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The Question of Pearl Buck

The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer in a mere eight years—the first being Sinclair Lewis in 1930, the second Eugene O’Neill in 1936. Pearl Buck had dedicated her writing life to novels and memoirs about China, and her selection was seen as a sop to public opinion, in a world where Japanese and German war scares were becoming a reality and China was a prime victim.

The critic Norman Holmes Pearson referred to the academy choice as reducing the Nobel to the “hammish” (his word) level of the Pulitzer Prize and commented, “Thank heavens I have seen no one who has taken it seriously.” Referring to Pearl Buck’s widely quoted comment when she received the Nobel news—”I don’t believe it…. That’s ridiculous. It should have gone to Dreiser”—Pearson responded: “Nuts to her, say I, I think that was putting it mildly.” A full decade later on the eve of his own selection for the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner was still mocking “Mrs. Chinahand Buck.” Lists of American writers besides Dreiser whom contemporaries mentioned as more deserving of the Nobel than Pearl Buck included Mark Twain, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and John Dos Passos.

Such criticism was not entirely parochial, and some of the negative comments on Pearl Buck’s writing abilities strike us still as very much on the mark. Buck made herself vulnerable to pot-shots by the undeniable ponderousness or banality of many of her works. Even Hilary Spurling, in her intensely sympathetic portrayal of Buck’s life, cannot resist commenting that her “sense of humor seldom got the better of her didactic intent.” Spurling pithily notes that the postscript added by Buck to her otherwise beautiful book on her mother’s life, The Exile, “makes it sound more like a biography of the Statue of Liberty than an actual human being.” “Pearl’s books sold in the millions,” writes Spurling, “not in spite [of] but because of their bland, trite, ingratiating mass-market techniques.” At least twice, Spurling gives up the search for a complex adjective and settles on “preposterous” as the only fitting word for a particular plot shift chosen by Buck. As the literary historian Peter Conn observed some sixteen years ago:

Pearl’s Asian subjects, her prose style, her gender, and her tremendous popularity offended virtually every one of the constituencies that divided up the literary 1930s. Marxists, Agrarians, Chicago journalists, New York intellectuals, literary nationalists, and New Humanists had little enough in common, but they could all agree that Pearl Buck had no place in any of their creeds and canons.

* * *

What, then, gave Pearl Buck the necessary strength to slice through the dismissive clichés and gain global recognition? One factor, surely, was that she was present in China at many of the crucial and contradictory periods of its tumultuous modern history. Born in West Virginia in June 1892 to missionary parents at home on furlough, Pearl accompanied them on their return to China the next year, and grew up there during the tense periods that followed the Japanese assaults on China of the 1890s. She was old enough to take in much of the backlash from the bitterly anti-foreign “Boxer” secret society uprisings of 1900, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, the fall of the last dynasty in 1911, and the subsequent collapse of China’s brief experiment with representative constitutional government.

iconArnold Genthe/Library of Congress
Pearl Buck, circa 1932

She also witnessed the anger and contempt of hostile, anti-missionary Chinese crowds, and was forced by intense mob violence to flee to Shanghai and Japan. After a one-year furlough in the United States and a full course of study at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, from which she graduated in 1914, she returned almost at once to China, where she looked after her invalid mother and taught in a Chinese school, before marrying—in 1917—a diligent but emotionally withdrawn expert on the Chinese rural economy, John Lossing Buck.

The young couple experienced, at first hand, numerous examples of the terror that could swiftly rise from the furiously divided and humiliated China in which they had determined to live and work and raise a family. By drawing on Pearl’s later published works, especially her novels, supplemented by personal letters and reminiscences, Spurling creates an emotionally convincing vision of the fears aroused in a young mother like Pearl, as in the following example of the March 1927 “Nanjing Incident,” in which the Chinese in the city turned against all Western residents, threatening not only their homes and their property, but also the lives of old and young alike. “All of them ran,” writes Spurling,

carrying the two younger children, through the back gate over rough paths between vegetable plots, and grave mounds to a little clutch of huts built against a tiled brick wall. The Chinese inhabitants watched silently as the fugitives packed into Mrs. Lu’s low, dark rented room, ten feet by eight… In the distance the individual shrieks and screams of people on the street fused into a collective roar. Inside the hut no one spoke. None of the children cried. They could hear the crowd burst through their garden gate a few hundred yards away and smash down their heavy front door.

