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Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) - original surname Sydenstricker; pseudonym John Sedges


One of the most popular American authors of her day, humanitarian, crusader for women's rights, editor of Asia magazine, philanthropist, noted for her novels of life in China. Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. The decision of the Swedish Academy stirred controversy, especially among critics who believed that Buck lacked the stature the Nobel Prize was intended to confirm. Nowadays Buck's books are generally considered dated although attempts have been made to rehabilitate her work.

"One does not live half a life in Asia without return. When it would be I did not know, nor even where it would be, or to what cause. In our changing world nothing changes more than geography. The friendly country of China, the home of my childhood and youth, is for the time being forbidden country. I refuse to call it enemy country. The people in my memory are too kind and the land too beautiful." (from A Bridge for Passing, 1963)

Pearl S. Buck was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia. She spent her youth in China, in Chinkiang on the Yangtse River. She learned to speak Chinese before she could speak English. Her parents were missionaries; to grow up in China was a rare experience for a Caucasian child at that time. This experience was of major importance for her whole life. Buck's father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a humorless, scholarly man who spent years translating the Bible from Greek to Chinese. Her mother, the former Caroline Stulting, had travelled widely in her youth and had a fondness for literature. Buck's life in China was not always pleasant. When she was only a child, the family was forced to flee from the rebel forces of the Boxer Rebellion.

After being educated by her mother and by a Chinese tutor, who was a Confucian scholar, Buck was sent to a boarding school in Shanghai (1907-09) at the age of fifteen. She also worked for the Door of Hope, a shelter for Chinese slave girls and prostitutes. Buck continued her education in the United States at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, where she studied psychology. After graduating in 1914, she returned to China as a teacher for the Presbyterian Board of Missions. Her mother was seriously ill and Buck spent two years taking care of her.

Buck married Dr. John Lossing Buck, an agricultural expert, devoted to his work. When her mother recovered, they settled in a village in the North China. Buck worked as a teacher and interpreter for her husband and travelled through the countryside. During this period China took steps toward liberal reform, especially through the May 4th Movement of 1917 to 1921.

In the 1920s the Bucks moved to Nanking, where she taught English and American literature at the university. Later she singled out the radical thinker Chen Duxiu (Ch'en Tu-hsiu) as the most powerful mentor of her youth. Chen, who taught at the university of Beijing, became one of the founders of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1924 Buck returned to the United States to seek medical care for her first daughter, who was mentally retarded. In 1926 she received her M.A. in literature from Cornell University.

The Bucks went back to China in 1927. During the civil war, they were evacuated to Japan – Buck never returned to China. In 1935 Buck divorced her first husband and married her publisher and the president of John Day Company, Richard Walsh, with whom she moved to Pennsylvania.

As a writer Buck started with the novel Eeast Wind: West Wind  (1930), which received critical recognition. She had earlier published autobiographical writings in magazines and a story entitled 'A Chinese Woman Speaks' in the Asia Magazine. Her breakthrough novel, The Good Earth, came out in 1931. Its style, a combination of biblical prose and the Chinese narrative saga, increased the dignity of its characters. The book gained a wide audience, and was made into a motion picture. 

In 1936 Buck was made a member of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. She became in 1938 the third American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, following Sinclair Lewis and Eugene O'Neill. In 1951 she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. During World War II she lectured and wrote on democracy and American attitudes toward Asia. In China, missionaries were long regarded as tool of cultural oppression. After the death of Mao, Buck's biographies of her parents, published under the title The Spirit and the Flesh (1944), captured the attention of a new generation of Chinese readers, providing them a totally different perspective into the issue. "All the political propaganda, and many years of socialist education, simply went to pieces after people read this little biography," said Professor Kang Liao, one of China's leading Buck scholars.

It has been said, that Buck introduced the theme of women's corporality into 20th century literature. Another major theme was interracial love. Through her personal experiences, Buck had much first-hand knowledge of the relationships between men and women from different cultures. In The Hidden Flower (1952) a Japanese family is overset when the daughter falls in love with an American soldier. The Angry Wife (1949) was about the love of Bettina, a former slave, and Tom, a southerner who fought for the army of the North.

