Ever since her 1931 blockbuster The Good Earth earned her a Pulitzer Prize and, eventually, the first Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to an American woman, Pearl S. Buck's reputation has made a strange, slow migration. These days, it's her life story rather than her novels (which are now barely read — either in the West, or in China) that's come to fascinate readers.
The big shift was set in motion almost 15 years ago, when literary scholar Peter Conn lifted Buck out of mid-cult obscurity in his monumental biography called, simply, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. Now, award-winning biographer Hilary Spurling has made a case for a reappraisal of Buck's fiction and her life. Spurling claims that Buck had a "magic power — possessed by all truly phenomenal best-selling authors — to tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination."
Spurling's book is called Pearl Buck in China, and after reading it, I've been motivated to dust off my junior high copy of The Good Earth and move it to the top of my "must read again someday" pile. Following Conn's lead, Spurling further succeeds in making Buck herself a compelling figure, transforming her from dreary "lady author" into woman warrior.
Spurling's biography focuses almost exclusively on Buck's Chinese childhood, as the daughter of zealous Christian missionaries, and young adulthood, as the unhappy wife of an agricultural reformer based in an outlying area of Shanghai. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in 1892 and, from her earliest days, she was much more than a cultural tourist. She roamed freely around the Chinese countryside, where she would often come upon the remains of abandoned baby girls, left for the village dogs, and she would bury them. Buck's first language was everyday Chinese, and she grew up listening to village gossip and reading Chinese popular novels, like The Dream of The Red Chamber, which were considered sensational by intellectuals, as her own later novels would be.
Buck's father, Absalom, was often away, traveling over his mission field (an area as big as Texas), preaching blood-and-thunder sermons to often hostile Chinese passersby. After the first "ten years he had spent in China," Spurling tells us, "[Absalom] had made, by his own reckoning, ten converts." The young Buck and her family lived at subsistence level in houses that were little more than shacks and apartments on streets thronged with bars and bordellos. They managed to survive the Boxer Rebellion and the subsequent violence that heralded the advance of the Chinese Nationalists.
By the time she arrived as a charity student at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Virginia, Buck was indelibly alienated from her American counterparts. "Girls came in groups to stare at me," wrote Buck, remembering her first harsh college days some 50 years later. She was set apart not only by her out-of-date clothes made by a Chinese tailor, but also by her extraordinary life experiences, which encompassed firsthand knowledge of war, infanticide and sexual slavery.
As Spurling deftly illustrates, that alienation gave Buck her stance as a writer, gracing her with the outsider vision needed to interpret one world to another. Buck's unconventional childhood also seems to have made her resistant to group think: In midlife, as a famous novelist, she made enemies criticizing the racism of the mission movement; she also shocked contemporaries by writing in her memoir, The Child Who Never Grew, about her brain-damaged daughter Carol, at a time when such children were quietly institutionalized and publicly forgotten.
Spurling quotes liberally from some of Buck's domestic novels, which defied the mores of her time by depicting sexual despair and physical revulsion within marriage. And, finally, she earned herself no points with China's new leaders when she likened the zealotry of communism to that of her father and his missionary colleagues. Writing in 1954 about an encounter with a breathless Chinese communist woman, Buck said: "And in her words, too, I caught the old stink of condescension."
Pearl Buck in China, similarly, rescues Buck and some of her best books from the "stink" of literary condescension and replaces that knee-jerk critical response with curiosity.
Pearl Sydenstricker was born into a family of ghosts. She was the fifth of seven children and, when she looked back afterward at her beginnings, she remembered a crowd of brothers and sisters at home, tagging after their mother, listening to her sing, and begging her to tell stories. "We looked out over the paddy fields and the thatched roofs of the farmers in the valley, and in the distance a slender pagoda seemed to hang against the bamboo on a hillside," Pearl wrote, describing a storytelling session on the veranda of the family house above the Yangtse River. "But we saw none of these." What they saw was America, a strange, dreamlike, alien homeland where they had never set foot. The siblings who surrounded Pearl in these early memories were dreamlike as well. Her older sisters, Maude and Edith, and her brother Arthur had all died young in the course of six years from dysentery, cholera, and malaria, respectively. Edgar, the oldest, ten years of age when Pearl was born, stayed long enough to teach her to walk, but a year or two later he was gone too (sent back to be educated in the United States, he would be a young man of twenty before his sister saw him again). He left behind a new baby brother to take his place, and when she needed company of her own age, Pearl peopled the house with her dead siblings. "These three who came before I was born, and went away too soon, somehow seemed alive to me," she said.
Every Chinese family had its own quarrelsome, mischievous ghosts who could be appealed to, appeased, or comforted with paper people, houses, and toys. As a small child lying awake in bed at night, Pearl grew up listening to the cries of women on the street outside calling back the spirits of their dead or dying babies. In some ways she herself was more Chinese than American. "I spoke Chinese first, and more easily," she said. "If America was for dreaming about, the world in which I lived was Asia…. I did not consider myself a white person in those days." Her friends called her Zhenzhu (Chinese for Pearl) and treated her as one of themselves. She slipped in and out of their houses, listening to their mothers and aunts talk so frankly and in such detail about their problems that Pearl sometimes felt it was her missionary parents, not herself, who needed protecting from the realities of death, sex, and violence.
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