pearl sydenstricker buck (1892 – 1973)

Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia. Her parents, Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, were Southern Presbyterian missionaries, stationed in China. Pearl was the fourth of seven children (and one of only three who would survive to adulthood). She was born when her parents were near the end of a furlough in the United States; when she was three months old, she was taken back to China, where she spent most of the first forty years of her life.

The Sydenstrickers lived in Chinkiang (Zhenjiang), in Kiangsu (Jiangsu) province, then a small city lying at the junction of the Yangtze River and the Grand Canal. Pearl’s father spent months away from home, itinerating in the Chinese countryside in search of Christian converts; Pearl’s mother ministered to Chinese women in a small dispensary she established.

From childhood, Pearl spoke both English and Chinese. She was taught principally by her mother and by a Chinese tutor, Mr. Kung. In 1900, during the Boxer Uprising, Caroline and the children evacuated to Shanghai, where they spent several anxious months waiting for word of Absalom’s fate. Later that year, the family returned to the US for another home leave.

In 1910, Pearl enrolled in Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, in Lynchburg, Virginia, from which she graduated in 1914. Although she had intended to remain in the US, she returned to China shortly after graduation when she received word that her mother was gravely ill. In 1915, she met a young Cornell graduate, an agricultural economist named John Lossing Buck. They married in 1917, and immediately moved to Nanhsuchou (Nanxuzhou) in rural Anhwei (Anhui) province. In this impoverished community, Pearl Buck gathered the material that she would later use in The Good Earth and other stories of China.

The Bucks’ first child, Carol, was born in 1921; a victim of PKU, she proved to be profoundly retarded. Furthermore, because of a uterine tumor discovered during the delivery, Pearl underwent a hysterectomy. In 1925, she and Lossing adopted a baby girl, Janice. The Buck marriage was unhappy almost from the beginning, but would last for eighteen years.

From 1920 to 1933, Pearl and Lossing made their home in Nanking (Nanjing), on the campus of Nanking University, where both had teaching positions. In 1921, Pearl’s mother died and shortly afterwards her father moved in with the Bucks. The tragedies and dislocations which Pearl suffered in the 1920s reached a climax in March, 1927, in the violence known as the “Nanking Incident.” In a confused battle involving elements of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist troops, Communist forces, and assorted warlords, several Westerners were murdered. The Bucks spent a terrified day in hiding, after which they were rescued by American gunboats. After a trip downriver to Shanghai, the Buck family sailed to Unzen, Japan, where they spent the following year. They then moved back to Nanking, though conditions remained dangerously unsettled.

Pearl had begun to publish stories and essays in the 1920s, in magazines such as Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia, and Atlantic Monthly. Her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, was published by the John Day Company in 1930. John Day’s publisher, Richard Walsh, would eventually become Pearl’s second husband, in 1935, after both received divorces.

In 1931, John Day published Pearl’s second novel, The Good Earth. This became the best-selling book of both 1931 and 1932, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal in 1935, and would be adapted as a major MGM film in 1937. Other novels and books of non-fiction quickly followed. In 1938, less than a decade after her first book had appeared, Pearl won the Nobel Prize in literature, the first American woman to do so. By the time of her death in 1973, Pearl would publish over seventy books: novels, collections of stories, biography and autobiography, poetry, drama, children’s literature, and translations from the Chinese.

In 1934, because of conditions in China, and also to be closer to Richard Walsh and her daughter Carol, whom she had placed in an institution in New Jersey, Pearl moved permanently to the US. She bought an old farmhouse, Green Hills Farm, in Bucks County, PA. She and Richard adopted six more children over the following years. Green Hills Farm is now on the Registry of Historic Buildings; fifteen thousand people visit each year.

