Authors: Pearl S. Buck

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Nobel Prize–winning American writer best known for stories about life in China

June 26, 1892

Hillsboro, West Virginia

March 6, 1973

Danby, Vermont

Biography

Pearl S. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in West Virginia on June 26, 1892. Her parents, Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, were missionaries who took her to China when she was still an infant. China was her home, except during her college undergraduate days, until 1932. When she was ready to go to college, Buck’s parents sent her back to the United States, where she attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, in Lynchburg, Virginia, graduating in 1914. While she was an undergraduate, Buck distinguished herself by becoming president of her class and by winning collegiate literary prizes.

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In 1917, she married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural expert working for the Presbyterian mission board. Their first five years of marriage were spent in the highly unsettled regions of North China. When her husband accepted a position at Nanking University, Pearl Buck began to teach English at the same institution, serving until 1924. She later taught at National Southeastern University (1925-1927) and at Chung-Yang University (1928-1930). The Bucks took a leave of absence in 1925; they returned to the United States and studied at Cornell University. While working on her master’s degree, Buck learned that her daughter, Carol, was mentally handicapped. Even though the doctors recommended that Carol be institutionalized, Buck did not do so until 1929. Another daughter, Janice, was adopted, and she returned to China with the Buck family.

Pearl Buck, 1932. Photograph by Arnold Genthe.

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Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G412-T-6033-005-A-x ).

Pearl Buck, 1932. Photograph by Arnold Genthe.

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Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-G412-T-6033-005-A-x ).

The publication of The Good Earth in 1931 made Pearl S. Buck world-famous as a popular novelist. With that book, she achieved fame, not only as a novelist but also as the foremost interpreter of China to Westerners. She, John, and their two daughters returned to the United States for a year’s leave. On the return trip to China, she requested and received a year’s separation from John. During that year, she traveled extensively through Asia. In 1934, she left for the United States with Janice. Pearl divorced John Buck on June 10, 1935; the next day, she married Richard J. Walsh, the president of John Day, her publishing company. They settled on a farm in Pennsylvania and later adopted nine children. Richard died in 1960 after a lengthy illness.

Honorary degrees were awarded to Buck by several institutions, including Harvard and Yale Universities. She was also one of the first women to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Good Earth won many awards for its author, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1935. She was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1936. Her crowning award was the Nobel Prize in Literature, which she received in 1938 for her portrayal of the Chinese people in her novels.

The Good Earth was the first novel of a trilogy, The House of Earth, which includes Sons and A House Divided. The trilogy presents the history of a Chinese family through several generations, and it has been compared to the Rougon-Macquart series of novels by Émile Zola. Similarities are especially strong between Buck’s The Good Earth and Zola’s La Terre (1887; The Soil, 1888, and also as Earth, 1954), running much deeper than the titles.

The Good Earth was an exceptionally popular novel. With its American sales approximating a million copies, and translations made into twenty or more other languages, the novel topped the best-seller lists in the United States for more than two years. Despite its vast popularity, or perhaps partly because of it, and because her books were concerned with a culture alien to the United States, critics and scholars have been slow to grant Buck’s work a place in literary history. Critical appraisals of The Good Earth and Buck’s later novels have indicated that the greatest merit of the books lies in the truthfulness with which China and its people are portrayed.

Following The Good Earth, which is a point of departure in any discussion of Buck, came other novels which had more modest success, such books as The Young Revolutionist, portraying the Chinese Communist movement, and The Mother, which relates the tribulations of a Chinese peasant woman. During the 1930’s, Buck also turned to writing books other than novels; The First Wife, and Other Stories was her first volume of published short fiction. Like a later volume, Today and Forever, it had relatively little appeal to the public, which seemed to have quickly categorized Buck as a novelist.

In addition to her other work, there appeared two volumes of biography, The Exile and Fighting Angel, portraits of the author’s missionary parents. These two books offer a suggestion as to why Buck broke away from missionary work. They show her belief that the Christianity of the missions failed to arouse Chinese sympathy for Christianity or the people who represented it. Perhaps that belief also played a large part in Buck’s continued efforts to help improve understanding between the Chinese and Western peoples. In 1941, she founded the East and West Association, serving as its president for many years. Her work to improve understanding continued through such volumes as Dragon Seed, The Promise, Pavilion of Women, Peony, Kinfolk, The Hidden Flower, and Imperial Woman.

An autobiographical volume, My Several Worlds, relates the author’s experiences as a person, a writer, and a humanitarian. Because of the criticism Buck received contending that she could write only about China, she wrote five novels about the United States from 1945 to 1953 under the pseudonym John Sedges. The first of these novels, The Townsman, was highly acclaimed. Also worthy of mention in Buck’s amazing volume of writings is All Men Are Brothers, a translation of a Chinese classic, Shui hu chuan. She also wrote and published a number of books for children.

