The Several Worlds of Pearl S. Buck: Essays Presented at a Centennial Symposium, Randolph-Macon Woman's College, March 26-28, 1992

By Elizabeth J. Lipscomb; Frances E. Webb et al. | Go to book overview

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Introduction: Rediscovering Pearl S. Buck

Peter Conn

Historian James C. Thomson, Jr., recently remarked that Pearl S. Buck "remains the most influential Westerner to write about China since thirteenth- century Marco Polo." Thomson's assessment is at once indisputable, commonplace, and yet, upon reflection, astonishing. In no other case in America's cultural history has one person had such a singular influence on the imaginative terms in which the entire nation addresses a foreign culture. In the late twentieth century, Pearl Buck's work would seem obviously to be a subject of increasing relevance and even urgency, as Asia and the West grope toward communication across the frontiers that separate them.

In such a context, it is clear that Pearl Buck, who defined the attitudes of two or three generations of Westerners toward Asia, would command our attention, even if she had done nothing more. And in fact, she did a great deal more. Inexplicably, however, her life and work have been nearly eradicated in both China and the West. She survives only in caricature: as the author of a single book, The Good Earth, and as the undeserving winner of the Nobel Prize. Beyond that, she barely exists. This volume is an effort to restore a woman of remarkable vitality and achievement to a position of greater visibility in cultural history.

What was the range of her accomplishment? It begins with her career as a writer, which extended over more than five decades. She was the author of over ninety books, many of them best-sellers, fifteen of them Book-of-the- Month Club selections. Her work encompasses virtually every genre of writing: novels, short stories, plays, translations (from the Chinese), biography, autobiography, children's literature, essays, poetry. Several of her books broke new ground in subject matter, especially in her representation of Asia, and above all in her portraits of Asian women.

It might be useful to recall some of the principal events in Buck's life as a writer. In 1931 she published The Good Earth, which was the best-selling

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