Buck and Walsh were active in humanitarian causes through the East and West Association, which was devoted to mutual understanding between the peoples of Asia and the United States, Welcome House, and The Pearl Buck Foundation. A friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, and Paul Robeson, she also advocated the rights of women and racial equality before the civil rights movement. As a consequence of these activities, the F.B.I. kept detailed files on her for years.

After the communist revolution in China, Buck became disillusioned about the chances for international cooperation. The Patriot (1939) focused on the emotional development of an university student, whose idealism is crushed by the brutalities of war. Buck gradually shifted her activities to a lifelong concern for children. She coined the word ''Amerasian'' and raised millions of dollars for the adoption and fostering of Amerasian children, often abandoned by their American fathers stationed in the Far East.

Buck's own family included nine adopted children as well as her biological daughters. The Child Who Never Grew  (1950) told a personal story of her own daughter, whose mental development stopped at the age of four. The subject is also dealt with in Buck's famous novel The Good Earth. The book was filmed in 1937. Irving Thalberg had wanted to produce the novel since the 1931 publication. Thalberg employed many Chinese as extras and authentic background shots were made in China. Luise Rainer won an Academy Award for best actress. Buck did not first complain her small royalty, until years later, when MGM ignored her plea for a substantial donation to help Amerasian children.

The Good Earth (1931) sold 1,800,000 copies in its first year. It has been translated into more than thirty languages and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1932. The story follows the life of Wang Lung, from his beginnings as an impoverished peasant to his eventual position as a prosperous landowner. Wang Lung collects a slave, O-lan, from the prosperous house of Hwang. O-lan's parents sold her to Hwang because they were poor and needed money. According to an old Chinese custom, Wang Lung's and O-lan's marriage is pre-arranged. The fiancée is not beautiful, she is humble but shares with him the devotion to land, to duty, and to survival. First year is happy: the crop is good and they have two sons. Then the crops fail, and O-lan gives birth to a girl. The family moves to south, and the man abandons the plan to sell the child. Revolution breaks out, houses are plundered, and Wang Lung gets in his possession a silver treasure. The family returns to their home region. Wang Lung buys land and soon owns also the house of now impoverished Hwang. The only problem is their retarded child, a girl, who don't speak. O-lan gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl. The elder boys go to school. Wang Lung buys another wife, Lotus. O-lan is not well after the birth of the twins, and she dies after the wedding of her sons. In his old days, Wang Lung gives his love to a young slave girl, who also takes care of the retarded girl. His youngest son moves from the house to become a soldier and because he also loves the young slave girl. Old Wang Lung witnesses for his sorrow that his children do not share his unyielding devotion to the land.

The novel was followed by two sequels, Sons  (1932), which focused on the youngest son, Wang the Tiger, and A House Divided (1935), which was Yuan's story. The three novels were published in 1935 in one volume as The House of Earth. One of the recurrent themes was foot binding which ended in China in 1911 after 1,000 years of practice. At her death Buck was working on 'The Red Earth', a further sequel to The Good Earth, presenting the modern-day descendants of that novel's characters.

After Walsh's death, Buck formed a relationship with Ted Harris, a dance instructor 40 years her junior, who took charge of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation. Buck died at the age of eighty in Danby, Vermont, on March 6, 1973. Her manuscripts and papers are at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation, Hillsboro, West Virginia and the Lipscomb Library of Randolph-Macon Women's College, Lynchburg, Virginia. A novel she wrote shortly before her death, entitled The Eternl Wonder, was discovered in 2013. The coming-of-age story told of a young man whose search for meaning leads him to New York, England, France and Korea.

"I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in human beings, Buck said in 1939. "Like Confucius of old, I am so absorbed in the wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and the angels... If there is no other life, then this one has been enough to make it worth being born, myself a human being." During her career as an author, spanning forty years, Buck published eighty works, including novels, plays, short story collections, poems, children's books, and biographies. She also wrote five novels under the name John Sedges and translated Lo Guangzhong's (1330-1400) The Water Margin / Men of the Marshes, which appeared in 1933 under the title All Men Are Brothers. The book depicts adventures of outlaws and was banned by Sung rulers. Command the Morning (1959) concerned the efforts of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb and the ethics of dropping it on Japan. The Chinese Novel (1939) was largely an explanation of her own writing style.

