The Question of Pearl Buck

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Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress
Pearl Buck, circa 1932

The announcement by the Swedish Academy in November 1938 that Pearl Buck had been awarded the Nobel Prize for literature was met with sarcasm and even derision by many writers and critics. They were not impressed that this was the third choice by the academy of an American writer in a mere eight years—the first being Sinclair Lewis in 1930, the second Eugene O’Neill in 1936. Pearl Buck had dedicated her writing life to novels and memoirs about China, and her selection was seen as a sop to public opinion, in a world where Japanese and German war scares were becoming a reality and China was a prime victim.

The critic Norman Holmes Pearson referred to the academy choice as reducing the Nobel to the “hammish” (his word) level of the Pulitzer Prize and commented, “Thank heavens I have seen no one who has taken it seriously.” Referring to Pearl Buck’s widely quoted comment when she received the Nobel news—“I don’t believe it…. That’s ridiculous. It should have gone to Dreiser”—Pearson responded: “Nuts to her, say I, I think that was putting it mildly.” A full decade later on the eve of his own selection for the Nobel Prize, William Faulkner was still mocking “Mrs. Chinahand Buck.” Lists of American writers besides Dreiser whom contemporaries mentioned as more deserving of the Nobel than Pearl Buck included Mark Twain, Henry James, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and John Dos Passos.

Such criticism was not entirely parochial, and some of the negative comments on Pearl Buck’s writing abilities strike us still as very much on the mark. Buck made herself vulnerable to pot-shots by the undeniable ponderousness or banality of many of her works. Even Hilary Spurling, in her intensely sympathetic portrayal of Buck’s life, cannot resist commenting that her “sense of humor seldom got the better of her didactic intent.” Spurling pithily notes that the postscript added by Buck to her otherwise beautiful book on her mother’s life, The Exile, “makes it sound more like a biography of the Statue of Liberty than an actual human being.” “Pearl’s books sold in the millions,” writes Spurling, “not in spite [of] but because of their bland, trite, ingratiating mass-market techniques.”

At least twice, Spurling gives up the search for a complex adjective and settles on “preposterous” as the only fitting word for a particular plot shift chosen by Buck. As the literary historian Peter Conn observed some sixteen years ago:

Pearl’s Asian subjects, her prose style, her gender, and her tremendous popularity offended virtually every one of the constituencies that divided up the literary 1930s. Marxists, Agrarians, Chicago journalists, New York intellectuals, literary nationalists, and New Humanists had little enough in common, but they could all agree that Pearl Buck had no place in any of their creeds and canons.

What, then, gave Pearl Buck the necessary strength to slice through the dismissive …

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