PEARL BUCK: A Woman in Conflict by Nora Stirling

PEARL BUCK: A Woman in Conflict

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Most of Buck's story is familiar from her extensive autobiographical writings (generously excerpted here); but Stifling, in this sturdy, un-worshipful biography, supplies a good many little-known details, as well as occasional corrections of the Nobel Laureate's own version of events. Daughter of a cold missionary-father and an unhappy mother, Pearl grew up in amah-style in Chinkiang, though the family was forced to flee during the Boxer Rebellion. (""Never again would Pearl feel that China was her home."") Sent home to the US for college, she was again an outsider--until she learned how to fit in with her Southern-belie classmates, excelling in literary matters. And then, back in China to help nurse her ailing mother, Pearl met and married agricultural-missionary Lossing Buck--moving to Nanhsuchou, witnessing the horrors of Chinese peasant-life (""torn between savagely condemning a people while loving them so deeply""), a ""total wife"" and helpmeet. Then, however, at 30, jolted by her mother's death, she determined to start writing in earnest; this ambition became virtual necessity when it became clear that Pearl's retarded daughter would need expensive, life--long institutionalization. So, in Shanghai after another flight from Chinese revolution, she wrote her first novels--and had an affair with poet Hsu Chih-mo. The Good Earth, of course, quickly brought fame, wealth, a return to the US--and a longterm affair with her married publisher, Richard Welsh, whom she eventually married after twin divorces. In the years that followed, with only half-happiness in this second marriage, she ""became less the writer and more the woman driven by her nagging sense of responsibility for the world at large"": speaking out on behalf of women, minorities, Amerasian orphans. (She herself had two adopted daughters.) The quality of her fiction became increasingly uneven, especially unsuccessful when taking on US themes. (Stirling puts some blame on her publisher's ""complacency"" in accepting second-rate, first-draft work.) And late in life, with Walsh's illness and death, Buck became more of a blatant potboiler--to finance her causes and her obsessive attachments to two younger men: Tad Danielewski, who left her for a beautiful young actress; and dance-teacher Theodore Harris, a homosexual whose abuse of Korean orphans tainted Buck's Foundation with scandal. (""But she seems to have hypnotized herself, to have actually believed that the whole unfortunate affair was nothing more than a hate campaign against Harris and herself."") Stirling offers only sketchy consideration of the novels themselves; nor is there much depth in her portrait of foolish/ noble Pearl. But, with a welcome absence of puffery (""one or two of her books"" may endure), this is a clear-eyed and sympathetic, if undistinguished, biography--solid enough for fans who are willing to hear some unflattering stories.

Pub Date: Dec. 20th, 1983
Publisher: New Century