Pearl Buck — America's most influential 20th Century woman

 
 

Dorothy Sinson


earl Sydenstriker Buck (PSB) (1892-1973) was born in West Virginia and lived for most of her first 42 years in China, as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries and as the wife of an agricultural missionary. Her published works included 38 novels, 32 books of non-fiction, 19 children's books and hundreds of short stories, articles, and delivered speeches. She received the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 and the Howells Medal in 1935 for The Good Earth; but she is best and most controversially known for her receipt of the Nobel Prize in1938, awarded to her for the "rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces."

PSB's accomplishments went well beyond her literary prizes. Since the days when Teddy Roosevelt called the Chinese "an immoral, degraded and worthless race," American's attitudes have changed dramatically. Historian James Thomson saluted her in 1992 for her part in this change when he stated that she "was the most influential westerner to write about China since the 13th Century Marco Polo."1 PSB was constantly in demand for articles, lectures, and symposiums concerning Asia. She was especially influential during WWII, when those seeking her counsel included Colonel "Wild" Bill Donovan, head of OSS; Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court William O. Douglas, and Hu Shib, the Chinese ambassador.

PSB began her passionate advocacy for racial equality in a speech in Harlem in 1932. After she viewed a recent anti-lynching art exhibit, she stated that the way white Americans acted often made her wish she didn't have "a drop of white blood in my veins." 2 Her "Letter to the Editor" (New York Times, 1942), in which she wrote that America's institutionalized racism in housing, jobs, and wages was worse than Hitlerism, caused a national sensation — as did her often-repeated remark that "if we persist (in race prejudice) we are fighting on the wrong side in this war. We belong with Hitler."3 Walter White in a NAACP speech stated that PSB was "one of only two intelligent and brave souls in the white world to see the picture as it is."4

Another of PSB's powerful and passionate life-long concerns involved women and their place in the world. She lived her life as a courageous, empathetic, energetic, visionary woman, and she populated her fiction with such characters. This Proud Heart, her first novel about Americans, is the story of a brilliant artistic woman who, when forced to choose between a husband and a career chooses the career without disastrous results. Mother is the story of an unnamed, flawed Chinese peasant woman, who endures untold tragedies, but is never defeated. As a woman with definite sexual needs and longings, she is an unusual mother-heroine indeed!

Pavilion of Women (written as GI's were streaming home and machoism was in the air) is the story of a Chinese matriarch who moves into a "room of her own" upon her 40th birthday. PSB's favorite, The Old Demon, is about an aged Chinese woman who saved her village by opening the dike gate and drowning the entire advancing Japanese army and, of course, herself. PSB's tremendous amounts of non-fiction efforts supporting female betterment are less well known. She spoke and wrote repeatedly in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment, knowing a huge majority of her reading public (American Association of University Women and League of Women Voters) opposed the measure. At a Margaret Sanger tribute in 1935, she stated that not widely disseminating birth control knowledge in America involved "stupid, blind social injustice."5

Of Men and Women was published 22 years before The Feminine Mystique and contained many similarities. PSB wrote, as would Betty Friedan, that women were not assuming their responsibilities in the world and were actually retreating into their homes. Both blamed tradition (actually the feminine mystique) and both called for the same solution: "break it!"

Other courageous insightful and often prophetic activities of PSB included the time she spoke to several thousand missionaries. She answered her title question, "Is there a Case for Foreign Missions?" with a resounding "no!" portraying missionaries as "narrow, uncharitable, unappreciative, and ignorant,"6 and thereby she contributed to the re-thinking of the entire missionary movement. When FDR began to intern Japanese Americans in concentration camps in 1942, she condemned the action and labeled his policy as "blind, stupid, unreasoning, the sort of thing fascism does."7 In support of freedom for India, she wrote in 1934 that "Great Britain has participated in one of the longest and cruelest tyrannies in human history."8