When the little group of foreigners were finally ousted from their frail shelter, writes Buck, they could see that their attackers

were all young, every face was young…ignorant faces, drunken faces, red and wild-eyed…They glared back at us, and they grinned with a dreadful laughter, for what they saw was the downfall and the humiliation of the white people who had for so long been their oppressors.1

John Lossing Buck and Pearl survived this particular nightmare, but establishing a satisfactory routine was not an easy task. The couple continued to live and work in China, despite the dangers, and had one child, born in 1920, a daughter named Carol. The birth was difficult, and medical complications arose that ensured that Pearl would not be able to have more children. After several years in China, Pearl also came gradually to the agonizing realization that Carol would never grow up to live a fully normal life. The best solution, Pearl was told, would be to put Carol into a special school in the United States, a step that Pearl finally took in 1929, after exhaustive tests, whose costs she covered initially with borrowed money and subsequently by her slowly increasing royalties from her novels.

Many years later, experts in the United States finally identified Carol’s illness as “PKU,” phenylketonuria, a type of brain degeneration caused by the newborn child’s inability to process the chemical phenyl. The couple had adopted a second daughter in 1924, at an orphanage in upstate New York, who grew up to be lively and wonderful company, but it appears that the struggles over the best way to handle Carol’s problems had for years kept Pearl and her husband prey to constant tension and recriminations. They divorced in 1935.

But even some matters as apparently straightforward as this China experience and the couple’s subsequent divorce turn out to be far from simple, after all. In a just-printed memoir, titled My Nanking Home, 1918–1937,2 the ninety-two-year-old Nancy Thomson Waller, who for many years in the 1920s and 1930s was a next-door neighbor and good friend of the Bucks in Nanjing, writes that “Pearl and Lossing had never been a good match.” Waller adds that Pearl’s “marriage to Lossing had been falling apart and it was he who first asked for a divorce, so as to marry a Chinese woman.” And furthermore, Waller writes, Lossing “was a darling with their daughter Carol. I can remember him playing with her. They looked like two overgrown puppies.”

* * *

Pearl Buck’s first novel with a Chinese theme, East Wind, West Wind, was published in April 1930, by John Day, after being rejected by more than twenty publishers; it was well-enough received to make her editor at John Day want to see further work by this unknown author. Pearl obliged with The Good Earth, her most popular and celebrated novel, which came out in March 1931. Already singled out as a lead selection of the Book-of-the-Month club, the book quickly became popular, selling two million copies and winning the Pulitzer Prize.

As Hilary Spurling points out in her energized and engrossing portrayal of Pearl Buck, any interpretation of her work has to depend on our understanding of her motivations and the realities or imaginative feats that lay behind them. Pearl could be an expert at concealing the “sediment of suffering” that she saw all around her during her close to forty years in China, whether in small, filthy, isolated villages or bustling market towns or large river entrepôts. “She tried hard to bury” such suffering, writes Spurling,

just as she buried her memories of being sworn at as a foreign devil in the street, of fleeing for her life from marauding soldiers, of the young brides sold into slavery who hanged themselves at intervals in her neighbors’ houses. Memories like these surface in her novels from time to time like a dismembered hand or leg. This ambivalence—the territory that lies between what is said, and what can be understood—is the nub of my book.

It is the same ambivalence—I believe—that leads Spurling to leave open the question of whether Buck’s childhood playtime companions in China were “real or imaginary.” The same type of “potent spell” was cast by Buck “from this sense of a harsh hidden reality, protruding occasionally but more often invisible,” present only beneath the surface of her writing as “an unexamined residue of pain and fear.”

Hilary Spurling is an experienced and successful biographer, who has tackled a number of challenging subjects, but perhaps only with Pearl Buck has she had to be so open to employing known fictions to fill the gaps in an assumed narrative reality. The difficulty lies partly with Buck’s own vagueness about the verifiable past, particularly poignant in the presentation of the thought patterns of poor Chinese farmers or their wives, which gives such drive to the picture of Wang Lung, the hero of The Good Earth. Spurling is not concerned with giving us a neat plot summary of Buck’s large oeuvre, but she does use some of Buck’s set pieces to stunning effect, especially in drawing on Buck’s vivid and emotionally powerful portrayals of the two people Buck could set most sharply in the Chinese universe—her father Absalom in the book Fighting Angel and her mother Carie in The Exile.3

By drawing on her full arsenal of emotional and rhetorical weapons, Buck creates in Absalom as crazed and convincing a portrait of the missionary mind in full flight as we are ever likely to have; and it is matched by the portrait of the losses endured by Carie—losing child after child to merciless diseases—only to be swiftly made pregnant again by Absalom’s unstoppable urges. Neither of these two characters may be “accurate” in a conventional sense, but jointly they give to us an unforgettable moment in the application of Western Bible-rooted passions to rural Chinese living conditions, a kind of Chinese-American Gothic that no one had created before.

