Pearl S. Buck Biography


Pearl S. Buck was truly a pioneer in appreciating the People's Republic of China and its emergence as a world power. Through her writings and humanitarian activities, she often made attempts to reduce the cultures of China and the United States to their lowest common denominator in order to bridge the two worlds in which she lived.

Although Pearl Sydenstricker was born in America (1892), she was taken to China by her missionary parents when she was only a few months old. She spoke Chinese before she spoke English, played with Chinese children, and listened intently to the Buddhist and Taoist legends related to her by her Chinese nurse. She later called these legends her first literary influence. Another strong influence on the young girl was her mother, Caroline Sydenstricker, who told stories about America to Pearl. She also read books available to her: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and various works of Shakespeare, Scott, Thackeray, George Eliot, and, especially, Dickens.

Her love of these stories and her interest in people's lives made Pearl Buck determined at an early age to become a writer of stories. As she later writes in My Several Worlds: "Even then I had intended to be a teller of tales, a writer of novels, though how that end was to be achieved I did not know. One longs to make what one loves, and above all I loved to hear stories about people. I was a nuisance of a child, I fear, always curious to know about people and why they were as I found them." Aided by her mother's encouragement, Pearl got her first youthful selections published in the children's section of the Shanghai Mercury.

Because of her childhood in China, Pearl Buck was very sympathetic with many aspects of Chinese culture. At an early age, she studied Confucian scholarship and Chinese history. Later, she worked in an institution to rehabilitate slave girls who had fled from the cruel treatment of their owners. These experiences made Pearl aware not only of the evils and injustices within the Chinese culture, but also made her sympathetic to the plight of the Chinese at the hands of Western imperialism. She personally felt the results of this exploitation in 1905 when her family, though each member had been a dear friend to the Chinese of the village, was forced to flee to the seacoast for protection during the Boxer Rebellion. For the first time, Pearl realized that she was somehow an alien, merely a visitor in the only world of which she had any direct experience.

In 1909, at the age of seventeen, Pearl Sydenstricker came to the United States to attend Randolph-Macon Woman's College. Here she continued to write stories and even co-authored a class play. In her senior year, her writing talent won two literary prizes. Her experience in the United States soon made her aware that her life and education in China were far different from that of girls in the United States. Once again, she had to accept the fact that she was different, and she made efforts to bridge her two worlds.

After receiving her degree in 1914, she remained at Randolph-Macon as a teaching assistant in the department of Philosophy and Psychology. This position was short-lived, however, for Pearl was soon called back to China when her mother became seriously ill at the end of 1914. While caring for her mother, Pearl studied written Chinese and took her mother's place as a counselor, listening to Chinese women's viewpoints and helping them solve their problems.

On May 13, 1917, Pearl married John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural expert. John, originally from upstate New York, was in China with the Presbyterian Mission Board, teaching American farming methods to the Chinese. The Bucks lived in the city of Nanhsüchou in the Anhwei province of North China. It is here that Pearl Buck became acquainted with the life of the Chinese peasant — his simple life and farming methods, his precarious fights against drought, famine, death, and his close ties with the earth. This knowledge and love of the Chinese peasant were to appear later in The Good Earth and other of her literary works.

In 1921, the Bucks moved south to Nanking, where John received a position at the University of Nanking as a professor of agricultural methods. Pearl also obtained a position as a teacher of English literature. In October of that year, Pearl's mother died, inspiring Pearl Buck to write a short biography of Mrs. Sydenstricker as a memorial to her family. This biography, Pearl's first book, was put away for many years, later revised, and was finally published as The Exile in 1936.

Life in Nanking was markedly different from the simple life in North China. Here, Western ideas were replacing traditional Chinese customs, and Bolshevist ideas were threatening the traditional Chinese political and social structures. The Chinese youth of Nanking were both seduced and confused by these rapidly changing ideas. Pearl Buck, through her work at the University of Nanking, was very aware of this confusion and rebellion and used them in Chapters 12, 13, and 14 of The Good Earth. During these years, she also wrote many essays on the changes within China, some of which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Forum, and The Nation.