For further reading: Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling (2011); Pearl S. Buck by Kang Liao (1997); Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography by Peter Conn (1996); World Authors 1900-1950, ed. by M. Seymour-Smith and A.C. Kimmens (1996); The Several Worlds of Pearl S. Buck, ed. by Elizabeth J. Lipscomb (1994); Pearl S. Buck: Good Earth Mother by W. Sherk (1992); Pearl Buck. A Woman in Conflict by N.B. Stirling (1989); Pearl S. Buck: The Final Chapter by Beverly E. Rizzon (1988); The Lives of Pearl Buck by I. Block (1973); Pearl S. Buck by P. Doyle (1980; Pearl S. Buck: A Biography by T. Harris (1971); Pearl S. Buck by T.F. Harris (1969); Pearl S. Buck by P.A. Doyle (1965); The Image of the Chinese Family in Pearl Buck's Novels by C. Doan (1964) - Other film adaptations: China Sky, 1945, dir. by Ray Enright, starring Randolph Scott, Ellen Drew

Selected works:

  • East Wind:West Wind, 1930
    - Itätuuli - länsituuli: kiinattaren kertomus (suom. Kaija Kauppi, 1955)
  • The Good Earth, 1931 (Pulitzer Prize)
    - Hyvä maa (suom. Vera Snellman, 1933)
    - films: The Good Earth, 1937, dir. by Sidney Frankin, starring Paul Muni, Luise Rainer, Walter Connolly. "Performances, direction and photography are of a uniform excellence, and have been fused perfectly into a dignified, beautiful, but soberly dramatic production." (The New York Times); 1954, Da di / The Earth, dir. Sun-fung Lee, prod. Chengfeng Film Company, starring Ng Cho Fan, Hung Sin Nui, Wong Man Lei, Lam Mui-mui, Mui Yee, Wong Cho-shan
  • Sons, 1932
    - Pojat (suom. Seere Sario, 1934)
  • The Laymen’s Mission Report, 1932
  • The Young Revolutionist, 1932
  • East and West and the Novel, 1932
  • Is There a Case for Foeign Missions?, 1932
  • All Men Are Brothersd / Shui Hu Chan, 1933 (translator)
  • The First Wife and Other Stories, 1933
  • Mother, 1934
    - Äiti (suom. Seere Sario, 1934)
  • A House Divided, 1935
    - Hajalle mennyt suku (suom. Serp [Seere Salminen], 1935)
  • The Exile, 1936
    - Maanpaossa (suom. Anna Talaskivi, 1936)
  • Fighting Angel: Portrait of a Soul, 1936
    - Herran soturi (suom. Anna Talaskivi, 1938)
  • This Proud Heart, 1938
    - Ylpeä sydän (suom. Helvi Vasara, 1938)
  • The Patriot, 1939
    - Isänmaan ystävä (suom. Eino Palola, 1940)
  • Flight into China, 1939 (play)
  • The Chinese Novel, 1939 (Nobel lecture delivered before the Swedish Academy at Stockholm, December 12, 1938)
  • Other Gods: An American Legend, 1940
    - Epäjumalia: amerikkalainen tarina (suomentanut Aune Brotherus, 1942)
  • Stories for Little Children, 1940
  • Of Men and Women, 1941
  • Today and Forever: Stories of China, 1941
  • When Fun Begins, 1941
  • Dragon Seed, 1942
    - Lohikäärmeen suku (suom. Helka Varho, 1947)
    - film: Dragon Seed, 1944, dir. by Jack Conway, Harold S. Bucquet, screenpölay by Marguerite Roberts and Jane Murfin, starring Katharine Hepburn, Walter Huston, Aline MacMahon, Akim Tamiroff. "Often awkward and pretentious, it nevertheless has moments of moral and dramatic grandeur."(Time )
  • American Unity and Asia, 1942 (as Asia and Democracy, 1943)
  • Freedom for All, 1942 (?)
  • Pearl Buck Speaks for Democracy, 1942 (with a foreword by Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt)
  • The Chinese Children Next Door, 1942 (drawings by William Arthur Smith) 
  • The Promise, 1943