* * *

How terrible was China? How poor were its farming millions, how desperate its women? It is an irony (and misfortune) that John Lossing Buck and Pearl did not take more time to read each other’s researches. For Lossing Buck’s vast compendia of rural data, assembled from countless Nanjing University research student field trips, could have served as a kind of emotional circuit-breaker for Pearl’s outpourings, and Pearl’s emotions could have brought the healing force of passion to John Lossing Buck’s cautious academic prose.

We have no reason to doubt—but still have to take largely on trust—the extent and fluency of Pearl Buck’s knowledge of the spoken Chinese of the areas in which she lived for so many years. Doubtless many young Chinese women were able to share with her their inner thoughts on sex, love, and death, or on the suicides or abortions that gave grim rhythms to the lives of many in their dark and airless shacks. But surely other women clammed up, or kept their thoughts and pain to themselves. Similarly, Pearl’s mother Carie may have sensed her daughter’s rhetorical powers in depicting the contrasts between the realities of life in the Chinese towns and villages where five of Carie and Absalom’s eight children succumbed to wild and untamable fevers or agues. These infant deaths never gave pause to Absalom, who would each time renew his own commitment to his missionary calling, throw his tattered coat around his shoulders, and with a stout stick in his hand to ward off vicious dogs and a satchel of Chinese tracts in his bag, would stretch out his long legs as he stomped the narrow lanes in search of his ever-elusive Chinese converts, leaving Carie to recover as best she might.

The desperately poor hovels of China sparked some of Pearl’s most somber passages, as she describes her own mother Carie’s helpless feelings of despair:

It was no wonder that sometimes she fainted in the thick sultriness of an August noon in a southern Chinese city, filled too full of human breath and of the odor of sweating human flesh…. The flies swarmed from the piles of half-rotting filth smoking under the burning sun. The hot air hung like a foul mist.

These images, and the emotions they conjure up, may have been passed on in imagination by a young Pearl to her fever-weakened mother, bringing on the very fainting spells the passage describes. But the insistence of the language, the very nature of the images, reminds us of another level of this process of remembering the “sediment of suffering.” For as Pearl remembered on her second childhood return with her parents to China, the one consistent joy she found in her leisure time lay in the complete set of all of Charles Dickens’s fiction, in matching blue-bound volumes, which formed a major part of her family’s small library. And these blue-bound volumes were Pearl’s sustenance and training ground, read and reread until they lodged for all time in her memory.

Later she recalled reading the precious volumes perched in a tree above her compound’s walls: “And there quite alone above the crowded Chinese scene I sat and read or sobbed and dreamed, not there at all, but thousands of miles away, in a land I had never seen, among people I never knew.” Dickens, she wrote, “was almost the sole access I had to my own people”—far closer, for example, than to Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. And thus, perhaps, the vision of Tom-all-alone as providing shelter for the dying Jo, links the darker London of Bleak House to the Chinese river town where Pearl spent much of her childhood: “These tumbling tenements contain, by night, a swarm of misery,” Dickens wrote, “as, on the ruined human wretch, vermin parasites appear, so, these ruined shelters have bred a crowd of foul existence that crawls in and out of gaps in walls and boards; and coils itself to sleep, in maggot numbers where the rain drips in.”

* * *

Pearl Buck’s cluster of enormously successful novels helped rescue her publisher, Richard Walsh, from the bankruptcy that had threatened his company John Day; for a time, in the early 1930s, her income was estimated at $100,000 a year, and later in the decade it must have been far more, including all the money from foreign translations and film rights. After her divorce from Lossing Buck, she married Walsh, even though on first meeting she had described him, in a letter to her sister, as “a hard, dry, conservative sort of middle-aged person.” Their relationship was literary and passionate, and the two settled down in an old stone farmhouse, Green Hills Farm, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, commuting between there and their New York apartment. They adopted four children and later the number rose to six.

