"Noblesse Oblige": Pearl Buck's Platonic Conception of Self

By Wang, Jennie | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

"Noblesse Oblige": Pearl Buck's Platonic Conception of Self


Wang, Jennie, Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


"The novelist has a noble function."

--Sinclair Lewis "Elizabeth Taylor is not my Imperial Woman."

--Pearl Buck

I

Introduction

On Pearl S. Buck, a considerable amount of literary criticism exists exclusively on The Good Earth and Dragon Seed, which constitutes a popular and academic myth that the merit of this Nobel Prize winner might only lie in the presentation of Chinese peasants in pre-modern China. What happened to her career and accomplishments after her repatriation to the United States? As the first woman writer in America who won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1938, why has she no place and placement in the history of American Literature? (1)

As far as I know, Buck had an extraordinary long and productive literary career, which lasted almost half a century, before and after the publication of The Good Earth (1931), or Dragon Seed (1941); even the film production thereof. According to the Harris biography (1969), which was composed in close collaboration with Buck when she was still alive, Buck had already published some 40 novels, 6 fiction collections, 22 nonfictions, 15 translations of Chinese and Japanese novels. Most of these works were published not only in English and in the United States, but also in many countries in Europe and Asia, and in so many world languages--Arabic, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Icelandic, Indonesian, India, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Persian, Serbo-Croat, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, Portuguese. A 1970 UNESCO survey finds Buck's work translated into 145 different languages and dialects, more frequently translated than any other American writer.

The Harris bibliography does not include her letters and lectures, public speeches and private correspondence that I came across from other sources. In fact, a huge amount of bibliographical and biographical material is available for Buck study and worthy of scholarly attention. For example, Professor Peter Conn at University of Pennsylvania in 1990s organized conferences and did exhaustive research on Buck, published a substantial, award-winning biography in 1996. Another biography came out recently--Hilary Spurling's Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Fortunately, Buck remains to be the subject of doctoral dissertations throughout the decades. The most remarkable study on Pearl Buck's role as a political activist after her repatriation, I must mention, is Robert Shaffer's "Pearl S. Buck and the American Internationalist Tradition," a nine hundred page long doctoral dissertation--the longest dissertation I have ever read--done at Rutgers State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick, 2003. The work claims that Pearl Buck played an important role in the 1930s-1950s in trying to shape US government policy toward Asia and toward other parts of the non-white world, and shaping the attitudes of the American public toward the Asians. Buck criticized American unilateralism, racism, and complicity with imperialism, which alienated Asia from America. She functioned as a political activist through public speaking, publishing, and networking with other writers and activists.

A broad network of writers and activists coalesced around Buck and her husband Richard Walsh on such diverse concerns as the status of women, the politics of famine and hunger in Asia, the struggle for decolonization, and alternatives to US Cold War policy. One of the alternatives Buck advocated was "global education," which she held as a necessity for the "understanding and eradication of sheer ignorant prejudice" in policy making, beyond the sentimental belief of humanism. (2) I believe she was not speaking of "political correctness," but political "wisdom," or what we call "well-informed strategic planning." She thought that simple ignorance, combined with immaturity, kept Americans from understanding their proper role. …

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