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June 26: Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck (1892)

Pearl S. Buck

It was on this date, June 26, 1892, that Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker, who would become known as American novelist Pearl S. Buck, was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia. The daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in China, Buck received her university education in the U.S., but returned to China in the mid-1910s to become a university instructor and writer, where she was known by her Chinese name, Sài Zhēnzhū (賽珍珠). Naturally, her novels focused on life in China and the culture clash between East and West. This cultural perspective may have contributed to her pulling away from the faith of her father.

Buck's first novel, East Wind, West Wind, appeared in 1930. It was followed by The Good Earth in 1931, which won her the 1932 Pulitzer Prize and in 1938 won the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces”—the first American woman to be so honored. The Good Earth was the best-selling fiction book in the U.S. in 1931 and 1932. Although married to an agricultural economist missionary, John Lossing Buck, Pearl Buck said, "I am so absorbed in the wonder of earth and the life upon it that I cannot think of heaven and the angels. I have enough for this life.” In a 1932 talk to a group of Presbyterian women in New York, Buck answered the question, “Is There a Case for the Foreign Missionary?” by pointing out the arrogance implicit in the work and the lack of necessity for an institutional church in China. The talk was published in Harper’s magazine the next year and the resulting scandal—a missionary’s wife doubting God’s guidance on missionary work!—led to her resignation from the Presbyterian Board and her divorce from her missionary husband.

In her later life, Buck was active in promoting women’s rights, minority rights and welfare organizations, setting up Welcome House, Inc., an agency for the adoption of Asian-American children. Many of Buck's novels were translated to film: The Good Earth in 1937, Dragon Seed in 1944, China Sky in 1945, Satan Never Sleeps, based on The China Story, in 1962, and Pavilion of Women in 2001. In all her work it is evident that her ethic was totally humanist: “I believe in human beings, but my faith is without sentimentality. … I feel no need for any other faith than my faith in human beings,” she said in This I Believe (1951). Pearl Buck died of lung cancer in Danby, Vermont, on 6 March 1973, at the age of 80. Ten years after her death, Buck was honored with a 5¢ Great Americans series postage stamp, and in 1999 she was designated a Women’s History Month Honoree by the National Women’s History Project. It was Pearl S. Buck who said, “It may be that religion is dead, and if it is, we had better know it and set ourselves to try to discover other sources of moral strength before it is too late.”

Originally published June 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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