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Pearl Buck: The Bridge Builder

Humans fear and loathe that which they do not understand. This fact has been true for ages and still exists today. Fortunately, there are people such as Pearl Buck. People like her see the injustice in this simple fact and work to break down the walls of separation between other people. She took on the seemingly impossible task of building a bridge across the Pacific Ocean to China from America and broke down many walls through her writings, doing a great service to many. Biographical Information Pearl Sydenstricker Buck started her eventful life as Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, Virginia on June 26, 1892.

Important events took place before this that made her birth even more special than a normal birth. Theodore Harris says that Bucks mother Carie married a man named Andrew Sydenstricker, a Presbyterian missionary in China. The couple had a daughter and raised her there. When the child was four years old, she and her mother contracted cholera. Only the mother survived (18). Buck was born two years after this tragedy while the family was on hiatus from their mission work in China. When Buck was three months old, they returned to Chinkiang, China.

According to Theodore Harris, Buck spent her whole childhood there with many Chinese influences. Wang Amah, a Chinese nurse, assisted her mother. She played with Chinese children and lived in a house along the Yangtze River (30-31). These influences later played an integral role in Bucks success as a novelist. The Encyclopedia Britannica Online says Bucks early schooling was received in Shanghai. Later, she returned to the United States and graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in the year 1914. After graduation, Buck went back to China and became a college professor in Nanking (1).

According to Dr. Bette Reagan, Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker married John Lossing Buck, also a missionary in China, and became known as Pearl Sydenstricker Buck. The ceremony took place in China in 1917. During their marriage, the couple had a daughter named Carol. While delivering the baby a uterine tumor was found in Buck, forcing her to have a hysterectomy. This left her with no possibility of bearing children again. To add to the pain of this blow, Buck later noticed that their only child was mentally retarded, suffering from a disease called PKU.

The family decided to return to the United States to place Carol in a care facility in Vineland, New Jersey (1). In addition, according to Reagan, the marriage was unhappy and Buck decided to divorce her husband in 1935. Unhappiness was not the only reason for her decision to divorce. She was also in love with her publisher, Richard Walsh, whom she later married. After the marriage, the couple moved to an estate in Pennsylvania and adopted six children. During their time at the estate, Buck wrote over 100 works (1).

In the post World War II era, Buck started the Pearl S. Buck Foundation in order to help the llegitimate children belonging to U. S. servicemen stationed in Asia. In 1967, she donated most of her earnings to the foundation, amounting to more than $7,000,000. In the year 1973, after writing countless pieces of work, Pearl Buck died. Even today, people remember her through not only her writings, but also her selfless contributions. Major Works Pearl Buck wrote countless numbers of works in her lifetime. Several of these works achieved success, while many did not.

One thing similar in nearly all of Bucks works is the fact that they are set in China, with Chinese characters. This influence came from her childhood days. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Bucks first writings concerned Chinese life and were first published in American magazines in 1923 (1). Buck continued this style of writing through the 1920s, while starting to branch out into other genres. Bucks first novel, East Wind, West Wind was published in 1930. A summary on Amazon. com says this novel concerns a young couple in an arranged marriage.

The female was brought up with traditional Chinese views on marriage, while the male was educated in the United States where he was exposed to Western ideas. As the novel progresses, the two customs blend as the characters fall in love (Amazon. com). The following year was the apex of Pearl Bucks career as a novelist. It was in the year 1931 that The Good Earth was published. According to Encyclopedia Britannica Online, the book was translated into numerous languages and widely distributed (1).

A summary from Amazon. om describes the story as taking place during the rule of the last Chinese emperor, and continuing through the social changes of that period. The main character, Wang Lung, goes from a peasant to a landowner while discovering important things concerning marriage, the land (hence the title of the book) and survival (Amazon. com). This novel gave Americans insight into Chinese life which most people knew nothing about. As Edgar Snow put it, In The Good Earth, millions of Westerners first met the Chinese people as they really feel and think and behave (qtd. in LLCMAL 163).

Another critic, Virgilia Peterson, says, The Good Earth will surely continue to span the abyss that divides East from West, so long as there are people to read it (qtd. n LLCMAL 160). Two more works, Sons in 1932 and A House Divided in 1935 were included with The Good Earth as a trilogy called The House of Earth (Encyclopedia Britannica Online). Pearl Bucks other widely known works are the biographies of her parents. Buck wrote Fighting Angel about her father Absolom and The Exile about her mother Caroline; both were published in 1936. Concerning these works, Dody Weston Thompson stated that they were powerful (qtd. n LLC V18 79).

Some feel that these biographies, while having faults, contributed to Bucks winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature. Again, Dody Weston Thompson calls Bucks biographies, the Nobel Prize biographies (qtd. in LLC V18 74). Encyclopedia Britannica Online lists other novels by Buck including Dragon Seed (1942) and Imperial Woman (1956), both published later in her career. Buck also wrote short stories, like The First Wife and Other Stories . . . (1933), Far and Near (1947), and The Good Deed (1969). Buck wrote one nonfiction book called The Child Who Never Grew (1950), and an autobiography, My Several Worlds (1954).

Buck also wrote novels using a pseudonym, John Sedges (1). Style Of Writing Pearl Buck had a variety of styles to her writing, each unique. Some of these styles earned her praise and recognition, while others earned her criticism. Nevertheless, her style was her own. W. G. Rogers says, The parts ordinary novelists do well stump this author, unfortunately; the parts that stump the others she handles wonderfully (qtd. in LLCMAL 161). The most obvious style that Buck used was setting nearly all of her novels in China and using Chinese literary techniques.

