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'Pearl Buck In China': A Child Across The Good Earth

A portrait of Pearl S. Buck taken during the 1920s, during the time she lived in Nanking.  As a child, she lived in a small Chinese village called Zhenjiang.
Hulton Archive
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A portrait of Pearl S. Buck taken during the 1920s, during the time she lived in Nanking. As a child, she lived in a small Chinese village called Zhenjiang.

Ever since her 1931 blockbuster The Good Earth earned her a Pulitzer Prize and, eventually, the first Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to an American woman, Pearl S. Buck's reputation has made a strange, slow migration. These days, it's her life story rather than her novels (which are now barely read -- either in the West, or in China) that's come to fascinate readers.

The big shift was set in motion almost 15 years ago, when literary scholar Peter Conn lifted Buck out of mid-cult obscurity in his monumental biography called, simply, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. Now, award-winning biographer Hilary Spurling has made a case for a reappraisal of Buck's fiction and her life. Spurling claims that Buck had a "magic power -- possessed by all truly phenomenal best-selling authors -- to tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination."

Spurling's book is called Pearl Buck in China, and after reading it, I've been motivated to dust off my junior high copy of The Good Earth and move it to the top of my "must read again someday" pile. Following Conn's lead, Spurling further succeeds in making Buck herself a compelling figure, transforming her from dreary "lady author" into woman warrior.

Spurling's biography focuses almost exclusively on Buck's Chinese childhood, as the daughter of zealous Christian missionaries, and young adulthood, as the unhappy wife of an agricultural reformer based in an outlying area of Shanghai. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in 1892 and, from her earliest days, she was much more than a cultural tourist. She roamed freely around the Chinese countryside, where she would often come upon the remains of abandoned baby girls, left for the village dogs, and she would bury them. Buck's first language was everyday Chinese, and she grew up listening to village gossip and reading Chinese popular novels, like The Dream of The Red Chamber, which were considered sensational by intellectuals, as her own later novels would be.

Buck's father, Absalom, was often away, traveling over his mission field (an area as big as Texas), preaching blood-and-thunder sermons to often hostile Chinese passersby. After the first "ten years he had spent in China," Spurling tells us, "[Absalom] had made, by his own reckoning, ten converts." The young Buck and her family lived at subsistence level in houses that were little more than shacks and apartments on streets thronged with bars and bordellos. They managed to survive the Boxer Rebellion and the subsequent violence that heralded the advance of the Chinese Nationalists.

By the time she arrived as a charity student at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia, Buck was indelibly alienated from her American counterparts. "Girls came in groups to stare at me," wrote Buck, remembering her first harsh college days some 50 years later. She was set apart not only by her out-of-date clothes made by a Chinese tailor, but also by her extraordinary life experiences, which encompassed firsthand knowledge of war, infanticide and sexual slavery.

As Spurling deftly illustrates, that alienation gave Buck her stance as a writer, gracing her with the outsider vision needed to interpret one world to another. Buck's unconventional childhood also seems to have made her resistant to group think: In midlife, as a famous novelist, she made enemies criticizing the racism of the mission movement; she also shocked contemporaries by writing in her memoir, The Child Who Never Grew, about her brain-damaged daughter Carol, at a time when such children were quietly institutionalized and publicly forgotten.

Spurling quotes liberally from some of Buck's domestic novels, which defied the mores of her time by depicting sexual despair and physical revulsion within marriage. And, finally, she earned herself no points with China's new leaders when she likened the zealotry of communism to that of her father and his missionary colleagues. Writing in 1954 about an encounter with a breathless Chinese communist woman, Buck said: "And in her words, too, I caught the old stink of condescension."

Pearl Buck in China, similarly, rescues Buck and some of her best books from the "stink" of literary condescension and replaces that knee-jerk critical response with curiosity.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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