Pearl Buck considered herself a writer in the Chinese tradition of fiction, a tradition that stresses entertainment as its primary purpose. Such was her declaration in her Nobel lecture, The Chinese Novel. She also said that she had to write, especially novels, and that she could not be truly happy unless she was writing, either to entertain or to further her humanitarian and liberal beliefs in religion and politics. In 1964, she started the Pearl Buck Foundation with a contribution of one million dollars. The foundation helped more than two thousand Asian children fathered and abandoned by American service members.

In failing health, Buck continued to write until her death. Her novel All Under Heaven was published less than a week before she died in Vermont on March 6, 1973. The manuscript of her final novel, The Eternal Wonder, was finished not long before her death but vanished. It was only resurfaced in December 2012 in Texas, and the following year, the bildungsroman was finally published.

Author Works Long Fiction: East Wind:West Wind, 1930 The Good Earth, 1931 Sons, 1932 The Mother, 1934 A House Divided, 1935 House of Earth, 1935 This Proud Heart, 1938 The Patriot, 1939 Other Gods: An American Legend, 1940 Dragon Seed, 1942 China Sky, 1942 The Promise, 1943 China Flight, 1945 Portrait of a Marriage, 1945 The Townsman, 1945 (as John Sedges) Pavilion of Women, 1946 The Angry Wife, 1947 (as Sedges) Peony, 1948 Kinfolk, 1949 The Long Love, 1949 (as Sedges) God’s Men, 1951 The Hidden Flower, 1952 Bright Procession, 1952 (as Sedges) Come, My Beloved, 1953 Voices in the House, 1953 (as Sedges) Imperial Woman, 1956 Letter from Peking, 1957 Command the Morning, 1959 Satan Never Sleeps, 1962 The Living Reed, 1963 Death in the Castle, 1965 The Time Is Noon, 1967 The New Year, 1968 The Three Daughters of Madame Liang, 1969 Mandala, 1970 The Goddess Abides, 1972 All Under Heaven, 1973 The Rainbow, 1974 The Eternal Wonder: A Novel, 2013 Short Fiction: The First Wife, and Other Stories, 1933 Today and Forever, 1941 Twenty-seven Stories, 1943 Far and Near: Stories of Japan, China, and America, 1947 American Triptych, 1958 Hearts Come Home, and Other Stories, 1962 The Good Deed, and Other Stories, 1969 Once upon a Christmas, 1972 Pearl S. Buck's Book of Christmas, 1974 East and West, 1975 Secrets of the Heart, 1976 The Lovers, and Other Stories, 1977 The Woman Who Was Changed, and Other Stories, 1979 Nonfiction: East and West and the Novel, 1932 The Exile, 1936 Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul, 1936 The Chinese Novel, 1939 Of Men and Women, 1941, expanded 1971 American Unity and Asia, 1942 What America Means to Me, 1943 China in Black and White, 1945 Talk about Russia: With Masha Scott, 1945 Tell the People: Talks with James Yen about the Mass Education Movement, 1945 How It Happens: Talk about the German People, 1914-1933, with Erna von Pustau, 1947 American Argument:With Eslanda Goods, 1949 The Child Who Never Grew, 1950 My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, 1954 Friend to Friend: A Candid Exchange between Pearl Buck and Carlos F. Romulo, 1958 A Bridge for Passing, 1962 The Joy of Children, 1964 Children for Adoption, 1965 The Gifts They Bring: Our Debt to the Mentally Retarded, 1965 The People of Japan, 1966 To My Daughters with Love, 1967 China as I See It, 1970 The Kennedy Women: A Personal Appraisal, 1970 The Story Bible, 1971 Pearl S. Buck’s America, 1971 China Past and Present, 1972 Pearl S. Buck's Oriental Cookbook, 1972 (illustrated by Jeanyee Wong) Pearl S. Buck: The Complete Woman—Selections from the Writings of Pearl S. Buck, 1971 (edited by C. Merton Babcock; illustrated by Arlene Noel) Children’s/Young Adult Literature: The Young Revolutionist, 1932 Stories for Little Children, 1940 The Chinese Children Next Door, 1942 The Water-Buffalo Children, 1943 The Dragon Fish, 1944 Yu Lan: Flying Boy of China, 1945 The Big Wave, 1948 One Bright Day, and Other Stories for Children, 1952 The Man Who Changed China: The Story of Sun Yat-Sen, 1953 The Beech Tree, 1954 Johnny Jack and His Beginnings, 1954 Fourteen Stories, 1961 The Little Fox in the Middle, 1966 Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, 1967 The Chinese Story Teller, 1971 (illustrated by Regina Shekerjian) A Gift for the Children, 1973 (Illustrated by Elaine Scull) Mrs. Starling's Problem, 1973 (illustrated by Leslie Morrill) The Old Demon, 1982 (illustrated by Sandra Higashi) Little Red, 1988 (illustrated by Duane Krych) Christmas Day in the Morning, 2002 (illustrated by Mark Buehner) Translation: All Men Are Brothers, 1933 (of Shih Nai-an’s novel) Bibliography Bentley, Phyllis. “The Art of Pearl S. Buck.” English Journal 24 (December, 1935): 791-800. Analyzes Buck’s early works from a technical perspective, focusing on setting, style, characterization, plot, and theme. Concludes that the great strength of Buck’s fiction is its emphasis on the “continuity of life” from generation to generation. Bosman, Julie. "A Pearl Buck Novel, New after 4 Decades." The New York Times, 21 May 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/05/22/business/media/a-pearl-buck-novel-new-after-4-decades.html. Accessed 23 Mar. 2017. Details the rediscovery and publication of The Eternal Wonder. Cevasco, George A. “Pearl Buck and the Chinese Novel.” Asian Studies 5 (December, 1967): 437-450. Provides important insights into Buck’s understanding of the novel as a form for the general public, not the scholar, and shows her debt to Chinese beliefs about the function of plot and characterization in fiction. Conn, Peter. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Attempts to revise the “smug literary consensus” that has relegated Buck to a “footnote” in literary history. Conn does not rehabilitate Buck as a great author but shows how her best work broke new ground in subject matter and is still vital to an understanding of American culture. Dickstein, Lore. “Posthumous Stories.” The New York Times Book Review, March 11, 1979, 20-21. Praises Buck’s best work as having subject matter with a universal appeal and an easy, graceful style. Finds the late stories, however, to be excessively didactic and sentimental. Doyle, Paul A. Pearl S. Buck. Boston: Twayne, 1980. Provides a valuable survey of Buck’s literary achievements, strengths, and weaknesses. Contains a biographical chapter and excellent bibliographies of both primary and secondary materials. Doyle, Paul A. “Pearl S. Buck’s Short Stories: A Survey.” English Journal 55 (January, 1966): 62-68. One of the few critical works devoted exclusively to Buck’s short fiction. Her best stories, Doyle believes, contain realistic description, clearly delineated characters, and narrative interest. Too often, however, she wrote slick magazine fiction, excessively sentimental or filled with improbable incidents. Gao, Xiongya. Pearl S. Buck’s Chinese Women Characters. Selinsgrave, Pa.: Susquehanna Press, 2000. Examines the treatment of Chinese women characters in Buck’s work by focusing on five novels. Begins with a general overview of Buck’s writing, the responses of critics to her work, her Chinese influence, and the position of women in Chinese society at the time Buck’s books appeared. Analyses follow of the portrayals of aristocratic women in East Wind: West Wind and Pavilion of Women, servants in Peony, and peasant women in The Good Earth and The Mother. Harker, Jaime. America the Middlebrow: Women’s Novels, Progressivism, and Middlebrow Authorship Between the Wars. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007. Traces the careers of Buck and several other women authors who published during the 1920’s and 1930’s and viewed fiction as a means of reforming society. Leong, Karen J. The China Mystique: Pearl S. Buck, Anna May Wong, Mayling Soong, and the Transformation of American Orientalism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005. Focuses on three women who were associated with China in the 1930’s and 1940’s—Buck, actor Anna May Wong, and Mayling Soong, the wife of Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek—to describe how they altered Americans’ perceptions of what it meant to be American, Chinese American, and Chinese. Liao, Kang. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Bridge Across the Pacific. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997. Analyzes Buck’s life, her political and social views, and her novels to describe how the author played a key role in improving Americans’ images of China during World War II. Lipscomb, Elizabeth J., Frances E. Webb, and Peter Conn, eds. The Several Worlds of Pearl S. Buck: Essays Presented at a Centennial Symposium, Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, March 26-28, 1992. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Collection of essays delivered at a conference in which participants sought to reevaluate Buck’s work and literary reputation. Several of the essays examine various aspects of The Good Earth; others address topics such as Buck’s portrayals of China and of handicapped children and her place in the American literary culture. Pam, Eleanor. “Patriarchy and Property: Women in Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.” In Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender, edited by Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003. Analysis of Buck’s novel is part of a collection of essays examining ninety-six works of literature from the perspective of gender. Stirling, Nora. Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict. Piscataway, N.J.: New Century, 1983. Balanced, well-researched biography is based in part on interviews with many of Buck’s friends and acquaintances. Provides important insights into Buck’s personality and the experiences that shaped her writings.

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