A SELF-MADE WOMAN

  • Article by: CARL ROLLYSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 26, 2010 - 2:04 PM

A stirring biography of the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize for literature.

Novelist Pearl Buck is pictured seated at her desk in February 1968.

Pearl Buck, who died in 1973, had a mythologizing mother and a fabulist Chinese nurse. Between them, these two storytellers taught young Pearl that the world is what you make of it. The first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature (1938), Buck brought herself up to write fact and fiction about her bifurcated life. Chinese was her first language, and though her missionary parents imagined they were Christianizing China, their child (despite her appearance as a "foreign devil" with yellow hair) acculturated quickly, eventually making China the centerpiece not only of her biography but the cynosure of a vast readership.

"Everyone read her in her day," Buck's biographer notes, "from statesmen to office cleaners." "The Good Earth," a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1931 and still in print, "sold millions of copies in the author's life and since," Spurling reports. This observation helps explain the biographer's mission to explore Buck's power to "tap directly into the currents of memory and dream secreted deeply within the popular imagination."

Buck's father converted no more than 10 Chinese in his first 10 years of trying, and two decades later he decried his failure to overtake "these millions with the Gospel." His missionary mania nearly destroyed his wife's sanity, even though she had wanted to "give herself to God." The young Pearl found her father emotionally distant. Her mother pretended she had charmed the Chinese who were, in fact, chary of her Christian charity. Meanwhile, her precocious daughter discovered the half-concealed body parts of babies, the unwanted females of a society that condoned infanticide, and gave them proper burials. This was her prelude to novels that preserved the humanity of her Chinese characters and made the world care about them.

Young Pearl wore Chinese clothes and spent her time among Chinese servants, talking to the houseboy and cook. Her games and toys were Chinese-made. And although Buck left China permanently in 1934, "China always remained the place where she felt at home," Spurling says.

Pearl Buck is still worth reading today because of her remarkable reporter's eye and rapport with the land and its people. As Spurling argues, she was no ideologue. She resisted the missionary impulse and the idea that any dogma can be a nation's salvation. "Pearl Buck in China" aptly concludes with this excerpt from its subject's memoirs, written in 1954: "Yesterday in New York a young Chinese woman ... told me breathlessly of the great and marvelous changes that Communists are making in China. ... And in her words, too, I caught the old stink of condescension."

Carl Rollyson is a biographer and professor of journalism at Baruch College, the City University of New York.

  • PEARL BUCK IN CHINA

    By: Hilary Spurling.

    Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 304 pages, $27.

    Review: Buck grew up in China, the daughter of missionaries. Her father was distant, her mother difficult, and from the two she learned that life is what you make it.

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