Pearl S. Buck, Prolific Author of The Good Earth
By Nava Atlas | On February 28, 2018 | Updated August 16, 2022 | Comments (2)
Pearl S. Buck (June 26, 1892 – March 6, 1973), was an American author of fiction and nonfiction, as well as a humanitarian and human rights advocate. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Born Pearl Sydenstricker in Hillsboro, West Virginia, she was the daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries. Her parents had spent much of their years of marriage, from about 1880 on, in China. They returned to the U.S. shortly before Pearl was born, then, when she was just five months old returned to China, settling in Zhenjiang, a town near Nanking.
Pearl was raised bilingual, learning English from her parents and the local Chinese dialect from the neighborhood children. She was also tutored in classical Chinese by a scholar. She loved to read from an early age, and was especially fond of the work of Charles Dickens.
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Pearl S.Buck photo by Edward Steichen, 1932
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Marriage and children
In 1911, Pearl returned to the U.S. to study at Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, VA. She intended to stay in the states, but when her mother became seriously ill, she returned to China in 1914.
There she met and married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist missionary, in 1917. The couple moved to Suzhou in Anhui Province. It was this region that inspired the backdrop for The Good Earth and Sons, two of her best-known books.
In 1920, they returned to the area near which Pearl grew up. Both had secured teaching positions. Pearl taught English literature at a small private college in Nanking. That same year, she had her first child, Caroline (usually called Carol) Grace Buck. Tragically, the girl had a genetic condition called phenylketonuria, characterized by profoundly impaired intellectual and physical function.
Pearl was devastated, and experienced much guilt around the experience. It was a long time before she, who was never at a loss for words, was able to express anything about the experience. She did so many years later in her book The Child Who Never Grew. When Carol was young, Pearl wrote to a friend:
“It is not a shame at all but something private and sacred, as sorrow must be. I am sore to the touch there and I cannot endure even the touch of sympathy. Silence is best and far the easiest for me. I suppose this is because I am not resigned and never can be. I endure it because I must, but I am not resigned. So make no mention of her and so spare me.”
In 1925, she and John Buck adopted another daughter, Janice. During his sabbatical, the family returned to the U.S., and Pearl earned a Master’s degree from Cornell University. When they returned to China, their financial situation was dire. It was then that Pearl decided to get serious about writing.
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First novels and high honors
Pearl’s first novel, East Wind, West Wind, was published in 1930. The Good Earth (1931) was her second novel, and the one that cemented her literary legacy. It received both the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal in 1932. It remains her best-known work, and is a staple of high-school English curricula.
In 1938, she received the Nobel Prize in literature for her body of work, making her the first woman to win this award. She still had many years of writing ahead of her, and certainly didn’t rest on these laurels.
Return to the U.S., and a prolific career
In 1933, Pearl went back to graduate school for a second Master’s degree, this time at Yale. Soon after it was clear that she was to settle in the U.S. for good. In 1935, she left John Lossing Buck for her publisher, Richard Walsh, marrying him immediately after the divorce from her first husband was final. The couple lived in Pennsylvania until Walsh’s death in 1960.
Later, she would confess that she didn’t find John Buck to be her intellectual equal. It seemed that Richard Walsh’s emotional support and affection allowed her prolific output and humanitarian activities to blossom.
And blossom it did — Pearl wrote some seventy books, as well as countless articles and essays that were published in a variety of magazines including The Atlantic Monthly, The Chinese Recorder, and The Crisis.
Other than The Good Earth and its sequels that form a trilogy — Sons (1933) and A House Divided (1935), more of her books are out of print than not. Still available in new editions are Dragon Seed (1942); Kinfolk (1948); Pavilion of Women (1946); and Peony: A Novel of China (1948).
Though most of her best-known novels are set in China, several are studies of marriage in the U.S., or else span what she called “my two worlds.
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See also: Inspirational Quotes by Pearl S. Buck
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Pearl S. Buck’s humanitarian legacy
Pearl and her second husband founded both The East and West Association (1941), to increase understanding between East and West cultures and Welcome House (1949), an agency that specialized in the adoption of Asian-American children. She later established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation (1964) to “address the issues of poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries.”
One of her greatest disappointments was being barred from returning to China. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the Chinese government denounced her as an “American cultural imperialist.”
Upon her death from lung cancer in 1973, her estate was bequeathed to establish the permanent headquarters of Pearl S. Buck International in Perkasie, Pennsylvania. Today the organization oversees the humanitarian activities she began, and is a cultural center and historic house museum that welcomes visitors with tours, events, and conferences.
As for her literary legacy, The Good Earth is still read and widely studied, and her books still have a devoted following. Still, some contemporary critics feel that her body of work is undervalued, too much of it forgotten.
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More about Pearl S. Buck
On this site
- Pearl Buck Talks of her Work
- 1938 Nobel Award for Literature to Pearl Buck
- 6 Feminist Quotes by Pearl Buck
- Inspirational Quotes by Pearl S. Buck
- Three Poems from Words of Love by Pearl S. Buck
- The Good Earth: An Appreciation
Major works of fiction — a highly selected list
Pearl S. Buck wrote some 70 books. Here are some of her best known and widely read.
- East Wind: West Wind (1930)
- The Good Earth (1931)
- Sons (1933)
- A House Divided (1935)
- Portrait of a Marriage (1941)
- Dragon Seed (1942)
- Kinfolk (1948)
- Pavilion of Women (1946)
- Peony: A Novel of China (1948)
- Imperial Woman (1948)
- Letter from Peking (1957)
- The Living Reed (1963)
- The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (1969)
- Mandala: A Novel of India (1970)
- Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography by Peter Conn
- Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth by Hilary Spurling
- Reader discussion of Pearl Buck’s books on Goodreads
- Rediscovering Pearl Buck, America’s Chinese Writer
- National Women’s History Museum
- Pearl S. Buck’s daughter gets a proper grave marker
Film adaptations of Pearl Buck’s works
- The Good Earth (1937)
- Dragon Seed (1944)
- Pavilion of Women (2001)
- Pearl S. Buck House International – Perkasie, PA