Pearl Buck stood out in China for looking too western, and in the US for being too Chinese.
Some of my favorite books when I was little were written by an author named Eleanor Frances Lattimore. They were about little children living in a magical, timeless kind of China that could have been set in 1900 or 1400. The stories were about kids who got into the kind of trouble kids always do, which is why the setting and its realism, or lack of, didn't matter much. There were beautiful line drawings, though, with images of pagodas and elegant low trees that made me think this must have been a beautiful place, not very different from Oz. Somewhere along the line I found out that Lattimore had actually grown up in China in the early 20th century. This doubly impressed me, as I was young enough not to think that a book written in English by a person with an Anglo sounding name could have grown up in China and written about Chinese children (don't snark--I was that young).
My older sister had a book called "The Good Earth," which she was reading for school. The main thing I noted about that book was that I could read the one syllable words of the title myself, as well as the name of the author, Pearl Buck. I think I vaguely expected that someday in school I would read it as well, but by the time I got to junior high and high school, Buck's work was out of fashion. I came to associate her with the film of "The Good Earth," something that in my late 20th century mindset I could disdain for its all Aryan stars dressed in Chinese drag, and with the "China Lobby" of the 1930s--the Americans who were determined to "save" China. I assumed she was one of them, a well-meaning American woman who tried to capture the cause of the moment safely from western shores.
I have been wrong about many things, and this idea about Buck is one of my wronger (it also betrays an astonishing laziness, that I never bothered to check out the truth on even the most minimal level--Wikipedia, for example). It turns out that Buck spent most of her life in China, spoke Chinese, and knew well the type of peasants she wrote about later in life.
Buck's father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a missionary who had been stationed in China. He and his wife had already lost three out of four children in China and returned to their home state of West Virginia as a desperately needed break for Pearl's distraught mother, Carie. Pearl's father wasn't sure how desperately his wife needed anything except missionary work; he was the type of missionary who felt he wasn't doing his job unless he was being stoned by heathens as he stood in the street preaching, was living in the most miserable conditions that would put him amongst the most miserable of his potential converts, and had a complete lack of understanding for anyone who was not consumed by the need to save people by turning them to Christianity. The marriage was a difficult one, with Absalom dragging Carie from one bad place to another worse one, until she periodically stood her ground and demanded that they not live in the worst house in the worst part of town. Each place they went to she cleaned furiously, in an attempt to keep her surviving children free of disease, and then tried to decorate as best as she could on their minimal missionary budget, so the children would feel like they had a real home.
Unlike the children of Western businessmen or the military, who kept themselves secluded in compounds that created little Britains or Americas, Pearl grew up playing amongst the lower class Chinese children. She spoke "street" Chinese and read the kind of fiction that would be dismissed by scholars as trash (she did acquire a classical Confucian education from an elegant tutor, Mr. Kung, who expanded her understanding of Chinese thought and history beyond what she learned from playing cops and robbers with her Chinese friends; both educations would be invaluable). Her family was forced to leave China during the Boxer Rebellion, but returned soon after. Pearl saw all kinds of horrors--mutilated bodies of babies left to die by families that were disappointed in yet another girl, peasants in horrific states of starvation reaching out to her mother for more help than anyone could give, and later, as rebellion wracked China in the early 20th century, terrible, explicit stories of rape and abuse by survivors of the sex trade who came to Pearl's mother's informal women's clinic. White missionaries were never the most popular people; the Sydenstrickers' (seemingly) numerous narrow escapes came through a combination of luck and a few sympathetic Chinese peasants (Pearl got lucky again as an adult when she, her husband, children and a few friends were protected by a peasant couple during the 1927 Nanjing Incident, coming within what seemed to be inches and minutes of execution by rogue members of Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expeditionary Army).
Pearl was sent to the United States for college. She arrived at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia as a weird hybrid--she looked American, but thought like a Chinese person (literally--she later said that when she wrote she thought in Chinese and translated to English on the page). She was a brilliant student, who left professors helpless, feeling they had nothing to teach her, but she had no understanding of American culture, fashion, or mores. She pushed herself to become an acceptable fascimile of an early 20th century American young woman, and succeeded in some degree--she became a member of the most exclusive sorority, had stories and poems published in the school magazine, was elected class president, and was chosen to represent her college at a YWCA conference. She learned the right slang, accent, and made her own fashionable clothes. She was probably more admired than loved, though, and never really lost her feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. She planned to continue studying for a graduate degree at Randolph-Macon, but word of her mother's severe illness brought her back to China again.
