The first author I remember reading and following was Pearl S. Buck. I was a fan long before I knew anything about her personal life. After I learned more about this multi-faceted woman, I grew even more fond of her. I admire how she so beautifully wove together a captivating story while addressing various social justice issues.
Pearl S. Buck was born in 1892 – making her a contemporary of my grandmothers. That may explain part of my adoration – I adored my grandmothers. She was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia. I lived in Parkersburg, WV one year, which was significant because that is where we added our miniature fox terrier, Bounce, to the family. He was a loyal companion until my senior year in college. It’s a good thing he couldn’t talk! He knew way more about my childhood secrets than any human ever did.
Daughter of Presbyterian Missionaries
Buck was born in the last months of her Southern Presbyterian missionary parents’ furlough to the states. When she was only three months old they returned to China with her, and her three older siblings. Her parents later had two more children. I am a middle daughter, so I always resonate with middle children. Childhood was more precarious then than now. Only Pearl and two of her siblings lived to adulthood.
China was Buck’s home most of her first forty years. Her exposure to Chinese culture is evident in most of her books. I’ve never been to that part of the world, but I feel like I have from Buck’s vivid descriptions of the culture and people she encountered there.
Called Back to China
After her 1914 graduation of Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia, she returned to China because mother had become critically ill and she was needed back in China. When she went back she met her future husband, John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist. After their marriage in 1917 they moved to a rural community that eventually became the backdrop for her novel, The Good Earth.
In 1921, because of complications during delivery, their first daughter, Carol, was born profoundly retarded. Additional complications discovered during the delivery required Pearl to have a hysterectomy. Four years later, in 1925, she and her husband adopted a baby girl, Janice.
Her marriage was unhappy almost from the start, but she and her husband stayed together until 1935, teaching at a University in China. After her mother died, Buck’s father moved in with her and her husband the same year their daughter was born.
In 1927 violence erupted in their community. Several Westerners were murdered. The Buck family hid for a day and was then rescued by American gunboats. They left China after that to spent a year in Japan before moving back to their university community in China. However, the situation continued to be dangerous.
Pulitzer and Nobel Prize Winner
She began publishing magazines articles in 1920 and released her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, in 1930 with John Day Company. She published her Pulitzer Prize winning The Good Earth a year later. It was the best selling book for 1931 and 1932. It was made into a major film in 1937. The next year she won the Nobel Prize in literature, becoming the first American woman to earn that distinction. Before she died she published an astounding 300 books, including novels, anthologies, biography and autobiography, poetry, drama, children’s literature and even her own version of The Story Bible. She rewrote seventy-two of the most familiar Bible stories into modern language.
Buck moved back to the States in 1934, partly because of on-going unrest in China and partly to be near both her publisher Richard Walsh and daughter Carol that she’d placed in a New Jersey institution. After she and her first husband divorced she married Walsh. I didn’t know she’d been divorced until I did more research about her for this blog. Learning that strengthens my admiration of her as I’ve too experienced divorce. The experience motivated me to write Asunder, a fictional story about starting again after one.
Buck and her new husband bought an old farmhouse in Bucks County, PA and adopted six more children. I envision her sitting in a den lined with bookshelves, writing away the afternoon while some one tends to her many children. I have always imagined she had a large window in the room that overlooked the pasture where I have always suspected she must have had horses grazing. That is my imagination, not her biography.
Civil, Women’s and Children’s Rights Activitist
In addition to writing dozens of award-winning books and raising eight children, Buck got involved in civil rights and women’s rights issues almost as soon as she returned to the States. Howard University recognized her outstanding contributions to literature and society by appointing her a trustee of the Institution. She served in that capacity for twenty years starting in the early 40’s.
Her many years spent in China prompted her and her husband to establish the East and West Association to promote cultural exchanges and mutual understanding between Asia and the West.
When she learned that Asian and bi-racial children were considered unadoptable she established Welcome Home – the first international and inter-racial adoption agency. Her Pearl S. Buck Foundation provides sponsorships for thousands of children in Asian countries.
Buck died in 1973, two months shy of her eight-first birthday. She is buried where she lived at Green Hills Farm. The farm, now on the Registry of Historic Buildings, receives around 1,500 visitors a year.
This woman’s legacy both inspires and intimidates me. I cannot imagine writing and publishing even a fraction of the work she produced, while also teaching and raising several adopted children. Pearl S. Buck is a real hero in my book. Some information for this blog came from a University of Pennsylvania article about her.
Who has inspired you?
Would you like to learn more about Pearl S. Buck? Enjoy this video.