In 1925, John and Pearl Buck brought their first child to the United States, hoping that medical treatment could correct what they feared were signs of mental disorder. While in the United States, Pearl and John both attended Cornell University where, in the following year, Pearl took her Master of Arts degree in English literature. To help finance this trip to the United States, Pearl entered and won the Laura Messenger Prize in history for her essay "China and the West," again bringing together her two worlds.

In late 1926, Pearl and John Buck returned to their Nanking home to teach at Southeastern University and the University of Nanking, respectively. However, in March 1927, Nationalist soldiers attacked Nanking and began killing Caucasians. Pearl, John, their daughter, and Pearl's father were forced to flee Nanking for Shanghai, just as her family had fled during the Boxer Rebellion in 1905. Among the possessions which she was forced to leave behind was a completed but unpublished novel which was destroyed by the looting soldiers. Fortunately, the biography of her mother was left untouched, as was an incomplete novel, which, in 1930, became East Wind: West Wind, her first published novel.

In 1931, Pearl Buck published The Good Earth, the novel that won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize and international recognition. In the years from 1931-35, she published several other works, including Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935), which were published with The Good Earth as a trilogy in 1935. This trilogy, House of Earth, was awarded the William Dean Howells Medal by the American Academy of Arts and Letters as the finest work of fiction within the years 1930-35.

Also in 1935, Pearl was divorced from John Lossing Buck, and, on June 11, she married Richard J. Walsh, president of John Day Publishing Company. For the rest of her career, however, she continued writing under the name of Pearl S. Buck.

In 1936, Pearl Buck published two biographies that, with The Good Earth, would play a dominant role in her winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The first of these was The Exile, a frank portrayal of Miss Buck's mother as an American girl and her missionary life in China. The second was Fighting Angel, a biography of Pearl's father, developed from a biographical sketch entitled "In Memoriam: Absalom Sydenstricker, 1852-1931," written shortly after his death. These two biographies were published together in 1944 as The Spirit and the Flesh.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Pearl Buck continued her writing with the same tremendous industry and extended her repertoire to include many genres. Her non-fiction works include Tell the People (1945), dealing with mass education; The Child Who Never Grew (1950), dealing with her daughter; an autobiography, My Several Worlds (1954); The Kennedy Women (1970), telling of the strength and suffering of the women surrounding the Kennedys; and Pearl Buck's Oriental Cookbook (1972). Besides writing later Oriental novels, such as Pavilion of Women (1946), she also wrote such American works as American Triptych (1958), containing three novels first published under the pen name John Sedges: The Townsman, Voices in the House, and The Long Love.

Also contained within her vast writings are such plays as Flight into China (1939), The First Wife (1945), and A Desert Incident (1959). She wrote a novel treating the suppression of women, This Proud Heart (1938). Reaching into other media, she co-authored a musical production, Christine (1960), wrote radio scripts during World War II, and the movie script for Satan Never Sleeps (1962), from an outline by Leo McCarey.

Always a humanitarian who felt the results of racial prejudice while in China during the Boxer Rebellion in 1905 and the uprisings of 1927, Pearl Buck took up such causes as the suffering immigrants of New York City in the New York Times (November 16, 1954); India's fight for independence (she was one of the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Foundation founders), and the Training School at Vineland, New Jersey, for the caring and treatment of the mentally ill. Miss Buck also served as a member of the national committee of the American Civil Liberties Union and often spoke out for intellectual freedom and against censorship.

But perhaps her greatest interest was in children. She was the author of a great many children's books, as well as articles on unwanted children and adoption. In 1949, she and her husband, Richard Walsh, founded Welcome Home, an adoption agency for children of Asian-American blood, especially children of servicemen who had served overseas.

Pearl S. Buck died March 6, 1973, in Danby, Vermont. In all, she was the author of over sixty books, touching sympathetically on many subjects. Especially after winning the Nobel Prize in 1938, her humanitarian preoccupations often suppressed the objective frankness of her earlier works. There are, however, moments of greatness in all of her works, and surely The Good Earth and the Nobel Prize biographies will stand as classics of literature for their simplicity of style and character portrayal.