She was a bestselling author, a Pulitzer Prize winner, and the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. She was a celebrity in her day and a passionate humanitarian. She cranked out a book or two a year for decades, and could command thousands of dollars for her magazine articles. Yet Pearl Buck is now a forgotten figure, hardly a name you’d drop at a dinner party to impress literary types.
The British journalist and author Hilary Spurling, known for her acclaimed two-volume study of Henri Matisse, strives to correct this neglect with Pearl Buck in China, a compelling reappraisal of Buck’s tumultuous early life and myriad accomplishments.
Buck is most celebrated for her 1931 novel “The Good Earth,” which has sold tens of millions of copies and remains in print even today. In her lifetime, Spurling notes, everyone read her work, “from statesmen to office cleaners.” She was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, and to this day only one other American woman (Toni Morrison) has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Even though Buck advocated vigorously on behalf of unpopular causes such as women’s rights, civil rights, and the rights of abandoned children of mixed-race parents (she founded an international adoption agency in support of this cause), she is not a revered figure among feminists. History has been unkind all around.
The fifth of seven children, she was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in 1892 to American missionary parents, Absalom and Carie. Growing up mostly in China, under what were often precarious political conditions, such as the Boxer Rebellion, she was bilingual, and for a time she did not know she wasn’t Chinese herself. (Even at the end of her life, she insisted, “I am American,... but by sympathy and feeling, I am Chinese.”)
When her first novel, “East Wind: West Wind,” came out in 1930, one critic noted that its “beautiful cadences …are the direct result of Pearl Buck’s having written in English while thinking in Chinese.” Spurling explores Buck’s childhood with a “physically and emotionally distant” father whose religious fervor embarrassed her (though only after years of desperately trying, in vain, to please him). Even as a girl she became aware of “the limitations of the cohesive, coercive, and highly judgmental Presbyterian society into which she was born,” Spurling writes. Absalom did not believe that women had souls, so they were hopeless candidates for salvation.
Early on, Buck developed a love of storytelling from her mother, and she devoured books: Plutarch, Shakespeare, Thackeray, Eliot, and Dickens (whose work she especially admired). At 23, she struggled with her vocational path; the only obvious options for women were teaching and nursing. Two years later, she married John Buck, a union that would prove unhappy. (In 1934 she settled in the United States and found fulfillment with her second marriage.) She taught for a time at Nanjing University, and gave birth to a severely disabled daughter. Often she would make bottles of formula for the malnourished infants of locals.
She rattled her American neighbors by eating peanuts in the street and befriending rickshaw pullers and servants. Buck was far more interested in hearing the stories of Chinese peasants and advocating for their rights than consorting with Americans.
Having grown up in rural areas of China and witnessed the dire struggles of farmers and peasants, as well as the killings of female babies and other horrors, Buck felt compelled in her writings to expose the China she knew: polluted streams; “wretched, mat-covered boats, the only homes of millions of miserable, underfed water folk”; and crowded villages “filthy with flies and garbage rotting in the sun.”
Such were the scenes that would give shape to her work, notably “The Good Earth.” She humanized the Chinese people for Westerners, and “eroded the foundations of that wall of ignorance and prejudice,” Spurling writes. “Pearl Buck did for the working people of twentieth-century China something of what Dickens had done for London’s nineteenth-century poor.” It was a revolutionary act, as were her candid depictions of female sexuality, desire, and frustration.
Spurling chronicles Buck’s phenomenal rise to international fame and eminence, but also follows her strange, ignominious final years in self-imposed exile in Vermont, where she set up a shop that was part junk antiques, part shrine to herself. She died of lung cancer in 1973.
It’s unlikely that this absorbing biography will bring about a resurgence of interest in Buck’s work, but its value lies in turning us back to her fascinating life and to the plights of a culture so vastly different from our own.
Carmela Ciuraru is the author of several anthologies, including “Poems for America.” She is writing a nonfiction book for HarperCollins.