American novelist Pearl Buck won the 1938 Nobel Prize in literature. She won the award for her novels about life in China, where she lived as a missionary for many years.
Pearl Buck (1892-1973), American novelist, best known for her sympathetic portrayals of peasant life in China. Her residence in China, her study of classics of Chinese literature, and her understanding of Chinese character enabled her to make Chinese civilization understandable and significant to Western readers. Buck’s novel The Good Earth (1931) was the first widely read book to describe Chinese culture with accuracy and sympathetic insight. For her achievement she became, in 1938, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Buck’s interests extended beyond writing about the Chinese to active welfare work on behalf of children of Asian American ancestry.
Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia. A few months after her birth, her Presbyterian missionary parents returned to China, which remained her home for the next 40 years. After attending boarding school in Shanghai, China, Buck went to Virginia, where she graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 1914. In 1917 she married John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural economist, and returned to China. The couple lived at first in rural Anhui province, but moved to Nanjing (Nanking) in 1920, where both taught at Nanjing University.
In 1921 Buck gave birth to a daughter who was mentally retarded. In the hope of helping other parents of such children, she later recorded the experience in The Child Who Never Grew (1950). She came back to the United States briefly to study, receiving an M.A. degree from Cornell University in 1926. In 1934 she returned permanently to the United States. Her marriage to Buck ended in divorce in 1935, and she married her publisher, Richard J. Walsh.
Buck’s love for children resulted in her adoption of seven children of different nationalities and in the establishment of the Pearl S. Buck Foundation for the aid and adoption of Asian and Asian American children. Her books for young readers include Water Buffalo Children (1943), One Bright Day (1950), and The Christmas Ghost (1960).
Pearl Buck’s first published novel was East Wind: West Wind (1930), a story concerned with contrasts between Asian and Western civilizations. It was soon followed by The Good Earth (1931), a tale of the desperate struggle of a poverty-stricken peasant farmer, Wang Lung, to acquire land. His life is guided by the conviction that the ownership of land will provide the only lasting security for himself and his descendants. Through courage and endurance, Wang Lung and his wife, O-lan, manage to survive such catastrophes as famine, flood, and revolution, and Wang Lung becomes a prosperous landowner. Although he takes a second wife, O-lan remains faithful to him, and only after her death does Wang Lung realize her value. As he lies dying, Wang Lung sadly learns that his children do not share his love for the “good earth” but plan to sell his land after his death.
The first effective portrayal of rural Chinese life in American fiction, The Good Earth became a best-seller and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1932. The book was dramatized, filmed, and translated into more than 20 languages. With its two sequels, Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935), it was published in one volume entitled House of Earth (1935). With these works Buck strove to create a better understanding of China. Her simple, direct style and concern for the fundamental values of human life were derived from her study of the Chinese novel.
Biographies of Buck’s mother and father followed, The Exile (1936) and Fighting Angel (1936). They were published together as The Spirit and the Flesh (1944). These early works won Buck the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938. Other novels with Asian settings included Dragon Seed (1942); Imperial Woman (1956), a fictionalized biography of the Empress Tz’u Hsi (see Cixi); and The Living Reed (1963).
Buck’s numerous other books include All Men Are Brothers (1933), a translation of the classic Chinese novel Shui Hu Chuan; The Chinese Novel (1939); The Promise (1943); China in Black and White (1946); and Big Wave (1948). Among her later works are Letter From Peking (1957), Command the Morning (1959), The Time Is Noon (1967), and The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (1969). American Triptych (1958) was one of five books published under the pseudonym of John Sedges. Buck also wrote dramatizations for television and a Broadway play, A Desert Incident, produced in 1959. She published two volumes of autobiography, My Several Worlds (1954) and A Bridge for Passing (1964). Her last works were The Kennedy Women (1970) and China As I See It (1970).
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