Sunday, June 13, 2010

66: The Self Empowered Woman: Pearl Buck

Dear Followers,

Today's remarkable woman, managed to combine the multiple careers of wife, mother, author and activist long before doing so was fashionable. Pearl Buck won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for her best-selling novel The Good Earth, and in 1938 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for her "rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces."

The daughter of Caroline and Absalom Sydenstricker, Buck was born on June 26, 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia, but moved with her parents to China so they could continue their work as Southern Presbyterian missionaries (3: Belief in the Unbelievable).

Her strict father was so committed to his work of converting the Chinese that she rarely saw him (1: No Paternal Safety Net). As a child, she learned to speak Chinese before English, and when she wrote "The Good Earth" she mentally composed it in Chinese first and then translated the story into English.

By 1911, she had left China to attend college at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, from which she graduated Phi Beta Kappa (10: The Critic Within). In 1914, she returned to China and three years later married a missionary/farmer named John Lossing Buck. Soon after, she became unhappy in her marriage, gained a great deal of weight, and even described her gray-green eyes as "wild-beast eyes" (6: Life is Also Not a Beauty Contest).

The 1920s were difficult (12: Hard Times). Three years after they were married, the Bucks had a daughter (Carol) who was afflicted with Phenylketonuria, and the next year, Buck's mother died; soon her father moved in with the young couple and their ill daughter. When they returned to the U.S. for John's one-year sabbatical, Pearl Buck earned her Masters Degree from Cornell University before returning to China in 1925. In 1927, the "Nanking Incident" forced the family to seek asylum, and they were forced to move to Japan for a year. In 1934, they permanently left China.

Buck actually had two Magnificent Obsessions (7). One was her outrage at the cruel way women were treated in China. Wives could only speak if spoken to, and female babies (as in today's China) were considered far less "valuable" than males. Her second "cause" was the plight of "mixed race" babies born to Asian women wherever American soldiers were stationed in Asia. She became a critic of the "racial superiority" that she witnessed among the missionaries, and was brave enough to challenge racism and sex discrimination in both China and the U.S. (5: Life Is Not a Popularity Contest).

In 1935, she divorced her husband and married her publisher, Richard Walsh; after his death she chose an Arthur Murray dance instructor (Theodore Harris) to be her companion (15: Forget About Prince Charming).

Even though her children were critical of her, Buck appears to have been the Mia Farrow or Angelina Jolie of her era; her family included seven adopted children (16: Intensive Motherhood). In 1949, she established Welcome House, Inc. which was the first international, interracial adoption agency. She also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation as well as Opportunity Center and Orphanages to "address poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries."

Because of the way she portrayed Chinese peasant life, Buck was denounced as an "American cultural imperialist" during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She was heartbroken when Madame Mao and Chinese government officials prevented her from accompanying President Nixon on his groundbreaking visit to China in 1972.

Pearl Buck, who wrote over 50 books, died in 1973 when she was 80 years old. She is buried in Green Hills Farm in Perkasie, Pennsylvania; she designed her tombstone, which is inscribed with the Chinese characters that represent the name Pearl Sydenstricker.

Looking forward to your comments...