A biographical consideration of Pearl S. Buck (1892–1973), an author few take seriously today.
Conventional wisdom dictates that Buck—whose bestselling novel The Good Earth (1931) captured the difficulties of life among poor farmers in rural China—is at best an important footnote in 20th-century American literature. Whatever accolades that novel earned her (including the Pulitzer and Nobel prizes), many critics agree that she squandered her talents in her late career on thin, sentimental books. Spurling (Matisse the Master, 2005, etc.) doesn’t deny her subject’s serious shortcomings as a writer, but she adds valuable perspective by explaining the complicated circumstances of her rise to literary stardom. The daughter of American missionaries, Buck (nee Sydenstricker) spent the bulk of her childhood in parts of China characterized by hard living. The people her parents were hoping, and usually failing, to convert were subsistence farmers whose livelihoods were routinely unsettled by abusive rival warlords. Pearl’s father was hard-headed and often absent, and her mother was often ill. The young girl took refuge in authors like Charles Dickens, though Western novels were poor preparation for the culture shock she experienced when she moved to the United States to attend college. Buck channeled her frustration with Westerners’ misunderstandings about China into essays, stories and ultimately The Good Earth; in doing so, she had the support of her first husband, John Lossing Buck, a scholar on Chinese agriculture. Those writings earned her a place as a leading American spokesperson on the Chinese people, correcting numerous racist misconceptions. But Communist China eventually rejected Buck’s efforts, and Spurling somberly depicts the novelist as a woman without a country. After her success, she wrote mostly to provide financial support to her daughter, who was afflicted with phenylketonuria. Buck’s marriage eventually failed and her writings grew increasingly irrelevant, but Spurling speeds through this decline, emphasizing her high points as a leading novelist and advocate for China’s everyday citizens.
Does little to rehabilitate Buck’s literary reputation, but respectfully resets her life and work in its appropriate contexts.