Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography

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Pearl Buck was one of the most renowned, interesting, and controversial figures ever to influence American and Chinese cultural and literary history - yet she remains one of the least studied, honored, or remembered. Peter Conn's Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography sets out to reconstruct Buck's life and significance, and to restore this remarkable woman to visibility. Born into a missionary family, Pearl Buck lived the first half of her life in China and was bilingual from childhood. Although she is best known, perhaps, as the prolific author of The Good Earth and as a winner of the Nobel and Pulitzer prizes, Buck in fact led a career that extended well beyond her eighty works of fiction and nonfiction and deep into the public sphere. Passionately committed to the cause of social justice, she was active in the American civil rights and women's rights movements; she also founded the first international adoption agency. She was an outspoken advocate of racial understanding, vital as a cultural ambassador between the United States and China at a time when East and West were at once suspicious and deeply ignorant of each other. In this richly illustrated and meticulously crafted narrative, Conn recounts Buck's life in absorbing detail, tracing the parallel course of American and Chinese history and politics through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This "cultural biography" thus offers a dual portrait: of Buck, a figure greater than history cares to remember, and of the era she helped to shape.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In this brilliantly conceived biography, Conn, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, sets out to reconstruct Buck's life, her extraordinary commitment to social justice and her literary achievement. To her many primarily male critics, Buck was an overrated storyteller whose best-selling portrayals of Chinese peasants struggling in a land on the brink of revolution in no way merited the Pulitzer or Nobel prizes. Time and the reading public seem to have agreed, as only The Good Earth survivesprincipally as a late-night movie classic. Born in West Virginia in 1892 to Protestant missionary parents, Pearl Sydenstricker spent almost all of her first 40 years in China. Although she was bilingual, she felt an outsider in both countries, and Conn speculates that her experiences in China's white minority led to a lifelong advocacy of interracial understanding. She went to college in the U.S., but returned to China, where she married her first husband, J. Lossing Buck, and gave birth to her only child, who suffered from phenylketonuria PKU. Then, in 1934, faced with the Japanese invasion, civil tensions and escalating anti-foreigner sentiment, the Bucks returned to the U.S. As her literary works slipped into obscurity, Buck spent the decades until her death in 1973 devoting herself to issues of interracial conflict, immigration and the adoption of disadvantaged children, eventually establishing Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency. Perhaps Buck's fortunes have finally turned, for she has been singularly lucky in her biographer. Drawing on Buck's own words and actions, Conn steers a sympathetic yet intelligently balanced course, revealing in fascinating detail the gripping life story of a compelling woman. Photos. Oct.
Library Journal
Buck 1892-1973 knew the costs of cultural practices that oppress. A child of evangelical Protestant missionaries in China, she witnessed her father's accepted oppression of her mother via the Chinese caste system that trapped girls and women. Buck, who always considered herself an outsider, carried these thoughts with her when she left China to study in America. Later, her efforts on behalf of sexual and racial equality, religious diversity, world peace, birth control, interracial adoption, and humane treatment of handicapped people her daughter Carol was retarded fueled her personal autonomy and her prodigious output as a writer of fiction and nonfiction. The Good Earth 1931 brought her great popularity and the Pulitzer Prize, and in 1938 she won the Nobel. Aware that Buck's writing has fallen out of fashion, Conn Literature in America, LJ 7/89 believes and proves that Buck helped enormously in forging an understanding of American and Chinese culture and deserves a place in American letters by virtue of her humanitarian work. His book is expertly written, not only as a biography but also as a political history. Highly recommended.Robert Kelly, Fort Wayne Community Schs., Ind.
Katha Pollitt immensely interesting and detailed biography. -- Katha Pollitt, The New York Times Book Review
Los Angeles Times
"Conn examines almost every piece of work Buck ever wrote and explains why it's important today...[he] has gone far beyond merely touting Buck's literary merits to portray a consistent, believable and immensely fascinating woman. This is biography at its best: informative and entertaining....Conn has done an amazing amount of research...a compelling biography, a must-read for people interested in China, the publishing world, awe-inspiring women, the struggles of people of color, or the day-to-day drams of human life."
Kirkus Reviews
With The Good Earth author's visibility almost as low as when she was a missionary wife in China, Conn's biography tries to refocus on her role as an outspoken critic of imperialism, and as a supporter of feminism and racial equality.