From the day of her move to the US, Pearl was active in American civil rights and women’s rights activities. She published essays in both Crisis, the journal of the NAACP, and Opportunity, the magazine of the Urban League; she was a trustee of Howard University for twenty years, beginning in the early 1940s. In 1942, Pearl and Richard founded the East and West Association, dedicated to cultural exchange and understanding between Asia and the West. In 1949, outraged that existing adoption services considered Asian and mixed-race children unadoptable, Pearl established Welcome House, the first international, inter-racial adoption agency; in the nearly five decades of its work, Welcome House has assisted in the placement of over five thousand children. In 1964, to provide support for Amerasian children who were not eligible for adoption, Pearl also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which provides sponsorship funding for thousands o

Buck, Pearl S.. (1892 – 1973)

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was born on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia. Her parents, Absalom Sydenstricker and Carolyn Stulting Sydenstricker, had returned on home leave to the United States from China, where Absalom had been serving as a Presbyterian missionary for over a decade. A few months after her birth, the family went back to China, where Pearl would spend most of the next forty years. She grew up bilingual and, in her own later phrase, culturally bi-focal, educated in both English and Chinese. During these years, the family lived in several towns and cities along the Yangtze River.

In 1910, Pearl came to the United States to attend Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, a small, denominational school in Lynchburg, Virginia. Although Pearl had intended to find a career in America following her graduation, she returned instead to China to care for her mother, who was suffering from the illness that would eventually claim her life. Shortly after her return, Pearl met a young, Cornell-educated agricultural missionary, John Lossing Buck. They were married in 1917, and lived for the next three years in a poor farming village in Anhwei (now Anhui) province. In 1920, Lossing accepted a position at Nanking (now Nanjing) University and the couple moved to a house on the university’s campus. In that same year, Pearl gave birth to a daughter, Carol; during the difficult delivery, Pearl was discovered to have a uterine tumor, which led to a hysterectomy. Over the next several years, Carol was diagnosed as severely mentally retarded. She would eventually spend most of her life in an institution in Vineland, New Jersey.

During the 1920’s, Pearl Buck (henceforth Buck in this essay) taught religion and literature to Chinese students at Nanking University. In 1924-25, she and Lossing and Carol spent a year at Cornell University, where she earned a master’s degrees in English, while Lossing completed course work toward his Ph.D. His subsequent publications, which included Chinese Farm Economy (1930), a pioneering work of survey research, had a wide influence on the study of Chinese agriculture throughout much of the rest of the century.

While living in Nanking, Buck published a handful of essays and short stories, and completed a first novel, East Wind, West Wind, which was published by the John Day Company in 1930. Within a year, Buck published her second novel, The Good Earth.

Set in an impoverished region of central China, The Good Earth tells the story of a poor farmer named Wang Lung, tracing his life from his marriage day to old age. Wang Lung’s identity and values have been shaped above all by his relationship to the land, a poor, unyielding soil that his family has worked for generations. When the time comes for him to marry, his father sends him to buy a slave for his wife from the region’s wealthiest family. That woman, O-lan, is the novel’s most vivid character, a person of strength, integrity, and instinctive good judgment, who provides the book’s moral center. The triumphs and defeats that Wang Lung and his family experience summarize the encounter between traditional China and the revolutionary future.

As many critics pointed out, The Good Earth was distinguished by its studious avoidance of stereotype in its portrayal of Asian characters; Wang Lung, O-lan, and the other Chinese figures, are rendered as ordinary men and women, doing their best to survive in a hard, often dangerous world. The book’s critical success was matched by its extraordinary popularity. The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1932, and went on to become one of the two or three best-selling books of the decade. (The film version, produced by MGM in 1937, earned Luise Rainer an academy award for Best Actress.) The Good Earth has played an extraordinary role in American cultural history. In 1956, in a monograph called Scratches on Our Mind, sociologist Harold Isaacs determined that The Good Earth had done more to shape American impressions of China than any other source in the quarter-century following its publication.

Over the next several years, Buck made several significant changes in her life. In 1935, after moving back to the United States, she divorced Lossing Buck and married Richard Walsh, president of John Day. They moved to a country house called Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, north of Philadelphia; together they raised their growing family of adopted children. Buck’s publications in the 1930s included two sequels to The Good Earth, Sons and A House Divided. She also published separate biographies of each of her parents. The titles of these two books encapsulated their themes: Fighting Angel told the story of her father’s pugnacious and indefatigable evangelism; The Exile portrayed her mother as the generous victim of a misplaced religious and marital loyalty. In 1938, Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, an honor that was welcomed by her millions of readers, but was greeted with derision by a good many critics. She used the occasion of her Nobel lecture to deliver a talk on “The Chinese Novel,” a well-informed survey of several hundred years of China’s fiction.