Despite her front row view of an unhappy marriage of two incompatible people, Pearl quickly married a man with whom she had little in common except, perhaps, a passion for China. John Lossing Buck was an agriculturalist who was in China to teach the Chinese modern farming techniques. He was not an intellectual and did not care for literature like Pearl did. But to her he seemed stable and solid, and that was enough to begin with. Lossing, as he was known, was sent to Nanxuzhou, a northern province where few westerners had ever been seen. In this desolate farming station, Pearl got to meet many of the people who became models for her characters, from the peasant farmers who populated "The Good Earth," to the imperious Madame Wu, an elderly grand, formidable aristocrat. Her longevity was no mean feat; Pearl had little success finding young women her own age to be friends with because they were kept housebound, with little freedom or power. Suicide was the only way out for many of them, something Pearl saw first hand; she witnessed the way family members who discovered an attempted hanging would obligingly finish the job by suffocating the girl, pushing away Pearl's attempts to get help or give first aid. If a Chinese woman of that period could survive the misery of being a young wife, she seemed, like Madame Wu, to revel in taking her turn at being the cruel, domineering mother in law.
After the thrill of being newlyweds wore off, Pearl and Lossing grew apart. They had a daughter, whose difficult birth left Pearl unable to have any more children. A few years after she was born, Pearl realized that something was wrong with baby Carol. They took her to the US for diagnosis and discovered that she had a rare birth defect called phenylketonuria. Lossing and Pearl shuttled between the US and China, as he continued his studies and teaching in both places. Pearl tried to take care of Carol, but with few resources available in those days for parents with mentally disabled children, she eventually reached the painful decision to institutionalize Carol. She searched for optins, but most institutions at that time were like something out of a horror movie. She finally found a place in New Jersey that was interested in working with their residents, rather than just hiding them (the stigma around disabled children and their parents was heavy and damaging). Pearl borrowed money to put Carol there, but soon she wouldn't need loans.
During their next stint in China, Pearl wrote "The Good Earth," and sent it off to the tiny publisher that had published a book of her stories about life in China--published reluctantly and without much hope it might be noted. This book, though, was another story--it rapidly became a sensation, selling millions of copies. It was a Book of the Month Club selection, a major honor back then, and topped the best seller lists for 1931 and 1932.. She won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for the novel, and later the Nobel Prize for Literature, almost solely because of that book.
Pearl used her newfound fame to speak out against the missionary movement that she felt was so antithetical to Chinese culture, as well as civil rights, and women's rights. She sponsored an agency that helped Asian mixed race children after finding out that traditional adoption agencies didn't consider them adoptable (she adopted a number of children herself).
She divorced Lossing and married her publisher. Pearl continued to write books by the dozen. She loved to write and had a lot to say about China, but also had to keep writing to help her husband's company afloat, as she was its sole star author. The quantity of her books and the fact that she unabashedly wrote for popular tastes diminished her literary reputation as the decades went on. In China she was condemned for portraying the country in a negative light.
If it seems like I'm rushing through the latter stages of Buck's life, well, I am. So does Spurling. The problem is that life at the top is rarely as interesting as the struggle to reach the top (think of the second act of "Evita"). The end of Buck's life was particularly messy, though probably more to outsiders than to her. As noted, she lost her literary reputation, so there's a sense of perhaps wasted talent in the debris of all the books she cranked out. She enjoyed luxury, and lived ostentatiously, with furs and limos. The charitable foundation she started was riven with problems (until she let professionals step in and take it over). After her second husband's death, she fell in with her dance instructor, who appears in the book (though Spurling doesn't come right out and say it) to be a young gay man who saw a rich, lonely old lady and took advantage of her. He was eventualy chased from running the foundation because of charges that he had molested some of the young orphan boys, and the two of them ended up with an antique store in Vermont, where Pearl took to selling shoddy Pearl Buck memorabilia.
I don't know if she realized how bad she looked. When people have been wealthy for a while, they can eliminate everyone who will say no to them, and just keep the yeasayers and hangers on. Listening to their flattery, she probably was happy enough; her only real regret was being denied a visa by Mao Zedong's government when she requested to visit China with Nixon in the 1970s.
Spurling's writing is captivating, especially in her account of Pearl's childhood and teen years; if you're a person who prefers novels to nonfiction, you can read this book and not feel like you're missing anything fiction can bring to a subject. It makes me feel ashamed of my own plain words. Buck herself is quoted often throughout the book, and from what I read, I do believe she must have had talent. However, I can also imagine her style declining into something over the top, or getting sloppy with speed. It's not fair of me to say that, considering I haven't read any of her books, but I've got to believe that opinions worth more than mine have led to only one of her books being remembered. But you know what? If only one of your books is remembered, has been read by millions, and resulted in two major awards, well, that's a lot better than most of us achieve.