Pearl S. Buck and American Women's History
All biographers know that people can be historically important for either of two reasons. They can accomplish remarkable things, influencing events and affecting posterity. Or they can do none of that, but still merit the biographer's attention because of the way their lives--preferably lives that can be vividly and fully documented--illuminate broader issues and shed light upon problems universal to human existence or specific to a particular group. Pearl Buck led a life unusual enough to win attention for its distinctiveness alone, but that should not distract us from what ultimately may prove to be her most abiding historical significance: the way in which her life, that of a sensitive American woman engaging the twentieth century, was more representative than remarkable, less special than symptomatic. For her life, including both its tragedies and its triumphs, both its contradictions and its consistencies, has much to teach us about American history generally and American women's history in particular--enlightening us further about dilemmas faced by masses of American women whose individual lives we will never commemorate, whose names we will never know.
Pearl Sydenstricker arrived at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in 1910 for her first sustained stay in the United States having had an extraordinary life already. She had something to teach her college, which would not admit black students for another half-century, about racism--the sort of racism against which she and her family had rebelled in China and that she had felt herself, especially during the Boxer Rebellion, when to be white was to risk one's life. She had things to teach Randolph-Macon about other cultures, things Randolph-Macon needed to learn. And yet she wrote later, "I remember my wonder that my college mates never asked about China, or what the people there ate and how they lived and whether China was like our country. So far as I can remember, no one ever asked me a question about the vast humanity