Women’s History Month 2012: Pearl S. Buck

8 Mar

Today we honor and celebrate noted author and humanitarian Pearl S. Buck. Her parents were Presbyterian missionaries in China; they returned briefly to the U.S. for her birth in 1892. Buck was raised in China, returning to the U.S. where she attended Randolph-Macon Women’s College from 1911 – 1914. She married John L. Buck on her return to China and began her work as a missionary. Her long association with the Chinese people led her to believe that traditional conversion missionary work was not in the best interest of the locals (reminiscent of our Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible). In the raging Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy, she took a vocal stand for religion being a tool for people rather than a prescriptive truth. Her strong liberal and humanist stand cost her her missionary job in China( No good deed will go unpunished).

The Bucks moved to the U.S. in 1925 for John’s sabbatical. Pearl obtained her MA in English Literature from Cornell during this time and began writing short fiction and essays. After a year they returned to China where she began teaching English literature at Nanking University. Concerned about building a sufficient nest egg for her daughter, she wrote her first novel in 1930. In 1932, she wrote her most well-known work,The Good Earth, a novel of Chinese family village life. It won the Pulitzer prize for the Novel in 1932.

The political unrest in China eventually drove the Bucks into hiding. In 1934 they reluctantly moved to the U.S. and never returned to China. Pearl divorced John shortly after their move. At the same time, she and her publisher, Richard Walsh had developed a more personal relationship; they married in 1935. She purchased Green Hills Farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where she and Richard raised a large international family including their seven adopted children and several foster children. In 1938, Pearl Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature for her epic portrayal of Chinese peasant life and for her biographies of her parents.

Buck was highly committed to and passionate about a range of issues and wrote on a diverse variety of topics including women’s rights, Asian cultures, immigration, adoption, missionary work, and war. In 1949, outraged that existing adoption services considered Asian and mixed-race children unadoptable, Buck established Welcome House, Inc., the first international, interracial adoption agency. In 1964, to support children who were not eligible for adoption, Buck established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to “address poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries.”

Pearl S. Buck challenged the American public on topics such as racism, sex discrimination and the plight of the thousands of babies born to Asian women left behind and unwanted wherever American soldiers were based in Asia. During her life Buck combined the multiple careers of wife, mother, author, editor and political activist. She died in 1973, leaving behind a significant body of writing and a legacy of humanitarian accomplishments.

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