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Pearl S. Buck

June 26 is the birthday of writer Pearl Buck.  She was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia (1892) of missionary parents, who took her to the Chinese city of Chinkiang on the Yangtse River when she was 3 months old.  She spoke Chinese before she learned English.

Buck's father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a humorless, scholarly man who spent much of his life translating the Bible from Greek into Chinese.  Her mother, the former Caroline Stulting, had traveled widely in her youth and had developed a passion for literature.  But the family's life in China was not always pleasant.  When Pearl was still a child, the family had to flee from rebel forces during the Boxer Rebellion.  They returned once the fighting died down.

After being educated by her mother and a Confucian Chinese tutor, Buck was sent to a boarding school in Shanghai (1907-09) at the age of fifteen.  She worked for the Door of Hope, a shelter for Chinese slave girls and prostitutes, which gave her tremendous insight into the minds of Oriental women--something that would come in handy in her future writing.

Buck continued her education in the United States at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Virginia, where she studied psychology.  She planned on spending the rest of her life in the United States, but her mother's serious illness interrupted those plans.  After being graduated in 1914, Buck returned to China to care for her mother and work for the Presbyterian Board of Missions.  When her mother recovered, they resettled in a village in northern China, and Buck married a missionary man she met there.

She went to work as a teacher and interpreter for her husband, traveling throughout the countryside to deliver the word of God.  During this period, China took steps toward liberal reform under the May 4th Movement of 1917 - 1921.  In the 1920s, the Bucks moved to Nanking, where Pearl taught English and American literature at the university.  In 1922, she wrote a description of Chinese daily life and sent it to The Atlantic Monthly, which began publishing her articles regularly.  Two years later, the family returned to the United States to seek medical care for her first daughter, who was mentally retarded.  In 1926, she received her M.A. in literature from Cornell University.

The Bucks returned to China in 1927.  During the civil war, they were evacuated to Japan and never returned.

While in the Orient, Buck published stories in the weekly children's edition of the Shanghai Mercury.  Her first book was East Wind: West Wind (1930), and she followed it with the book that won the Pulitzer Prize and made her famous worldwide, The Good Earth (1931).  It's about a Chinese farmer, his wife, and their struggle to make a good life for themselves.  The novel's style--a combination of biblical prose and Chinese narrative saga--increased the dignity of its characters.  Buck was only the third American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, following Sinclair Lewis and Eugene O'Neill.  The book gained a wide audience and was made into a motion picture.

Buck wrote two sequels to her blockbuster novel, Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935), and published them all together in 1935 as a trilogy called House of Earth.  She went on to write over 85 books, sometimes two or three a year, but that early novel, The Good Earth, has always been regarded as her best.  At the core of her novels is the recurring theme of relationships between men and women of different cultures. 

Pearl S. Buck died at the age of eighty in Danby, Vermont, on March 6, 1973.

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