Phyllis Bentley states that, Mrs. Bucks chosen sceneis modern China (qtd. in LLC V11 69). Paul A. Doyle says that Bucks style, is based on the manner of the old Chinese narrative sagas related and written down by storytellers (qtd. in LLC V11 72) and, Pearl Buck graphically depictslife in China (qtd. in LLC V11 74). Although Bucks novels were based in China, they also possessed American influences. Carmen P. Collier calls Buck truly mentally bifocal and blessed with the ability to look at two cultures at once and to understand and love them both (qtd. in LLC V7 32).

Pearl Buck was a very prolific writer, producing more than 100 works before her death (Reagan 1). These works included not only Bucks novels, short stories and poems, but also magazine articles. Pearl Buck used concise and well thought-out writing to condense deep ideas into useful and compact phrases. As W. J. Stuckey puts it, Buck tries to make a sentence do what a better novelist would need half a novel to accomplish (qtd. in LLC V18 76). A statement in Great Women Writers says that Bucks descriptions, grow out of close observation and are always concise (75).

Bucks work is also reminiscent of the Bible. G. A. Cevasco says, The Testament has undoubtedly had some influence upon her writing (qtd. in LLC V18 78), while another source claims that Buck, chose to tell her story in language reminiscent of the Bible, with its families and peoples who rise and fall (GWW 75). Other critics share this view. Malcolm Cowley, speaks of her mannerisms out of the King James Version (qtd. in LLC V11 71), while Paul A. Doyle says Bucks works are based on the mellifluous prose of the King James version of the Bible (qtd. in LLC V11 72).

Some critics feel that Pearl Bucks writing worsened later in her career. A passage in Great Women Writers says, As Buck became more interested in social and political issues and in the mediamagazines, film, and radioher fiction began to deteriorateMore and more [her fiction] became a forum for her own social and political ideasFurther, American films and womens magazines began to influence her stories. They became drippingly romantic (75). Controversy Pearl Buck was a frequent target for controversy. Her works stirred up the public as much as her actions.

When Buck received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938, critics arose instantly. Although Buck had released several novels before this date, the only one to reach a high level of success was The Good Earth. Most critics agreed that the Nobel Prize should be awarded to a person who had a long career of excellent writing. Paul A. Doyle says that Buck, produced several fine books; after [the 1930s] she never again reached the same level of achievement (qtd. in LLC V11 75). Another author who shares Doyles view is Henry Seidel Canby.

He says that the Swedish Academy, are crowning one book (qtd. n LLC V18 76). He also says, it would be difficult to account for the recent award [of the Nobel Prize in Literature]to Pearl Buck. For Mrs. Buck is clearly not the destined subject of a chapter in literary history (qtd. in LLC V18 75). Bucks novel The Good Earth stirred up much controversy in China concerning its accuracy to the Chinese way of life. As stated in Great Women Writers, The Good Earth aroused much fury in some Chinese scholars, who insisted that the novel portrays a China that never wasProfessor Kiang Kang-Hu said that Bucks details and her knowledge of Chinese history were inaccurate.

Buck defended herself by granting that customs differed in the many regions of China. In later novels, she retaliated by harshly portraying Chinese scholars such as Kang and Kiang, who, she believed, distorted the picture of the real China either because of their desire to aid propagandistic efforts of the Chinese government. Other native Chinese, including Phio Lin Yutang, sprang to Bucks defense, insisting on the accuracy of her portrayal. (75) Another form of controversy caused in China was that Buck wrote about things that were not commonly mentioned in the early and mid 1900s.

This same form of controversy propelled Buck to a higher level in America. Helen F. Snow says the reason that the Chinese disliked Bucks writing is that, she stated some basic taboosabout sex and childbirth. It was this, also, which helped make her a best seller in the WestThe Chinese feel Mrs. Buck degraded the dignity of Chinese women, which is ironic, since the chief appeal of her books in the West is to women. She was a maternal woman writing for women about the problems of women. (qtd. in LLC V7 34) Impact On American Literature

Pearl Buck clearly had an impact on American Literature. The most prevalent impact that she had was the fact that she opened the eyes of the United States citizens to the lives of the Chinese people, whom the Americans did not know or interact with. The secretary of the Swedish Academy, who awards the Nobel Prize, said in his prize presentation speech to Pearl Buck that her works were, notable works which pave the way to a human sympathy passing over widely separated racial boundaries (Hallstrm qtd. in Nobel. com).

Hallstrm also states that Pearl Bucks work succeeds in, opening a faraway and foreign world to deeper human insight and sympathy within our Western sphere (qtd. in Nobel. com). Another significant impact Buck had on American Literature was the fact that she was the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, a high honor for any writer. She wrote during a time when feminism was being born. Women had recently gained the right to vote, and in the 1940s, the role of women changed in society, as more and more women went out to work during World War II.

In this sense, Buck was a trailblazer for women. Pearl Buck was ahead of her time as a writer. As mentioned before, she wrote about things that were not publicly discussed, such as childbirth and sex, and she was the first to give insight into Chinese life. Pearl Buck was a woman who took steps to make the closed-minded Western world understand and appreciate the Chinese people through her sympathetic writing. Although present relations with the Chinese government are on shaky ground, if not for people like Pearl Buck the United States may not have had a relationship with the Chinese people at all.

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