- The Washington Times - Friday, September 3, 2010

By Hilary Spurling
Simon & Schuster, $27, 304 pages, illustrated

When Richard Nixon decided to make his historic visit to China in 1972, the aged Pearl Buck sought to go along, but Zhou Enlai himself, writes Hilary Spurling, refused her a visa. She was still controversial. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the Chinese began to embrace Pearl Buck and to encourage Pearl Buck tourism by renovating houses she had lived in as a child and producing Chinese TV specials about her and her writings. A documentary praised her as “an American writer who told the Chinese stories in a Chinese way in English.”

In fact, her 1931 masterpiece, “The Good Earth,” in which the story of a Chinese peasant family is told in one simple declarative sentence after another, sounds as though it has been translated from the Chinese.

Ms. Spurling, a respected British biographer, is an intrepid writer to follow in the wake of Peter Conn’s magnificent “Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography” (1996), but she has pulled off a triumph of her own. Acknowledging a debt to Mr. Conn’s work, she has taken a fresh, critical look at all the major and minor writings by and about Pearl Buck, combed numerous archives, interviewed her children and other people who knew her, and benefited throughout, she says, from Mr. Conn’s encouragement and advice.

Ms. Spurling has worked to reconcile Pearl Buck’s own contradictory autobiographical and family biographical writings, which manifest “selective amnesia,” while providing a smooth, perceptive narrative.

Born in West Virginia in 1892 when her missionary parents were there on furlough, Pearl grew up in China, speaking Chinese “first, and more easily” than English. She began reading and writing very early and won writing prizes as a child. Dickens was her favorite author, but she claimed to have read every book in her family’s collection by age 7. Her hit-or-miss education included home schooling (her mother used the Calvert School correspondence course many missionaries relied on for their children), tutoring by a Confucian scholar, and a term at a private school in Shanghai.

Pearl’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was an extremely parsimonious, fundamentalist Southern Presbyterian missionary who was usually “upcountry” seeking to save souls (He counted 10 converts in his first 10 years in China.) whenever a family crisis erupted. Pearl’s long-suffering mother, Carie, struggled with constant pregnancies, miscarriages, illnesses, and the deaths of several young children, often in transit - moving house or traveling somewhere - and in appalling circumstances.

In Zhenjiang, Pearl was frequently left to her own devices under the unwatchful eye of her nurse, who allowed her to ramble about the countryside, where, among other activities, she collected remnants of baby girls left to be eaten by wild dogs and buried them with ceremony. She also heard countless tales of her nurse’s formerly prosperous life before she lost everything in the mid-19th-century Taiping Rebellion.

Pearl’s mother, Carie, was a rich source of “folkloric family epics” that became embedded in Pearl’s imagination. In addition, Carie set up, wherever she settled, informal clinics where she taught girls to read and offered practical advice to their mothers. Pearl later said that overhearing the Chinese women explaining their problems to her mother, long before the child was fully able to understand, was “first-rate novelist’s training.”

Pearl was also shaped by her extraordinary personal experiences, detailed by Ms. Spurling, from the 1900 Boxer Rebellion, when xenophobic marauders killed Christian converts and Pearl’s Chinese friends deserted her, to the “Nanking Incident” of 1927, when Pearl and her family hid in the home of a Chinese neighbor while Japanese soldiers looted the missionaries’ home.

Pearl graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 1914, and upon her return to China to care for her ailing mother, she met and married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist missionary. Beginning in 1920, they both taught for a dozen years at Nanjing University.

Pearl Buck started her writing career by producing articles for magazines, before moving on to novels, biographies of her parents, short stories, and nonfiction, including a book about her own daughter, Carol Buck, who developed phenylketonuria (PKU) after birth and eventually was institutionalized in New Jersey. The Bucks adopted an orphan, Janice, before returning to China.

Pearl’s various accounts,” writes Ms. Spurling, “depend almost entirely on her own memory, always a highly creative faculty and one that can be seen at work over half a century exploring, shaping and reshaping incidents and exchanges from her past. Her early recollections draw heavily on tales her mother told her, collated with her own vivid but patchy infant memory, which started functioning, by her own account, from the moment she opened her eyes on the day of her birth.” No wonder Ms. Spurling has relied primarily on Pearl’s father’s and her sister’s “relatively factual accounts” and her own research.

Richard Walsh was the publisher who accepted “The Good Earth,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for literature in 1932 and which, along with other writings, won for her the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938. “Sex was Pearl Buck’s territory as a novelist,” writes Ms. Spurling. “One of the prime grievances of her critics from The Good Earth onward was the frank sexuality of women as well as men in her novels.” According to Ms. Spurling, Walsh, who became Pearl Buck’s second husband in 1935, heavily edited her books, while her agent edited everything else she wrote.

In 1949, Pearl Buck established the Welcome House Adoption Agency to facilitate American adoptions of Asian and mixed-race children. Ms. Spurling credits her with coining the term Amerasian for these children, and the Walshes adopted six themselves. Over the years, Pearl Buck encouraged thousands of Americans to adopt children whom adoption agencies had previously ignored.

After Richard Walsh’s death in 1960, Pearl Buck allowed her children’s dancing master, Theodore Harris, to take over her life, until he resigned from her foundation under a cloud of scandal. She retreated with him to Vermont and faded away at age 80.

Priscilla S. Taylor is a writer in McLean, Va.

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