walsh. The Bucks had a retarded daughter who was put in a residential training school, a lifelong heartache for her mother. They also had an adopted daughter. Over time, Buck adopted five more children - a racial rainbow.
In summing up, Conn sees a grand theme defining Buck and her work: The missionaries' daughter became "an evangelist of equality." He makes the case.
* Ruth Johnstone Wales is the Monitor's Page 1 editor.