None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free. - Pearl S. Buck
|Pearl S. Buck
Unknown [Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons
Pearl S. Buck’s biography reads as a jaw-dropping list of accolades and accomplishments: Pulitzer Prize winning writer, Nobel Prize recipient, author of 70 books, one of which was adapted into a major film, teacher, poet, humanitarian, philanthropist, social activist, adoption advocate, and a fervent and vocal supporter of the rights of children, the elderly, women, minorities, and the peoples of Asia. And though these accomplishments and works of activism are inspiring, even more was the woman behind them, the passion that drove them, the generous and loving heart that moved them. For as much as Pearl S. Buck was a talented and accomplished individual, it was her passionate and loving spirit that led her to become one of the most admired and respected women of her time.
Born on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia to Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, Pearl was the fourth of seven children, of which, only three survived to adulthood. Her parents were Southern Presbyterian missionaries stationed in China and Pearl spent her childhood in Chinkiang on the Yangtze River.
She was educated by her mother and a Chinese tutor who was a Confucian scholar. Thus, Pearl spoke both English and Chinese. Fleeing from the rebel forces of the Boxer revolution, the family took another leave in the U.S. in 1910. Pearl enrolled at the Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia, and graduated in 1914. Though she had planned to remain in the U.S, she returned to China upon hearing that her mother was very ill (her mother would live until 1921).
There she met an agricultural expert named Dr. John Lossing Buck, whom she married in 1917, and the couple moved to Nanhsuchou in the rural Anhwei province. It was in this underprivileged area that she gathered the material she would later use in her acclaimed stories of China. Later they lived in Nanking where both had teaching positions.
Their first child, Carol, born in 1921, suffered from PKU and severe mental retardation. Pearl returned to the United States to obtain medical care for her daughter, and during the same time period, received her M.A. in literature from Cornell University. A uterine tumor was discovered during the delivery of her daughter, and Pearl had to undergo a hysterectomy. In 1925, the couple adopted a baby girl named Janice, the first of what would eventually be 9 adopted children for Pearl.
The family returned to China, but the region was struggling with the unrest of civil war during the 1920s: Pearl and her family were at one point rescued and relocated to Japan for safety. However, their love of Asia never wavered.
Pearl had already begun to publish stories and essays in renowned magazines and by 1930 her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, was published by The John Day Company. Her second novel, The Good Earth, was published in 1931 and became the best-selling book of both 1931 and 1932. This literary masterpiece won the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal in 1935, and was adapted as a major MGM film in 1937. Several of Pearl's other novels were adapted into films as well, including Dragon Seed, China Flight, The Big Wave, and Satan Never Sleeps. Eventually Pearl authored a total of 70 published works, including popular children's literature, translations, novels, and poems. Her passion for writing was limitless, and in 1938 Pearl became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.
By then Pearl had moved permanently to the United States and gotten divorced. In 1935, she married Richard Walsh, the publisher of the John Day Company. She and Richard bought Green Hills Farm, an old farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and adopted six more children over the following years.
Pearl became an advocate for women's rights and racial equality, even before the civil rights movement, and published essays for the NAACP and the Urban League. She became close friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, Margaret Mead, and Paul Robeson.
In 1942, she and Richard founded the East and West Association, “dedicated to cultural exchange and understanding between Asia and the West.” She was a steadfast advocate for the rights of the Chinese people, and pressed for their ability to lawfully immigrate to the United States, if they so desired. More importantly, she pressed for the world to understand and embrace the Asian cultures and peoples.
"We cannot fight for freedom unless we fight for freedom for all... Do not yield then for one moment to anything in our national life which denies democracy. Press steadily for human equality, not only for yourselves, but for all those groups who are not given equality. It is as important for you to care that justice is given to a Jew as it is to fight for it for yourself. It is the principle that must be established for all of us, or none of us will have it."
--From "Equality," a commencement address Pearl Buck delivered at Howard University in June, 1942. She was a trustee of Howard University for twenty years.
Pearl was a steadfast and vocal supporter of the rights of children around the world. An adoption activist and mother of adopted children, Pearl was appalled that existing adoption services in the U.S. considered Asian and mixed-race children unsuitable for adoption. In 1949 she established the Welcome House, the first international, interracial adoption agency, which has since placed 5,000 children in homes. In 1964 Pearl also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation: the foundation provides sponsorship funding for thousands of children ineligible for adoption in half a dozen Asian countries.
Pearl used her life experiences in her writings. Her love of Asia and its peoples was evident in so many of her works. She also told the story of her daughter, whose mental development stopped at the age of four in The Child Who Never Grew, a subject also touched upon in The Good Earth. These latter works drew attention to the condition of mental retardation, and to the need for understanding and further medical research.
Pearl S. Buck died in March of 1973, shortly before her eighty-first birthday. She was buried at Green Hills Farm, now on the Registry of Historic Buildings, which is visited by fifteen thousand people each year. Pearl’s legacy lives on in the works she penned, in her charitable foundations, in the large family she headed, and in the admiring eyes and lives of readers and individuals worldwide.
Official Website | The Nobel Prize
- Biography of Pearl S. Buck
Department of English at UPenn
- A photographic tour through Pearl S. Buck's life.
- 'Pearl Buck In China': A Child Across The Good Earth: Ever since her 1931 blockbuster The Good Earth earned her a Pulitzer Prize and, eventually, the first Nobel Prize for Literature ever awarded to an American woman, Pearl S. Buck's reputation has made a strange, slow migration. These days, it's her life story rather than her novels (which are now barely read -- either in the West, or in China) that's come to fascinate readers.
Pearl S. Buck International
- Pearl S. Buck International provides opportunities to explore and appreciate other cultures, builds better lives for children around the globe and promotes the legacy of our founder by preserving and interpreting her National Historic Landmark home.