From virtually the day of her settlement in the U.S. in the mid-thirties, Buck enlisted in a number of progressive causes. She joined the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and published several essays in the journals of both organizations. She spoke out on behalf of the Equal Rights Amendment, and published a series of feminist essays that were collected in a book called Of Men and Women (1941).

During World War II, Buck was active in fund-raising for Chinese medical relief, enlisting businessmen and public figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, in her campaigns. She and Richard Walsh played a leading role in the campaign that led to the repeal of the notorious Chinese Exclusion Acts, a series of laws stretching back to the early 1880s that had aimed to restrict immigration to the U.S. from China. Buck also chaired a national Committee Against Racial Discrimination (CARD), which lobbied for an end to segregation both in the military and in wartime industries. In part for these activities, Buck was the target of FBI surveillance, which continued for over three decades.

Throughout the war, Buck also published a series of novels set in the Asian theater, including The Patriot (1939), Dragon Seed (1942), and The Promise (1943), each of which dramatized the conflict from a pro-Chinese point of view. In addition, she and Walsh founded the East and West Association, an organization dedicated to cultural exchange and increased understanding between the peoples of Asia and America. She and Walsh edited and published Asia magazine (later Asia and the Americas), which eventually became an influential voice in the American debate over China and the other countries of Asia. She also published a collection of her wartime essays, American Unity and Asia (1942), which included statements on the status of women and African-Americans, as well as the transcript of a speech she made condemning the internment of Japanese-Americans.

After the war, Buck continued to publish novels set in Asia, but she also published a series of novels, under the pseudonym “John Sedges,” set mainly in the American West. Designed to test the reactions of critics and the public to quite different writing, the books enjoyed a modest success. She also published a number of highly-regarded children’s books, including The Big Wave (1947), a bravely sympathetic account of daily life in a Japanese fishing village.

In the postwar years, Buck was increasingly troubled by the plight of mixed-race children, born to Asian women as the result of sexual relationships with American servicemen stationed across the Pacific. These Amerasian children (Buck coined the term) were victims of discrimination in their several Asian homelands, and were also considered “unadoptable” in the United States. In 1949, with a characteristic combination of pragmatism and pugnacity, she founded Welcome House, the world’s first international, inter-racial adoption agency. Over the subsequent half-century, Welcome House has supervised the adoption of over five thousand children. Fifteen years later, in 1964, she created the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which recruited sponsors in the United States whose donations provided health benefits and educational opportunities for Amerasian children in half-a-dozen Asian countries. Both of these organizations, now merged into Pearl S. Buck International, continue to carry out her humanitarian programs.

Buck continued to publish prodigiously during the postwar years. Her work included a non-fiction series of five books based on extended interviews, including Talk About Russia (1945), which tells the story of a Russian woman named Masha Scott; American Argument (1949), co-authored with Eslanda Goode Robeson, a discussion of racism in America; and Friend to Friend (1958), the record of a conversation with Carlos P. Romulo, the foreign minister of the Philippines.

Buck’s postwar fiction alternated between Chinese and American subjects. Kinfolk (1949), which tells the story of a family of Chinese-Americans and their various responses to revolutionary China, is one of the first novels to treat of Asian-American experience. Imperial Woman (1956) is a fictionalized biography of the Empress Dowager, who had ruled over China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Command the Morning (1959) recreates the Manhattan Project, and the development of the atomic bomb.

In 1954, Buck published her autobiography, My Several Worlds, which evocatively re-created her unusual life as a resident of two cultures. At about the same time, Richard Walsh suffered a stroke; he never recovered, but lingered for several years before his death in 1960. That event provoked a second volume of memoirs, A Bridge for Passing (1961).

In 1969, in her late seventies, Buck moved from Pennsylvania to Vermont, where she spent the last several years of her life, and where she died on March 6, 1973. A few months later, when the National Women’s Hall of Fame was opened in Seneca Falls, New York, Buck was among the twenty women named to the Hall on its founding. The accolade paid tribute to a life of unexampled productivity: the author of over eighty books, Buck had also played an influential role in the effort to secure equal rights for women and minorities, and she had made signal contributions to promoting the welfare of disadvantaged children. Her work, which remains outside the canon of major literature, has sold millions of copies in English, has also been translated into over sixty languages. Each year, thousands of visitors come to Green Hills Farm, now designated a National Historic Landmark, and the headquarters of Pearl S. Buck International.

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