During the early 1940's PSB had become the leading spokesperson for Indian liberation. Her fiction is populated with the triumphs and tragedies of interracial marriage, and this in the midst of anti-miscegenation laws, which existed in 25 states at the time. Her five documentary-like war-in-progress novels of WWII were unique in their Asian perspectives, their powerful female characters, and, in Dragon Seed, a recognition of the war crime of rape. Her frontier book, The Townsman, in at least one scholar's opinion, is an important document in the history of the western novel because of its "focus on citizenship rather that blood-thirsty sensation."9

Her five "talk books" with famous persons also included a talk in 1948 with Erna Von Pustau, a recent German emigré. This book, How it Happens, has been cited for contributing "valuable and in-depth pioneering insights into the psychology of totalitarianism."10 In 1950, writing for the first time about Carol, her mentally retarded daughter and only natural child, PSB inspired Rose Kennedy and others to write about their retarded children. The Child Who Never Grew is still in print and has been heralded as a book that helped change Americans' attitudes toward mental illness. Besides her three early literary prizes, she was elected to the National Institute and the American Academy and received dozens of awards, citations and honorary degrees. Her books have appeared on best-seller lists, such as Literary Guild and Book-of-the-Month Club, and eventually were published in 147 languages and dialects, many still in print today (27 in the US). Continually selected as one of America's outstanding women in the Gallup Poll and women's magazines' polls, she was among the first 20 inductees in 1973 into the new National Women's Hall of Fame in New York. She was also recognized, in a manner of speaking, by the FBI. Her FBI file totaled 300 pages and even included her children's book, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the story of four Korean/American boys fighting for existence under a bridge in Seoul, abandoned by their Korean mothers and their American servicemen fathers.

Definitely an advocate, PSB was also an activist. In 1941 she and her second husband created the East/West Association, a cultural exchange organization between America and Asian countries. In 1949 she started Welcome House, the first U.S. interracial adoption agency. Still in existence today, it has placed over 5,000 children in American homes, and liberalized adoption laws can be traced to her advocacy. PSB adopted seven children and would have adopted three more had the laws at the time allowed it. In 1964 she created the PSB foundation as a second strategy to help Amerasian children. Opportunity Centers were eventually set up in 12 Asian countries offering medical, educational, and career help. The PSB Foundation still exists today and has helped more than 100,000 Amerasian children and their families.

Some of the greatest persons who ever lived were not military heroes or politicians, but people whose major accomplishments have impacted the lives of people. Richard Nixon, in his eulogy for PSB, called her a "bridge between the civilizations of the East and West." I see her as that bridge, shining in the sunlight, spanning the chasm filled with bigotry, hate, violence, and stupidity. I am filled with the hope that there is a young, 21st Century woman out there preparing to construct a "bridge" of her own. v

Editor's note: This is the first article for the Caxtonian by Dorothy Sinson, a specialist in Pearl S. Buck. We welcome her and this splendid piece on one of America's greatest writers. Sinson will present a talk on PSB at the May Caxton Luncheon.

Endnotes

1 James Thomson, "Why Doesn’t Pearl Buck Get Respect?" Philadelphia Inquirer (July 24, 1992), p.A15

2 Roy Wilkens, "Talking it Over," Kansas City Call (December 23, 1932)

3 Joseph P. Lash, Eleanor and Franklin (New York: W. W. Norton, 1971), p. 671

4 New York Herald Tribune (February 12, 1942)

5 The Washington Post (February 15, 1933)

6 Pearl S. Buck, "Is There a Case for Foreign Missionaries?" (New York: John Day Company, 1932), p. 8

7 Pearl S. Buck, American Unity and Asia (New York: John Day Company, 1942), p. 103

8 Pearl S. Buck, "Asia Book Shelf," Asia (September 1937), p. 654

9 Ernest E. Leisy, The American Historical Novel (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950) p. 205

10 Peter Conn, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 268

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  View chronology of Pearl Buck's works