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THE AUTHOR AND HER TIMES - BIOGRAPHY
Her house was a mud-walled Chinese farmhouse, her neighbors were Chinese farm families, and the only language she heard spoken was the slow, deep-voiced Chinese dialect of the eastern province of Anhwei not far from Shanghai and Nanking. That was where Pearl S. Buck spent the first four years of her marriage to the agricultural specialist John Lossing Buck.
Life in a remote Chinese village was not really strange to Pearl Buck. As the daughter of missionaries, she had lived in China for most of her twenty-five years before her marriage in 1917. Because her father believed in living among the people he preached to, she had grown up and gone to school with Chinese girls, had learned to speak Chinese before she spoke English, and knew Chinese people and their traditional ways at first hand.
What she did not know, and could not have foreseen, was that years later her life among the farm folk of Anhwei would be the source and inspiration of a novel-The Good Earth-that would make her world-famous.
Following its publication in 1931, The Good Earth led the best-seller lists for some twenty-one months. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the William Dean Howells Prize, awarded once in five years by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was the work chiefly responsible for her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.
Millions of people read The Good Earth either in English or in one of the approximately thirty languages-including Chinese-into which it was translated. It was dramatized as a Broadway play (by Owen and Donald Davis) in 1932, and soon afterward it became known to millions more around the world as a motion picture starring Paul Muni, one of the leading actors of the time, in the role of Wang Lung the farmer. The book was hailed not only as a great novel but as a triumph of understanding of Chinese peasant life by a Western woman.
In an extraordinarily productive life of nearly eighty-one years, Pearl Buck wrote novels, short stories, articles, biographies, and an autobiography-in all, more than sixty books. She wrote on American themes as well, but her best creative work drew on her China years. China was her primary home from the age of a few months until 1934, when at forty-two she returned to live permanently in America.
Although Pearl Buck's name in literature is chiefly identified with China, she was born in her grandfather's house in Hillsboro, West Virginia, on June 26, 1892. She was named Pearl by her parents, Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, who were Presbyterian missionaries home on leave from China. Pearl was still a baby when the family returned to Chinkiang, near Nanking in the Yangtze River valley. She had a Chinese nurse, and when she reached school age Pearl went to a missionary school for Chinese girls. Her schoolmates called her "Tseng-tzu," Chinese for pearl. She was eight when the Boxer Uprising reached its height in 1900. "Boxer" was the English term for "Fists of Righteous Harmony," the Chinese name of an anti-Western military organization that attacked foreigners and Chinese Christians and endangered the Sydenstricker family. The violence jolted Pearl into realizing for the first time that she was a foreigner.
At seventeen, Pearl made the long journey home and entered Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She spent vacations with her brother and his family, earning pocket money as a tutor to high school students. She loved the lush green woods and fields of the United States and was keenly aware of the healthful conditions of America in contrast with the land where she grew up, but she knew she would go back to China. After graduating in 1914 she stayed on at the college as a teaching assistant in psychology and philosophy, until news that her mother was gravely ill caused her to return to China.
Her mother recovered. In 1917 Pearl married and went to live in the village of Nanhsuchou, in the farming country of northern Anhwei. She worked with her husband among Chinese farmers, and was quickly accepted by them. The deep impression the farmers' lives made on her found its creative outlet in The Good Earth, written ten years after she and her husband left Nanhsuchou.
In 1921 the Bucks moved to Nanking, where John joined the university faculty and Pearl taught classes in English literature. Ten years earlier a revolution had ended the Ching, or Manchu, Dynasty and established the Republic of China. Buck had been away at college in the United States at this time. On her return, living first in the provincial city of Chinkiang and then in farm country, she saw little change in the traditional Chinese ways she had known since childhood. In sophisticated Nanking, however, things were different. Nanking had been China's ancient capital, and the revolutionaries had again made it the capital of the Republic. In the city, and especially in the universities, Buck saw a clash of old and new ideas. She wrote articles on the ferment in republican China, and they appeared in such leading American magazines as The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, and The Forum.
Two shadows darkened these stimulating years. Following surgery in 1919 after the birth of her first child, Buck learned that she could never have another child. Then came the discovery that her daughter Carol was retarded. In 1925 she and her husband took the little girl to the United States for possible treatment, but tests confirmed that the condition was incurable. In The Good Earth Pearl Buck may have found some outlet for the emotional strain of these circumstances. Certainly one of the poignant elements in the novel is Wang Lung's fondness for his retarded daughter.
In 1927 civil war broke out between the nationalist and Communist forces that were vying for control in China. The nationalist army attacked Nanking, and Buck and her family, along with other foreigners, were hidden by Chinese friends and evacuated to British and American warships lying offshore. In the turmoil, her manuscript of a completed novel was lost, but her biography of her mother and a portion of a new novel were saved. These tumultuous events, as well as the earlier Boxer Uprising incidents and the civil strife in between, are all reflected in various ways in The Good Earth, where they underscore the dissolution of traditional Chinese society and the lack of peace.
Buck's first novel, East Wind, West Wind, appeared in 1930, at a time when many publishers believed nobody wanted to read about China. Indeed Buck's publisher, the John Day Publishing Company, later acknowledged that the acceptance of this first novel about the impact of Western ideas on young Chinese was not on its own merit but as an investment in the author's future work.
With the immediate success of The Good Earth the publisher's investment paid off. The novel also proved to be a turning point in Buck's life. In 1934 she returned to the United States for good. After divorcing John Buck she married Richard J. Walsh, president of the John Day Company. She and her second husband moved into a stone farmhouse in Pennsylvania, and over the next several years they adopted five children, two boys and three girls.
Buck continued the epic of the Wang family with two sequels to The Good Earth: Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935); together they formed a trilogy called The House of Earth. There followed a steady stream of novels, short stories, and children's books with American as well as Chinese backgrounds. Interspersed with these were memoirs, articles for popular magazines, and biographies of her mother (The Exile) and father (Fighting Angel).
Buck was enormously popular as a personality, constantly in demand for lectures on writing, on adoption, on mental retardation, and on American involvement in the Far East. But none of these other activities stemmed the flow of her fiction. When her rate of production outran her publisher's ability to market her novels, she used the pen name "John Sedges." Five of her books appeared under this name, beginning with The Townsman, an American historical novel (1945).
Although critics found few of her novels equal to The Good Earth, her gifts as a storyteller won her a worldwide readership. She became one of the most widely translated U.S. authors.
Pearl Buck's contribution to American understanding of China and the Far East in general was matched by her dedication to human rights and racial equality, and to the rescue of children of American soldiers serving in the Far East and Asian women (such children often were shunned in Asian society). She founded Welcome House, an adoption agency to find such children of mixed ancestry American homes, and the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, to help them in their own countries.
Pearl Buck died in 1973, three months short of her eighty-first birthday. People who paid tribute agreed that Buck had made a great contribution to Western understanding of China, especially in The Good Earth. By the time you have finished reading the novel, you too will have learned a lot about China and the Chinese people as well as about people in general.