Sunday, March 28, 2010

Biography of Pearl S. Buck

Methinks it is time for a new generation of Americans to read Buck's novels about life in China.  For the people living in China's hinterlands (the "peasants" as they are still called today), life hasn't changed much in thousands of years, except the water is more polluted where water is still available (millions have been driven off their hereditary lands through massive damming projects, and millions more are withering away through a 10-year long drought that shows no signs of ending anytime soon, thanks to shifts in weather patterns due to global warming), and the earth is more poisoned than ever with industrial pollution. 

As a country and as a western culture, we cannot begin to successfully understand and deal with the juggernaut that is today's China unless we know it - and through Buck's novels we can come to know it.

So, I am glad to see a biography of Buck being published.  Perhaps it will spur interest in her novels in this country and her readers can learn a few things about what life in China is really like - things haven't changed for the "peasants" since Buck wrote about them in her novels, and the cultural mores and outlooks they embody are deeply embedded in the people who control China today, despite a cosmopolitan gloss that fools some of the people (i.e., our leaders) most of the time. 

Elaine Showalter
Burying Bones: Pearl Buck's Life in China
By Hilary Spurling (Profile Books 288pp £15)

How does a woman overcome the suffocating messages of her culture to become an artist? In Burying the Bones, Hilary Spurling unearths the creative roots of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Pearl Buck (1892-1973). Spurling points out that, although Buck's most famous novel, The Good Earth, is still in print, the author is 'virtually forgotten. She has no place in feminist mythology, and her novels have been effectively eliminated from the American literary map.' Boldly conceived and magnificently written, Burying the Bones should repair Buck's literary fortunes and restore her to the pantheon of feminist heroines.

In her foreword, Spurling dates her fascination with Buck to her childhood reading. The first book she remembers was Pearl Buck's The Chinese Children Next Door, about a family of six little girls totally overshadowed and enslaved by the seventh child, a baby brother. When she reread it as an adult, Spurling recognised 'echoes of stories my mother told me about her own childhood when she, too, had been the last of six unwanted girls'. For Spurling, these were stories of a remote time and place, but for Buck, who played as a little girl 'in a Chinese town where wild dogs foraged for babies routinely exposed to die on waste land', it was a domestication of the terrors of finding the 'half-eaten' remains of bodies, 'nearly always girls suffocated or strangled at birth'. Spurling makes this story a symbol of the archaeological process of 'recovering the remnants' of Buck's early life, but it is also a fable about male supremacy and the silencing of women's voices. How Buck survived and transcended this destiny is the empowering theme of the book.

Pearl Sydenstricker grew up in China at the turn of the century as the daughter of Southern Presbyterian missionaries, cared for by a beloved amah. 'I spoke Chinese first and more easily,' she recalled. 'I did not consider myself a white person in those days.' Pearl's father, Absalom, was an ascetic, fierce Christian in search of martyrdom, who demanded an area 'as large as the state of Texas' north of Shanghai as his first post, in a futile effort to convert a people for whom he had little personal compassion or cultural sympathy. In three years 'he made not a single convert', and came home from his solo trips around the country covered with bruises and spittle. Absalom's blind devotion to his church robbed his wife Carrie of all material comfort and emotional support, and fuelled Pearl's sympathy for all women bound in their minds as well as their bodies. In The Exile (1936) Buck told her mother's story of sacrifice, poverty and suffering in a marriage of sexual and spiritual duty. Nevertheless, as Buck would acknowledge in a biography of her father called The Fighting Angel (1936), there was something heroic in Absalom's single-minded calling and something admirable in his lifelong effort to translate the New Testament into the Chinese vernacular.

In 1901, having survived the sieges of the Boxer Rebellion, the Sydenstrickers returned temporarily to their native West Virginia, and nine-year-old Pearl had her first American experiences. Later she was sent to be educated at the genteel Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she continued to read Dickens obsessively and briefly reinvented herself as a Southern belle. But Pearl was eager to return to China and went back in 1914 to keep house for her father, care for her ailing mother, and teach English to the new generation of Chinese students and intellectuals influenced by the Nationalist revolution of Sun Yat-sen.

During this exciting time she acknowledged her vocation as a writer, and was determined to follow the example of Chinese popular fiction, championed by the young iconoclasts of Chinese literary reform. Unlike the arcane classical Chinese literature of the past, this new writing, according to Buck, 'was an enormous release to educated men and women. To be able to say what one felt ... was to free an energy suppressed for centuries.' While for all Chinese writers, the change meant a shift from the classical to the 'despised' vernacular language, for women it meant the freedom to describe female experience, to tell the truth about their lives.

Pearl had just started to write stories and journalism about China when she married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist stationed in Anhwei Province. Although it began as a love match, the marriage turned out to duplicate some of the worst elements of her parents' unhappy life together. Lossing (as he was called) was obsessed by his work, and their sexual incompatibility showed up in her writing 'about thwarted sexuality, marital rape, and the physical repulsion' women could feel for their husbands. Indeed, Spurling writes, 'Sex was Pearl Buck's territory as a novelist.' Tragically, their daughter Carol was born in 1920 with a genetic birth defect called phenylketonuria, which led to mental impairment. The Bucks adopted another daughter, Janice, hoping to stimulate Carol with sibling companionship, but the emotional and practical weight of caring for the children fell on Pearl, and Lossing refused to leave the political chaos of China for America, even in 1927 when the violent clash between Nationalists and Communists in Nanjing put their lives at risk.

I see now that I was in a queer submerged state. It was like living in a solitary cell, nothing and no one came in, and I seemed unable to communicate with anyone ... remembering it, I have the feelings of someone having spent part of his life in jail.
She would explore this sense of imaginative and emotional imprisonment in her fiction.

In 1929, she made the agonising decision to put Carol in a private institution in New Jersey and, upon her return to China, began to write The Good Earth. Published by the small New York firm John Day in 1931, the novel was an international sensation, 'the first attempt to penetrate the deep underlife of ordinary Chinese people that no one else had ever written about before'. Its depiction of a strange and harsh society and its portrait of the stoic mother, O-lan, connected with the fears of ordinary Americans in the Depression. The book's success dramatically changed Buck's life. She divorced Lossing Buck, married her publisher Richard Walsh, and moved back to the US. Together they adopted five more children and founded Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency. In the last forty years of her life, Buck became a popular novelist who never lost her faith in the importance of fiction to reach a mass audience, and a staunch advocate for birth control, the care of mentally disabled children, and racial and sexual equality.

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