Photo: Library of Congress
Pearl S. Buck was a legend whose notoriety lives long after her death. The first American woman to win the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes, she used her humanity and literary talent to introduce Chinese culture to the West. By the time of her death at age 80, she had published more than 70 books. Because she grew up there, she understood and loved China—despite the fact that her adopted homeland banned her works for many decades. Her unique cultural grounding and powerful soul provided the perfect foundation for her acclaimed novel, The Good Earth, and the many works that followed.
A Missionary Falls in Love
Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born on June 16, 1892 in West Virginia while her parents were on leave from their missionary work in China. Shortly after her birth, the family returned to China, where she was educated in both Eastern and Western traditions. Her mother taught her American history; her father read her Bible verses. But every afternoon, Pearl learned to read and write Chinese, spending hours mastering Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist proverbs and principles. By the time she returned to the United States to attend college at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia, she was not only steeped in Chinese culture but in love with it. Shortly after Pearl graduated, her mother's grave illness took Pearl back to China, where she met and married the first of her two husbands.
Pearl and her family lived through some of the most tumultuous uprisings and political turmoil in Chinese history. Like her character Wang Lung in The Good Earth, Pearl was a survivor. The troubles she and the country experienced during her early adult life inspired her craft, beginning with the publication of essays and short stories in the "Nation" and "Atlantic Monthly" during the 1920s. Her first novel, East Wind, West Wind was written the year before The Good Earth and established her reputation. However, it was The Good Earth, her passionate book about the rise and fall of a farmer named Wang Lung, that truly broke new ground. Part of a trilogy later published as House of Earth, Pearl's second novel was a runaway bestseller that made her both a household name and a pariah simultaneously. While the book met with instant success in the West, the critical response was mixed in the East. While many Eastern critics felt the book was a significant contribution to understanding Chinese rural life, others rejected it as one Westerner's view.
The Legacy She Left Behind
Throughout her life, Pearl S. Buck explored the complexities of the human condition. She sought to understand the ways innovation clashes with tradition, cultures inform one another and progress creates problems. Through her literary and biographical compassion, she achieved a rare mastery over her characters with her simple and sympathetic view of their lives. Pearl's tender empathy also spilled over into her own life decisions. She was a tireless philanthropist who translated her missionary impulse to a zeal for bettering the world. She fought for civil rights, women's rights and personal freedom. She pioneered foreign adoption in the United States and personally raised a dozen children. Her years of courageous philanthropy led to an entirely new community of Amerasian children adopted into the United States; today, Pearl S. Buck International, the author's foundation, continues to support thousands of underprivileged children in several Asian countries. The example Pearl set—by the woman she was, the life she led and the things she wrote—is a testament to cultural understanding, compassion and tolerance.
More fun facts about Pearl S. Buck
Published on September 15, 2004