Pearl S. Buck – (1892 – 1973)
For most of us when we hear the name Pearl S. Buck we immediately recall her epic novel, The Good Earth. The Good Earth has remained one of the most popular novels since its publication in 1931 and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Buck received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.” For over 30 years, Buck’s novel, The Good Earth, played a major role in shaping Western attitudes toward China.
We undoubtedly and respectfully rank Ms. Buck at the very top of an enviable list of women who accomplished so much good in their lifetimes and who left legacies that will shine as brightly 100 years from now as they do today.
Yet, I also hold in high esteem the strength and perseverance of a woman who endured and ultimately shared with us all of the trials and tribulations that were to befall her on a unique life path that only a rare few will ever travel. In rerunning Buck’s biography so much more came out to me about the woman, mother, and wife than did the larger-than-life author, activist, and philanthropist roles that seemingly dominated her every day existence. I felt her vulnerabilities. Her concealed pain, her self-imposed flaws, her longing, shame, guilt and her loneliness. In sharp contrast, Buck’s strengths mightily defeated her inner conflicts and revealed to me a selfless, in an altruistic sense, as Buck was no martyr, courageous, compassionate, loving, generous and determined woman.
Pearl S. Buck was a woman who had to make some very difficult choices during an era when divorce was not supported by your pastor, your neighbors your family or your friends. It was 17 years before Ms. Buck would walk away from her marriage. Their first-born child, Carol, was diagnosed with severe mental disabilities at 4 years of age. Severe mental retardation, as it was referred to in those days, was a topic rarely spoken of in society except in tiny hushed whispers and fearful downcast glances by those who believed that to look directly at a thing might pierce one’s own illusory protective shield. In seeking help for little Carol, Buck was faced with limited medical knowledge of PKU, a metabolic disease, and mental retardation, the latter condition for which there was little or no therapeutic treatment available. The only unwritten prescription advised removal from society and confinement in an institution for the young child. “Institution” which by its very moniker conjured up an image of a cold, sterile and almost prison-like environment where only the most basic of needs of those who were helpless and innocent would be met. It would be years until medical science would finally catch up and offer new insights and therapies that would offer those who had been previously branded unreachable and untreatable a more humanitarian approach. Ironically it was Buck herself who was one of the first to make some headway, albeit in very small and laborious strides, by relentlessly communicating with her daughter and teaching her to do a few simple tasks.
Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker, the fifth of seven children, was born on June 26, 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia, to an ill-matched pair of Southern Presbyterian missionaries, Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker. Baby Pearl traveled with her family to China at the age of three months and lived there for forty non-consecutive years.
Raised in Chinkiang, a small port city in Kiangsu province, she was speaking and writing Chinese as well as English by the age of four. Buck was also known by her Chinese name, Sai Zhenzhu.
In 1911, upon her mother’s insistence, Pearl left China to attend Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. Buck graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1914 and was a member of Kappa Delta Sorority. Immediately upon graduation, Buck returned to China. In 1917 she met and married John Lossing Buck, a Cornell Graduate working in China. The couple spent the next several years in Nanhsuchou, a barren rural village, and home to several thousand impoverished farmers. She became intimately familiar with the daily lives of China’s poorest inhabitants, and years later the village would provide the primary setting for her first stories of China, including, The Good Earth. She would publish over seventy books during her long, productive career, including many bestsellers, but The Good Earth would prove to be her most enduring.
In 1920, the Bucks welcomed their first-born, a daughter, Caroline Grace Buck, who they nicknamed, “Carol”. Complications at childbirth resulted in a hysterectomy for Buck who was deeply saddened that she would not be able to birth more children. The small family then moved to Nanjing, where Pearl taught English literature at the University of Nanking. John Buck also held a teaching position at the University.
In 1921, Buck’s mother died and shortly thereafter her father, Absalom, moved in with his daughter and her husband. In 1924, husband John had earned a 1-year sabbatical and they all left China to spend this time in the United States. While in the U.S., Pearl earned her Masters degree from Cornell University. It was to be a very difficult and challenging year for Buck.
Carol, who had been a seemingly beautiful and normal baby, now at age three, was displaying signs of delay in cognitive and motor skills development. Buck, still in China at this time, confided her concerns to a couple of close friends. They, in their ignorance tried to reassure Buck that there probably was nothing to worry about and that some children just take longer to develop than others.