  • Twenty-Seven Stories, 1943
  • China Flight, 1943
  • The Water Buffalo Children, 1943 (drawings by William Arthur Smith) 
  • The Dragon Fish, 1944 (illustrated by Esther Brock Bird)
  • The Story of Dragon Seed, 1944
  • What America Means to Me, 1944
  • The Spirit and the Flesh, 1944 (contains The Exile and Fighting Angel)
  • Sun Yat Sen, 1944? (play)
  • China to America, 1944 (radio play)
  • Portrait of a Marriage, 1945 (illustrated by Charles Hargens) 
  • Will This Earth Hold?, 1945 (radio play)
  • The First Wife, 1945 (play)
  • Talk about Russia, 1945
  • Tell the People: Talks with James Yen about the Mass Education Movement, 1945
  • Tell the People: Mass Education in China, 1945
  • China in Black and White, 1945 (editor; an album of woodcuts by contemporary Chinese artists)
  • Yu Lan, Flying Boy of China, 1945 (drawings by Georg T. Hartmann)
  • The Townsman, 1945 (as John Sedges)
  • Pavilion of Women, 1946
    - Naisten piha (suom. Aune Brotherus, 1949)
    - film: Pavilion of Women, 2001, dir. by Yim Ho, screenplay by Yan Luo, starring Yan Luo, Willem Dafoe, Sau Sek, John Cho
  • Far and Near: Stories of Japan, China, and America, 1947
  • The Angry Wife, 1947 (as John Sedges)
    - Varustukset murtuvat (suom. Mikko Ukkonen, 1963)
  • How It Happens: Talk about the German People, 1914–1933, 1947 (with Erna von Pustau)
  • Peony, 1948
    - Orjatyttö (suom. Tauno Tainio, 1950)
  • The Big Wave, 1948 (illustrated with prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai)
  • Kinfolk 1949
    - Isien maa (suom. Olavi Salas, 1951)
  • American Argument, 1949 (with Eslanda Goode Robeson) 
  • The Long Love, 1949 (as John Sedges)
  • The Child Who Never Gre, 1950
    - Lapsi joka ei vartu (suom. Jouko Linturi, 1956)
  • One Bright Day, 1950 (as One Bright Day and Other Stories, 1952)
  • God's Men, 1951
    - Jumalan miehiä (suom. Pekka Häkli, 1952)
  • The Hidden Flower, 1952
    - Kätketty kukka (suom. Hilkka ja Jussi Koskiluoma, 1953)
  • Bright Procession, 1952 (as John Sedges)
  • One Bright Day, 1952
  • Come, My Beloved, 1953
    - Tule, rakkaani (suom. suom. Kyllikki Sutinen, 1954)
  • Voices in the House, 1953 (as John Sedges)
  • The Man Who Changed China: The Story of Sun Yat-Sen, 1953 (illustrated by Fred Castellon) 
  • My Several Worlds, 1954
  • Johnny Jack and His Beginnings, 1954 (illustrated by Kurt Werth) 
  • The Beech Tree, 1954 (illustrated by Kurt Werth) 
  • Imperial Woman, 1956
    - Kiinan keisarinna (suom. Lea Karvonen, 1956)
  • Letter from Peking, 1957
    - Kirje Pekingistä (suom. Inkeri Hämäläinen, 1957)
  • Christmas Miniature, 1957 (illustrated by Anna Maria Magagna)
  • Friend to Friend: A Candid Exchange between Pearl S. Buck and Carlos P. Romulo, 1958
  • American Triptych: Three 'John Sedges' Novels, 1958
  • Desert IncidentT, 1959 (play)
  • Command the Morning, 1959
    - Oletko käskenyt päivän koittaa? (suom. Tauno Tainio, 1959)
  • The Delights of Learning, 1960 (address delivered on the occasion of the University of Pittsburgh Honors Convocation, April 6, 1960) 
  • Christine, 1960 (play, with Charles K. Peck, Jr. music by Sammy Fain, lyrics by Paul Francis Webster, adaptation of the novel My Indian Family by Hilda Wernher)
  • The Christmas Ghost, 1960
  • Satan Never Sleeps, 1961
