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American author Pearl S. Buck moved to China with her missionary parents when she was a few months old. Her first spoken language was Chinese, she lived among Chinese and adopted their customs. Looking back on her return to American she wrote, "To move from an old established society to an effervescent society is to change worlds and epochs."
Fortunately, for millions of readers, Pearl was culturally "bi-focal."
By age 33 Buck had written two books. Her first novel was burnt when the Buck's house was set afire by communists in Nanking. Her econd, "East Wind: West Wind," was written in 1925 aboard ship en route to America.
Pearl died in 1973, bequeathing a legacy of wisdom for writers.
"Be born (as a novelist) among gypsies or thieves . . . among happy workaday people," Pearl advised writers. She urged writers not to create characters that give a hoot about "saving their own souls or the souls of others." Write about good people and their humorous, sensitive, wayward, intelligent ways. Buck excelled at writing about regular folks under extraordinary pressure - like Wang and O-lan in "Good Earth" - rather than emperors and soul-saving saints.
Pearl's dad, a Presbyterian missionary, did not believe in reading fiction. He returned "Good Earth" to his daughter, unread. Later, book critics complained she wrote "too much, too often." Pearl's response? She listened to her heart, not to critics and wrote over 100 books, some under the nom de plume John Sedges. Prolific as she was, she did stop to smell the roses.
Pearl was conscious of "the flowers in the greenhouse shining through the glass like gems," even as her two fingers flew over her Royal typewriter in the adjacent workroom. When a stubborn story refused to blossom, Pearl the gardener spent an hour among roses, carnations and snapdragons. Her hobby melted writing obstacles into something alive and responsive. Pearl knew when to give it a break.
She also knew what kind of environment would be conducive to writing. Pearl bought her Pennsylvania home for $1400. Yes, the price was low because of the American depression, but a lack of plumbing and electricity pulled the asking price down lower.
Nevertheless, Pearl was thrilled to hand over the payment for the 1835 farmhouse that became her homestead, embodying the melding of the two worlds in which Pearl lived. The Peking rugs she walked upon in the American farmhouse reminded her of Asia. From the homes' many-paned windows she gazed out on a "scene so Chinese" with pond, willow trees and herons. Her adopted children flooded the rooms with gales of Asian laughter.
"You gotta care about your protagonists or your readers won't" goes the old saw. Pearl admitted she felt more Chinese than American. This empathy combined with her intimate knowledge of Chinese peasants informed her sympathetic characterizations. Yet, as foreign as her subjects were to Western readers, the success of her books proved that people all over the earth share similar hopes and fears. Pearl made readers care about Asians, who until then were mostly stereotyped caricatures.
"Good Earth," which took three months to write, was published in 1930. It remained on the bestseller list for 21 months, won the Pulitzer prize, was made into a movie and was translated into 20 languages by 1937. This string of events began when Pearl sat and sat on a hard wooden bench, waiting to meet Richard John Walsh, President of The John Day Publishing Company in New York. That Pearl built a good relationship with her publisher is evident in the number of Bucks/Sedges books in their catalog. The hard bench eventually found its way into Pearl's Pennsylvania home and John Walsh found his way into her heart. They married and became "Mrs. and Mr. Pearl S. Buck."
In a second-story room of the Buck homestead, the wooden bench gleams among a collection of Pearl's numerous awards: Pulitzer, Nobel, 13 honorary degrees, keys to countless cities, plaques, certificates, photos with literati and glitterati. As a matter of fact, the author balked at spending time traveling and schmoozing to accept awards because it stole time from her vocation - writing. Pearl was not motivated to write by dreams of winning the brass ring or over-sized brass keys. She wrote to tell a story.
(If you love Chinese culture, read Beth Fowler's book "Half Baked in Taiwan" available at Xlibris, Amazon and US Bookstores.)
Buck, Pearl S., "My Several Worlds," The John Day Company, 1954.
"'Good Earth' Film,' Newsweek Magazine, February, 13, 1937
Tour 25 Sept. 1995. Newman, Joan, Tourguide at Pearl S. Buck's House, 520 Dublin Road, Dublin, Pennsylvania, USA, phone: 800-220-2825
"Contemporary Authors" Vol 1, Gale Research Company
Harris, Theodore F., "Pearl S. Buck: A Biography," The John Day Co. 1971