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Pearl Buck

Nobel and Pultizer Prize winning novelist

Pearl Buck

Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, on June 26, 1892. Her parents, Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, were Southern Presbyterian missionaries who were near the end of a furlough when Pearl was born. The family returned to China when Pearl was three months old, and she spent most of her first forty years there. Her parents gave her a bi-cultural upbringing, teaching her English and the customs of America while also providing her with a Chinese nurse. She had a Chinese tutor until the age of 15, when she was sent to a boarding school in Shanghai.

In 1910, Pearl entered Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, from which she received her Bachelor's (in psychology) in 1914. She had intended to stay in the U.S. after graduation, but returned to China after hearing that her mother was gravely ill.

In 1915, Pearl met agricultural economist John Lossing Buck. The two were married in 1917 and moved to Nanhsuchou (Nanxuzhou) in rural Anhwei (Anhui) province. It was in this impoverished community that Pearl Buck gathered the material that she would later use in The Good Earth and other stories based in China. From 1920 to 1933, the Bucks made their home in Nanking (Nanjing), on the campus of Nanking University, where both had teaching positions. Their first child, Caroline, was born in 1920. The doctors discovered a uterine tumor during the birth, necessitating an immediate hysterectomy. In addition, Caroline was diagnosed with PKU, a metabolic disease that resulted in profound mental retardation and here mental capacity never exceeded that of a four-year-old.

The Bucks moved back to America in 1925, remaining there for a little over a year to earn their masters’ degrees at Cornell University. They adopted another daughter, Janice, during that time. They spent the next few years moving back and forth between China and America. The marriage was already strained by then, and ended in divorce in 1935.

Buck began contributing articles on Chinese life to American magazines in 1922, and stories and essays soon after. Wanting to become a full-time writer, she began working on her first novel about 1929, while in America seeking long-term care for Caroline. Published by the John Day Company in 1930, East Wind: West Wind tells the story of a Chinese woman who marries a doctor, and her brother marries an American woman to the dismay of their parents. The novel received favorable reviews, but John Day publisher Richard Walsh knew that Buck could write better, and his encouragement proved invaluable.

The Good Earth, published by John Day in 1931, remained on the best-seller list for two years and earned her several awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the William Dean Howells Medal. It, along with Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935), created a trilogy centered on the family of Wang Lung, a poor, hard-working farmer in a small Chinese village.

Buck maintained a residence with her husband in Nanking until 1934, when she returned to the United States to stay. She and Walsh were married the following year, after each had divorced their respective spouses. The couple took up residence at Green Hills Farm, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where they raised six adopted children. In 1938 she became the first American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Pearl Buck eventually produced more than 70 books. China provided the setting for many other novels penned by Buck, including Dragon Seed (1942), Imperial Women (1956), and The Living Reed (1963). She also wrote biographies, including Fighting Angel (1936) and The Exile (1936), about her father and mother, respectively. Her short stories include The First Wife and Other Stories (1933), Far and Near (1947), and The Good Deed (1969). Other works include a nonfictional work, The Child Who Never Grew (1950), about her mentally disabled daughter; All Men are Brothers, a translation of the Chinese novel Shui Hu Chuan (1933); two autobiographies, My Several Worlds (1954) and A Bridge for Passing (1964); and a number of children’s books. Under the name John Sedges, she published five novels set in the United States, including the best seller, The Townsman (1945). The Time Is Now, a fictionalized account of the author's emotional experiences, although written much earlier, did not appear in print until 1967.

In addition to writing, Buck was active in many social causes, including civil rights and women's rights. In 1942, she and her husband founded the East and West Association, dedicated to cultural exchange and understanding between Asia and the West. In 1949, outraged that existing adoption services considered Asian and mixed-race children unadoptable, Buck established Welcome House, the first international, inter-racial adoption agency, which has to date assisted in the placement of over five thousand children. In 1964, to provide support for Amerasian children who were not eligible for adoption, she also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which provides sponsorship funding for thousands of children in half-a-dozen Asian countries.

Pearl Buck died of lung cancer on March 6, 1973, in Danby, Vermont, and is buried at Green Hills.

Nobel Prize
University of Pennsylvania, English Department

Nobel Prize for Literature

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The Robinson Library >> American Literature >> 1900-1960

This page was last updated on 06/25/2018.