Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth: The Novel As Epic
Pradyumna S. Chauhan
It was certainly the power of Pearl S. Buck's fiction that brought her to the tables of presidents and into the counsels of ambassadors. It was the enchantment of her stories that captivated millions around the globe and won her the Nobel Prize, making her the first woman recipient of both the Pulitzer and the Nobel awards for literature. And yet the keepers of academic gates have hardly shown much zeal for her work. When they have praised her, as did Henry Seidel Canby in his 1938 review of The Good Earth, or Carl Van Doren in his 1940 study The American Novel, 1789-1939, the compliment has been as stinted as it has been patronizing. Confronted by such critical climate, one scans the academic skies, but, like Wang Lung in the years of drought, sees not a sign of a fertilizing cloud, not a mention of Pearl S. Buck in academic journals or critical debates in the country, not even when popular fiction receives rising scholarly attention and when multiculturalism happens to be the rallying cry on quite a few campuses.
In view of such general timidity, I find a special reason to commend the faculty and the administration of Randolph-Macon Woman's College for their having opted to stir up some critical and academic dialogue about Buck's stature as a writer while they could as well have had a party to celebrate the glorious career of their distinguished alumna.
The neglect of Pearl S. Buck's fiction, even if benign, is, to an observer, a matter of cultural bafflement. Today, while women writers of smaller talents are avidly read, little notice is taken of the substantial work that Pearl S. Buck produced, and the best of it excellent by many critical standards. Whether it is some critical orthodoxy, or a popular prejudice against her chosen subject, or an aspect of her life that keeps Buck's work from being assimilated as part of our intellectual heritage is an issue that belongs, I think, to another topic. I shall, therefore, forbear from speculating about the causes of her exclusion from the academy.