Although Buck was a Nobel and Pulitzer prizewinning novelist—one who can claim credit for the first popular, realistic portrayals of China in America—her reputation suffered a swift decline after her death. An evaluative biography is overdue, but Conn's academic work seems an uncomfortable mix, part history primer, part summary survey of Buck's life. Its portrait of Buck is less detailed—and less engaging—than that to be found in her biographies of her evangelical missionary parents or in her own memoirs. Conn (English/Univ. of Pennsylvania) has gathered a great deal of information about China in the 19th and early 20th centuries, tracing its history from the Boxer Rebellion up to the Chinese civil war. He tries to place Buck's lonely childhood in China with her Calvinist father and homesick mother, her bicultural education, and her frustrated marriage to a hardworking but distant agricultural expert and missionary within the larger context of events in China—but he fails to integrate the two levels of narrative. When her second novel, The Good Earth, brought her sudden, skyrocketing fame, she settled in America, only to find her rosy expatriate patriotism at odds with native jingoism, racism, and sexism. For the rest of her career, while she continued to churn out novels, she also became an outspoken critic of American foreign policy and segregation, a supporter of women's rights, and a promoter of international/interracial adoption, facts just as dimmed now as her literary status.

Conn's fact-filled book goes some way to resuscitate Buck's career and strong opinions, but Buck herself remains a shadowy figure.

From the Publisher
"Peter Conn's fine book, at once scholarly and readable, should do much to awaken awareness of her [Buck's] significant place in twentieth century American history....Drawing on his academic training in American Studies, he sets the events of her life against a rich background of Chinese and American political and social history. The impressive range of his research can be seen in the extensive notes, which fill almost seventy pages....His richly detailed and informative book should do much to encourage the reassessment of the life of this remarkable woman." Elizabeth Johnston Lipscomb, Magill's Literary Annual

"Conn examines almost every piece of work Buck ever wrote and explains why it's important today....[he] has gone far beyond merely touting Buck's literary merits to portray a consistent, believable and immensely fascinating woman. This is biography at its best: informative and entertaining....Conn has done an amazing amount of research....a compelling biography, a must-read for people interested in China, the publishing world, awe-inspiring women, the struggles of people of color, or, the day-to-day dramas of human life." The Los Angeles Times

"At last! A fascinating biography of Pearl S. Buck, vividly written, vigorously researched....a gripping, stunning read." Blanche Wiesen Cook, author of Eleanor Roosevelt

"...A considerable achievement." Jonathan Spence, author of The Search for Modern China

"...expertly written, not only as a biography but also as a political history." Library Journal

"This brilliantly conceived biography steers a sympathetic yet intelligently balanced course, revealing in fascinating detail the gripping life story of a compelling woman." Publishers Weekly

"This biography is the best available scholarly discussion of a remarkably popular author and Nobel laureate who has been neglected by most literary historians....Highly recommended as a valuable addition to all public and academic library collections." Choice

"Peter Conn has written a very readable biography of one whose life reflects much of the complexity of her time." Catherine Kord, The American Review

"Nevertheless, she certainly was a major figure of her time, and to follow her life in Conn's finely detailed narrative is to encounter a powerful and moving 20th century experience...All these facets of Buck's life are sensitively described by Conn, who never allows his admiration for his subject to blind him to her frailties and her mistakes in judgement." Lousville, KY Courier-Journal (the reviewer is Richard Bernstein, with The New York Times)

"Meticulously researched, well-written, thorough and fair in its assessment of one of the most popular American writers of the century, this scholarly treatise is more than a biography, It is a cultural history of East-West relations." Reese Danley-Kilgo, Huntsville, AL Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780521560801
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press
  • Publication date: 8/26/1996
  • Pages: 500
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.21 (h) x 1.26 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface: Rediscovering Pearl Buck; 1. Missionary childhood; 2. New worlds; 3. Winds of change; 4. The Good Earth; 5. An exile's return; 6. The prize; 7. Wartime; 8. Losing battles; 9. Pearl Sydenstricker.

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