Buck Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When Pearl S. Buck accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm, Sweden, on December 10, 1938, she became the first American woman to receive this honor.

Summary of Event

By the time the Swedish Academy’s Nobel Committee met to consider candidates in 1938, Pearl S. Buck had already published seven novels and two biographies, including her first novel, East Wind, West Wind (1930), East Wind, West Wind (Buck) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Good Earth (1931). Good Earth, The (Buck) Although many of her books were renowned, the biographies became the decisive factor in the committee’s decision. One of the biographies, The Exile (1936), Exile, The (Buck) was a memorial to Buck’s mother, Caroline Sydenstricker, and had been been written soon after Buck’s mother died; the other one, Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul (1936), Fighting Angel (Buck) commemorated her father’s life. [kw]Buck Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature (Dec. 10, 1938) [kw]Nobel Prize in Literature, Buck Receives the (Dec. 10, 1938) [kw]Prize in Literature, Buck Receives the Nobel (Dec. 10, 1938) [kw]Literature, Buck Receives the Nobel Prize in (Dec. 10, 1938) Nobel Prize recipients;Pearl S. Buck[Buck] Literature;Nobel Prizes [g]Sweden;Dec. 10, 1938: Buck Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[09880] [c]Literature;Dec. 10, 1938: Buck Receives the Nobel Prize in Literature[09880] Buck, Pearl S. Lagerlöf, Selma

The Nobel Prize was not for a given work. Instead, the Nobel Committee citation that accompanied the prize made it clear that Buck was being rewarded especially for the literary merit of the biographies of her parents and for the masterful way that she depicted Chinese peasant life in an area largely unknown to Western readers. (Buck’s parents were missionaries, and she had grown up in China.) The committee also felt that the biographies would be of permanent interest to readers, which was one of the required criteria for the judges to consider in their deliberations.

It was with some uneasiness that Buck anticipated the twentieth anniversary of the end of World War I. Little did she realize that on that day, November 11, 1938, the Swedish Academy would release the announcement of their choice of Pearl S. Buck for the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature. Her first verbal reactions were in Chinese (she expressed disbelief) and then in English (she cited others who she thought deserved the prize more). While she described the four days spent in Stockholm as the happiest ones of her professional life, the days following the announcement were not without some misgivings: She felt herself to be an outsider in the American literary world, after living so much of her life in China, and although she was extraordinarily popular as a writer, she felt unappreciated by the predominantly male circle of American literary critics. Some American writers, too, made negative comments about her being selected, and this added to Buck’s isolation.

There were others, however, who rallied around her in support, including S. J. Woolf, a writer for The New York Times Magazine, who wrote a flattering article about Buck. Sinclair Lewis, who had won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1930 and had also received criticism, urged Buck to not let anyone take away from her the joy and satisfaction of receiving the prize. Dr. Selma Lagarlöf, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 1909), was one of Buck’s main supporters; Lagarlöf sat on the selection committee. Henry Seidel Canby and Malcolm Cowley expressed their approval of the Nobel Committee’s choice in published articles, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher, William Lyon Phelps, Edward Weeks, and Katherine Woods were also enthusiastic about her selection.

Many people assumed that the Swedish Academy had honored Buck in order to make a political statement, for she had already established herself as a powerful spokeswoman against totalitarianism and violence. Negative reaction to her selection ranged from unkind remarks to outright hostility. One established critic complained about Buck’s popularity; like some other literary critics, he believed that a novelist’s success should come from discovery by a young critic who would foster the writer until, little by little, his or her reputation spread to the public, not the other way around.

Pearl S. Buck.

(The Nobel Foundation)

Nonetheless, Buck’s trip Stockholm was a joyous occasion. The Swedes were quite taken with her determination to follow custom by taking steps backward to her seat after receiving the prize rather than turn her back to King Gustav V. (Doing so was considerably more difficult for a woman in a long formal dress than for men wearing trousers.) For her Nobel lecture, Buck chose to revise an essay on the Chinese novel. In choosing this topic, she was able to accomplish at least two things: She provided the mostly European and American audience with an introduction to a rich literature that was largely unknown in the West, and she displayed her expertise in Chinese literature.

Regardless of any misgivings Buck or others may have had about her choice as a Nobel laureate, her return to the United States was filled with events and activities. Requests and invitations poured in for speeches and interviews as well as for articles and reviews. The sheer volume of invitations meant that she could accept only those that interested her most and those that offered remuneration. Despite the pleasures that her celebrity provided, Buck became acutely aware of the difficulty that a woman had in sharing the attention with her husband. There were times when her husband was not invited to important occasions, and when declining these invitations was impossible, Buck was frustrated that she had to go alone or see her husband seated in the audience. Buck’s experience made it clear that the United States was not yet completely prepared to include women in the circle of Nobel laureates.


In addition to being the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, Buck was the third American and the fourth woman to be a Nobel laureate in any category. Writers from the United States had been conspicuously missing from award lists for more than thirty years, and when three Americans were honored during the 1930’s, the message to American writers was that American writing was at last considered equal to European writing. The three women who preceded Buck were from Sweden, Norway, and Italy; recognition of an American woman was especially noteworthy.

It is important to note that Buck did not emerge from an elite circle of American writers. Instead, she gained popularity among the general population. Furthermore, Buck’s writing had largely focused on Chinese culture, and she lived in China most of the time. Her selection as a Nobel laureate thus marked a new openness that had not been apparent in previous decades. The choice also indicated the Nobel Committee’s recognition that there was more to good writing than aesthetics and that a book’s universal appeal and comprehensibility could also be marks of excellence. Nobel Prize recipients;Pearl S. Buck[Buck] Literature;Nobel Prizes

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conn, Peter. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. A thorough account of Pearl S. Buck’s life with a detailed chapter on her Nobel Prize.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, Paul A. Pearl S. Buck. Rev. ed. New York: Twayne, 1980. Provides a chronology of Buck’s life and discusses her novels before and after receiving the Nobel Prize. Explains the factors that resulted in Buck’s winning the prize.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Theodore F., and Pearl S. Buck. Pearl S. Buck: A Biography. 2 vols. New York: John Day Company, 1969, 1971. In tracing Pearl Buck’s life, this account gives a detailed account of Buck and her nomination for the Nobel Prize.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sherby, Louise S. The Who’s Who of Nobel Prize Winners, 1901-2000. 4th ed. Westport, Conn.: Oryx, 2002. Contains detailed information on Nobel Prize winners through 2000, organized chronologically by prize, as well as a brief history of the prizes. Entries include biographical details about recipients and lists of their relevant publications as well as summaries of their achievements. Features four indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Dody Weston. “Pearl Buck,” in American Winners of the Nobel Literary Prize, edited by Warren G. French and Walter E. Kidd. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968. Discusses events and activities surrounding the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Pearl Buck.

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Categories: History