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

11
Pearl S. Buck and American Literary Culture

Peter Conn

I have several different topics in mind in using the phrase "American literary culture." First of all, I am referring to the lines of affiliation that connected Pearl Buck's work, in particular her early work, to some of the prevailing concerns of American literature in the 1930s and 1940s. To use only the most familiar example, The Good Earth, though written in China and devoted exclusively to Chinese subject matter, addressed a cluster of recognizably American themes. To begin with, the novel's episodic plot resembled the romance structure of much classic American fiction. In addition, as many critics have observed, Wang Lung's career is similar to that of Horatio Alger's heroes-the combination of luck and pluck, good fortune and hard work. Most importantly, The Good Earth was a characteristic Depression novel, the story of ordinary human beings suffering the combined trials of natural and economic disaster. In essays she wrote defending the book, Buck even called it a "proletarian" novel--a genre of great significance in the 1930s. Beyond those sorts of connections, I am also interested in Pearl Buck's efforts to change "American literary culture" by encouraging what can only be called a multicultural perspective. She was a pioneer in advocating the value--and indeed the necessity--for Americans in studying the literary work of other societies. She wanted to change America's literary discourse.

She devoted much of her career to this ambitious undertaking, beginning with her acceptance speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm in 1938. In line with established custom, Buck delivered a formal lecture, choosing as her subject "The Chinese Novel"; she revised a speech she had delivered several years earlier in Nanjing. Buck's address, though it was tailored to the demands of a ceremonial occasion, had a considerable significance. To begin with, she used the occasion to insist on the high cultural value of Asian literature: "there were and are novels as great as the novels in any other country in the world." 1 She supported her claim with a

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