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NONFICTION

The Good Woman of Chinkiang : PEARL S. BUCK: A Cultural Biography. By Peter Conn (Cambridge University Press, $29.95, 468 pp.)

November 17, 1996|Lisa See | Lisa See is author of "On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese American Family" (Vintage) and the forthcoming "The Flower Net" (Harper Collins)

Pearl S. Buck was a superwoman who did it all as a dutiful daughter, wife, mother (she had one daughter and adopted another seven children), teacher, occasional hostess, philanthropist, indefatigable fund-raiser, feminist and prolific writer. She published her first novel, "The Good Earth," at the age of 40, then went on to write an astounding 39 books--including 15 Book-of-the-Month Club selections--countless essays, plays, short stories, translations of Chinese texts, children's books, even poetry. She won the Nobel Prize for literature (with Toni Morrison, Buck is one of two American women to do so ), a Pulitzer, the Order of Jade from China and a dozen honorary degrees.

Despite these accomplishments, Buck's literary reputation has faded and she has been virtually ignored by the academic community. Peter Conn, an academician who in 1989 left Buck out of his "Literature in America," has taken a giant step in rectifying the situation with "Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography."

Conn examines almost every piece of work Buck ever wrote and explains why it's important today. Interestingly, those reasons--that Buck was a woman, that she wrote about China and family life, and that she was a commercial success--are the very ones that caused her to disappear from the American consciousness. But Conn has gone far beyond merely touting Buck's literary merits to portray a consistent, believable and immensely fascinating woman. This is biography at its best: informative and entertaining.

Pearl, as Conn familiarly calls her, was born to Presbyterian missionaries in 1893. (She spent half of her life in China with the result that she never felt truly at home anywhere.) Her father, Absalom Sydenstricker, dedicated himself to the quixotic task of saving China's heathens. His wife, Carrie, married him despite noting that he "lacked a sense of humor, but was undisturbed because she regarded her own tendency to laughter as a warning that she might be morally frivolous." Once in China, Carrie was lonely, desperately homesick, sadly giving birth to four children only to see them perish and be buried in a country she considered primitive. So embittered was Carrie by her fate that on her deathbed she refused to see Absalom and, when someone put a hymn on the phonograph, pleaded, "Take that away. I have waited, and patiently--for nothing." Carrie's final despair and rejection of her faith and life's work stayed with her daughter for decades. Eventually, Buck saw her father as a fanatic driven by apocalyptic visions and her mother as a woman shackled by deference and self-sacrifice.

Buck was exposed to violence against women and other social horrors from an early age. As a child, she often found hollow unmarked graves containing the bodies of unwanted baby girls. Later, during the war with Japan, Buck witnessed numerous casualties and had to hide with other Americans when the Japanese plundered Nanking.

Her father's incessant belittling of her accomplishments--he paid for her college tuition but made it clear that he would have preferred to have spent his money on his religious work--had an effect on her self-esteem.

In May 1917, Buck made what she called "the worst blunder" of her life by marrying Lossing Buck, an agricultural missionary stationed in China. The social mores of the times dictated that Pearl should have been content as a professor's wife, unpaid interpreter and research assistant. And she played her part well, even going as far as reading to her husband when his eyes were tired. Three years later, she added to her chores the care of her only biological child, Carol, who was born with phenylketonuria, a disease that, left untreated, leads to severe retardation. According to Conn, Pearl hid Carol's existence for the next 20 years, deliberately omitting her from biographical material.

In 1929, the Bucks left Carol, age 9, at a private facility in New Jersey that cost $1,000 a year. Frantic to make the payments for her daughter's care, Buck sat down to write "The Good Earth," which was published in 1931. Lossing, who also had a book out that year on Chinese agriculture, congratulated his wife on her bestseller but "made it clear that he considered his work as far more significant." (Her father refused to read the book, saying he didn't have the time.) Meanwhile, her relationship with Richard Walsh, her editor at John Day, grew into one of the most successful literary partnerships in history. A few years later, Buck and Walsh divorced their respective spouses and married.

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