    - film: The Devil Never Sleeps / Satan Never Sleeps, 1962, dir. by Leo McCarey, screenplay by Claude Binyon and Leo McCarey, starring Clifton Webb, William Holden, France Nuyen. "This "Satan" is a direct descendant of "Madama Butterfly" and soap opera."(The New York Times)
  • Fourteen Stories, 1961 (as With a Delicate Air and Other Stories, 1962)
  • A Bridge for Passing, 1962
  • Hearts Come Home and Other Stories, 1962
  • The Big Wave, 1961 (screenplay, with Ted Danielewski)
    - films: The Big Wave, TV film 1956, in The Alcoa Hour, dir. by Norman Felton; The Big Wave, 1961, dir. Tad Danielewski, starring Sessue Hayakawa, Juzo Itami, Mickey Curtis, Koji Shitara, Hiroyuki Ota
  • The Living Reed, 1963
  • The Joy of Children, 1964 (with an introd. by Roy Sorenson; based on the photographic exhibit prepared for the 1960 White House Conference on Children and Youth, "These are our children")
  • Welcome Child, 1964 (photos. by Alan D. Haas)
  • Stories of China, 1964
  • Escape at Midnight and Other Stories, 1964
  • The Big Fight, 1965 (illustrated by Mamoru Funai)
  • Children for Adoption, 1965
  • The Guide, 1965 (play, adaptation of the novel by R.K. Narayan)
    - film: Guide, dir. by Vijay Anand, dialogue by Vijay Anan, Pearl S. Buck (US version), starring Dev Anand, Waheeda Rehman and Leela Chitnis
  • The Gifts They Bring, 1965
  • Fairy Tales of the Orient, 1965 (editor)
  • The Guide, 1965 (sceenplay)
  • The Little Fox in the Middle, 1966
  • Death in the Castle, 1966
  • The People of Japan, 1966 (photos. by Stuart Fox)
  • My Mother's House, 1966 (with others)
  • For Spacious Skies: Journey in Dialogue, 1966 (with Theodore F. Harris)
  • The Time Is Noon, 1967
    - Keskipäivä (suom. Annukka Aikio, 1967)
  • Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, 1967 (illustrated by Mamoru Funai)
  • To My Daughter, with Love, 1967
  • The New Year, 1968
    - Sydän tietää paremmin (suom. J.I. Backman, 1968)
  • The People of China, 1968
  • The Good Deed, 1969
  • The Three Daughters of Madame Liang, 1969
    - Rouva Liangin tyttäret (suom. Irmeli Järnefelt, 1970)
  • Mandala, 1970
    - Mandala (suom. Matti Kannosto, 1970)
  • The Kennedy Women, 1970
  • China as I See It, 1970 (compiled and edited by Theodore F. Harris)
  • The Story Bible, 1971
  • The Chinese Story Teller, 1971 (illustrated by Regina Shekerjian)
  • Pearl Buck's America, 1971 (photos. from Life)
  • Pearl S. Buck: The Complete Woman, 1971 (selections from the writings of Pearl S. Buck; edited by C. Merton Babcock; illustrated by Arlene Noel)
  • Pearl S. Buck's Oriental Cookbook, 1972 (illus. by Jeanyee Wong)
  • Once Upon a Christmas, 1972 (illus. by Donald Lizzul)
  • A Community Success Story, 1972
  • China Past and Present, 1972
  • The Goddess Abides, 1972
  • Mrs Starling's Problem, 1973 (illustrated by Leslie Morrill)
  • A Gift for the Children, 1973 (illus. by Elaine Scull)
  • All Under Heaven, 1973
  • The Rainbow, 1974
  • Pearl S. Buck's Book of Christmas, 1974 (editor)
  • Words of Love, 1974
  • East and West Stories, 1975
  • Secrets of the Heart: Stories, 1976
  • The Lovers and Other Stories, 1977
  • Mrs. Stoner and the Sea and Other Stories, 1978
  • The Woman Who Was Changed and Other Stories, 1979
  • A Pearl Buck Reader, 1985 (selected and condensed by the editors of Reader’s Digest)
  • Christmas Day in the Morning, 2002 (illustrated by Mark Buehner)
  • The Eternal Wonder, 2013

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