Pearl Sydenstricker Buck

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck (1892-1973), an American Nobel Prize-winning novelist, dedicated her books and her personal activities to the improvement of relations between Americans and Asians.

Pearl Sydenstricker was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, on June 26, 1892. Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries, on furlough at the time of her birth from their activities in Chinkiang, China, although they soon returned there. During the anti-foreign Boxer Rebellion of 1900, the family was forced to flee to Shanghai where, from 1907 to 1909, Buck attended boarding school. She moved to the United States the following year to enter Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia. After receiving a bachelor's degree in 1914, she took a teaching assistantship at the college but almost immediately returned to Chinkiang to care for her ailing mother.

In 1917 she married John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural specialist, with whom she settled in northern China. From 1921 until 1934 they lived chiefly in Nanking, where her husband taught agricultural theory. Buck occasionally taught English literature at several universities in the city, although most of her time was spent caring for her mentally disabled daughter and her infirm parents. In 1925 Buck returned to the United States to pursue graduate studies at Cornell University, where she received a master's degree in English in 1926. Back in Nanking the following year, she barely escaped a revolutionary army attack on the city. Meanwhile, because of her family's financial difficulties, she resolved to begin writing.

Novels Reflect Love of China

Buck's first novel, East Wind: West Wind (1930), a study of the conflict between the old China and the new, was followed by The Good Earth (1931), a profoundly affecting novel of Chinese peasant life, which won her a Pulitzer Prize. In 1933 Buck received a second master's degree, this time from Yale University, and in 1934 she took up permanent residence in the United States. In 1935 she divorced John Buck and married Richard J. Walsh, her publisher. Her extensive literary output—Sons (1932), The First Wife and Other Stories (1933), The Mother (1934), A House Divided (1935), and biographies of her father and mother, The Exile (1936) and Fighting Angel (1936) respectively—culminated in a 1938 Nobel Prize for literature, the first ever awarded to a woman.

Humanitarian Efforts Occupy Later Life

In the next three decades, while continuing to write prolifically, Buck worked to promote racial tolerance and ease the plight of disadvantaged Asians, particularly children. In 1941 she founded the East and West Association to promote greater understanding among the world's peoples, and in 1949 she established Welcome House, an adoption agency for Asian-American children. She always had a special interest in children, and among her many books for them are The Water-Buffalo Children (1943), The Man Who Changed China: The Story of Sun Yat Sen (1953), The Beech Tree (1955), Christmas Miniature (1957), and The Christmas Ghost (1960). A steadfast supporter of multiracial families, in 1964 she organized the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which supports Asian-American children and their mothers living abroad.

Although Buck's literary career embraced a variety of genres, almost all of her stories are set in China: the extremely popular novel Dragon Seed, its less popular sequel, The Promise (1943), and a raft of later novels, including Peony (1948), Letter from Peking (1957), and The New Year (1968). Among her other works, the highly acclaimed The Living Reed (1963) details the history of a Korean family during the late 19th and early 20th century. In the late 1940s Buck also authored a trilogy under the pseudonym John Sedges. The novels were later published as American Triptych (1958).

Lauded for Generous Spirit

Buck's play A Desert Incident was produced in New York City in 1959. Her ability as an essayist is exemplified by American Argument (with Eslanda Goode Robeson, 1949) and Friend to Friend (1958), "a candid exchange" with Philippine president Carlos P. Rómulo. Buck died of lung cancer in 1973, with more than one hundred written works to her credit. But even more significant, perhaps, were the over three hundred awards she received for her humanitarian efforts on behalf of improved race relations worldwide.

Further Reading on Pearl Sydenstricker Buck

There has been very little critical attention given to Mrs. Buck's work. Her autobiography is My Several Worlds (1954). The best biographical sources are Cornelia Spencer, The Exile's Daughter: A Biography of Pearl S. Buck (1944), Paul A. Doyle, Pearl S. Buck (1965), and Nora Stirling, Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict (1983).