Pearl became a well-known speaker not just on China but also on birth control, children’s rights, and against racism. She also became a tough and thoughtful critic of the excess and shallowness of current missionary practice, provoking what Spurling describes as “mission rage,” including demands for her dismissal from all mission-related work. In an address to the National Urban League in New York, she countered the angry missionaries with the direct charge that “some of the things my people do make me ashamed of the fact that I am white.”

After she and Walsh had made one final tour of China together, they returned to the United States in 1935, and Pearl Buck never traveled to China again. Over the succeeding years, Pearl continued to write about her family, though some of her comments were seen as too harsh to publish. She now began to see that her father Absalom—who had died in China in 1931—represented not just Presbyterian stubbornness and pride, but also personified “a magnificent imperialism of the spirit, incredible and not to be understood except by those who have been reared in it and have grown beyond it.” Titled Fighting Angel, the book appeared in 1936 and sold dramatically. Spurling considers it “probably the best book Pearl ever wrote in the sense that she never fully recaptured its combination of cool, strong, scrutinizing intelligence and passionate emotion.” Other former mission acquaintances of Absalom saw it as a “cruel and libelous distortion.”

Pearl Buck had long seen the coming of a full-fledged Japanese assault on China as one of the great dangers to world peace, and she followed the news of the fighting and of the vast civilian casualties with anguished attention. But her views were not welcome in China: both Chinese nationalist politicians and intellectuals and the Communist forces dug in against the nationalists in the northwest of China objected violently to her vision of their country as backward, dirty, and demoralized. (The Chinese delegates invited to attend the 1938 Nobel celebrations boycotted the proceedings.)

Especially after Richard Walsh suffered a major stroke in 1953, and for the seven years that he lived after that, gravely weakened, the couple lived quietly in Bucks County, and focused much of their work on the foundation built from her earlier earnings. Pearl had established the foundation to give shelter, help, and education to the unwanted offspring born to Asian women from their liaisons with GIs in time of war, a largely ignored group of children whose pinched existence underlined the waste and futility of the fighting. The foundation was able to help several thousand children find adopted homes in the war years and after. (The word “Amerasian” was Pearl Buck’s own coinage, Spurling notes.)

Though few of her later books have endured, Pearl continued to write on a strict daily schedule, 2,500 words in longhand each morning, though now she refused to reread what she had written. She continued to use the same, somewhat unusual style that her friends ascribed to her long years in China; her prose represented the tonalities of Chinese colloquial speech rhythms while continuing to be basically estranged from conventional American idioms. In her last years she continued to see her daughter Carol as often as possible, and adopted two more children, one with black and one with Japanese parentage. Because of her complex web of international contacts, the FBI maintained a dossier on her activities, and the Chinese Communists refused to allow her back to the country where she had lived so long, and where so many of her siblings, and both her parents, were laid to rest.

In her last years, her foundation was managed in part by a succession of handsome and eager young men, several of whom had worked as ballroom dancing instructors, who took control of her business and awarded themselves substantial salaries. Not surprisingly, her foundation lost much of its purpose and focus, especially after Pearl contracted cancer. She died in 1973, a few months short of her eightieth birthday.

Spurling leaves us with a closing vision of Pearl in the quiet Vermont town of Danby, where she had invested in property, sitting at the window of an antique shop, trying to attract visitors and customers, and bring a little extra income to the community. It is hard to gauge the distance in her own mind that lay now between Danby and the Yangtse River towns that she had explored as a child. Were her thoughts in English or Chinese? With Absalom or with Carie? And what about her own writings? Had her life’s work really contributed to helping or understanding China? Or had her critics been at least partly right all along, and had Pearl—like so many others—been using the idea of China for her own purposes?


  1. For an example of the kind of further romanticized, violent, and sensual reconstruction attempted by Anchee Min, see her way of presenting this episode in her Pearl of China (Bloomsbury, 2010), pp. 166–175.
  2. Willow Hill, 2010.
  3. Both of these were recently reprinted, as separate volumes, with new and detailed introductions by the China scholar Charles Hayford (EastBridge, 2009).
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Jonathan D. Spence holds the position of Sterling Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University, and is well-known throughout the world for his insightful views on modern China. His books...
Reviewed in This Article

Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth
by Hilary Spurling
Simon and Schuster, 304 pp.

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This article was first published in the October 14, 2010 issue of the New York Review of Books.

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