Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Bridge across the Pacific

By Kang Liao | Go to book overview

2
A NEGLECTED LAUREATE

Before I begin my discussions, it is helpful to summarize what the representative critics and reviewers have said about Pearl Buck's works and to see where she stands in American literature, so that I can argue about different judgments, refer to the existing criticism, and avoid unnecessary repetition of opinions and evaluations. I shall also offer some reasons for her phenomenal success and, more important, for her present low status in American literature.

Although Pearl Buck had been publishing on average a book a year in her lengthy writing career from 1930 to 1973, the responses of most critics and reviewers to her works made her career appear like a meteor, burning brightest in 1938. No sooner had she received the Nobel Prize for literature that year than her brilliance began to dim in the eyes of the critical beholders. While it is arguable as to whether or not all her post-Nobel Prize books are inferior to her pre-Nobel Prize books, it is understandable that the phenomenal success of her early works, especially her second novel The Good Earth, set the high standard against which all her later works were measured. When they fell short of the expectation, no matter how little, she was naturally thought to be on the decline. Thus, the critics who had been encouraging before the prize became harsh after it.

Pearl Buck's first published book East Wind: West Wind, in Isidore Schneider's words, is an "ordinary, quite mechanical novel, full of plot and sentiment, but empty of any lifelikeness in its characters or significance in its thesis---the clash between modern and traditional China" ( 1930, 24). However, the emerging writer received much encouragement for her maiden work. In his review, Nathaniel Peffer evaluated the cognitive value of her book saying that "she tells more of contemporary China than a year of newspaper headlines or a shelf of volumes by political minded experts, and tells it entertainingly" ( 1930, 6). Approving her attitude toward China and a different culture, the reviewer for the New York Times commented, "Only one, who like the author, has lived

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