Pearl Buck delayed seeking medical advice for another year until such time that the Buck family returned to the U.S. during John Buck’s sabbatical with their now 4-year-old daughter. After preliminary testing revealed just how severely delayed in development was Carol, more extensive tests followed. In the interim, the Bucks adopted a daughter, Janice, in 1924.
After months of doctor visits and tests at the best medical centers in the country, including the Mayo Clinic, Carol was diagnosed with Phenylketonuria (PKU). Doctors told the Bucks their daughter had been born with this matabolic genetic disorder and had it been diagnosed and treatment begun in early infancy, Carol would most likely have developed normally. Left untreated, PKU leads to severe mental retardation, which is irreversible. Doctors strongly suggested to the Bucks that Carol be institutionalized given the amount of care that she would need going forward. Pearl, unable to comprehend doing so, returned to China with her two daughters. It was five years later when Carol was nine years old that Buck had to admit defeat and make the painful decision to have Carol placed in a home for those with mental disabilities. They returned to the United States for this purpose. After placing Carol in the best facility available to care for her, Buck returned to China. She did not see her daughter again for 3 years, a deep and painful regret that she writes about in The Child Who Never Grew.
So shrouded in the stigma that prevailed during those early years, Buck, when questioned about her children, would respond only that she had 2 little daughters, one who lived at home and one who was away at school. It wasn’t until 1950 in an article for the Ladies Home Journal did Buck reveal the truth about Carol’s disabilities in an article titled, “The Child Who Never Grew”. The article was soon thereafter published in book form and is considered a work of historical and sociological importance. Carol died in 1992 from lung cancer, the very same disease that would take her mother’s life years earlier in 1973. Carol Buck was buried in a cemetery on the grounds of the facility where she had lived most of her life, “The Training School at Vineland” in Cumberland County, New Jersey.
The tragedies and dislocations that Buck suffered in the 1920s reached a climax in March 1927, during 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. Since her father, Absalom was a missionary, the family decided to stay in Nanjing until the battle reached the city. When violence broke out, a poor Chinese family allowed them to hide in their hut while the Buck family house was looted.
As the danger and violence continued the Bucks and Pearl’s father fled China. They traveled to Shanghai and then sailed via American gunboats to Japan, where they stayed for a year. They later moved back to Nanjing, though conditions remained dangerously unsettled. In 1934 they left China permanently and returned to the United States. Pearl & John Buck long having had marital difficulties, separated.
Buck purchased an old farmhouse, Green Hills Farm, in Bucks County, PA. Green Hills Farm is on the National Registry of Historic Buildings.
Ms. Buck had begun to publish stories and essays in the 1920s, in magazines such as Nation, The Chinese Recorder, Asia, and Atlantic Monthly. The John Day Company published her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, in 1930. John Day’s publisher, Richard Walsh, would eventually become Pearl’s second husband, in 1935, after both divorced their respective spouses. She and Richard Walsh adopted six more children over the following years.
After World War II, she found herself under attack by Senator Joseph McCarthy and other right-wing politicians for her liberal views. 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. Beginning in 1938 and continuing until the end of her life, Buck’s powerful and passionate voice resulted in her being under constant surveillance by the F.B.I.
In essays, lectures, and novels, she was an active supporter of the Chinese in their war against Japanese invasion. She and Walsh raised millions of dollars that were sent to China for medical relief. 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 of children in half-a-dozen Asian countries.
There is no question that Buck played a leading role in major twentieth-century struggles for human rights and established herself as one of the most powerful women of the century. In all of this, she left a legacy far larger than her classic novel, The Good Earth, and her other writings. She is buried as she had instructed, at Green Hills Farm, beneath a large ash tree. Her tombstone, which she designed, does not record her name in English; instead the Chinese characters representing the name Pearl Sydenstricker are inscribed.
I plan to reread The Good Earth and hopefully dive into more of her vast writings too. This time, however, I believe it will be a much richer experience having looked more closely at the inner workings of the woman who was Pearl S. Buck.
Further reading and links:
Pearl S. Buck – includes full list of books and essays: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pearl_S._Buck
Phenylketonuria (PKU): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phenylketonuria
Pearl S. Buck International: http://www.psbi.org/
Cornelia Spencer: The Exile’s Daughter: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck (1944)
Paul A. Doyle: Pearl S. Buck (1965)
Nora Stirling: Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict (1983)