Born - June 26, 1892
Died - March 6, 1973
Daughter of Presbyterian missionaries Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, Pearl Buck was born in West Virginia. She spent virtually the entire first half of her life in China. Unlike the other missionary families, they made their home among the Chinese rather than within the isolated compound set aside for foreigners. This enabled Pearl to immerse herself totally in the language and culture of her adopted land. In her later years, she was fond of saying that growing up in such an environment had left her "mentally bifocal". She was able to appreciate two very different cultures - each on its own terms.
She graduated in 1914 from Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She then returned to China and taught at a missionary school for Chinese boys until 1917. It was then that she met and married her husband, an American agriculturist, Lossing Buck. She often went with her husband into the Chinese countryside where she was exposed to the peasants and their customs. She also tried her hand at writing and was able to sell some nonfiction articles on China to American magazines.
In 1921, Buck gave birth to a daughter, Carol. Complications following her pregnancy left her unable to have any more children. The situation worsened when they realized that Carol was retarded and would probably have to be institutionalized. In the hope that their daughter might benefit from having a playmate, the Bucks adopted a little girl, Janice. It soon became obvious that Carol was not going to improve and caring for her left Buck emotionally and physically drained.
In order to find time to work on her novel, Buck came back to the States in 1929 and convinced the Presbyterian Mission Board to lend her the money she needed to institutionalize Carol at a New Jersey training school for two years. In January of 1930, she returned to China and started writing what she referred to as her "Wang Lung" novel, the story of a Chinese peasant's relationship to his family and the land that sustains them. Upon its publication in 1931, The Good Earth met with critical and popular acclaim and was soon at the top of the best seller lists. It wound up staying there longer than any other book had before its publication and received the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1932.
Later in 1932, Buck visited New York City. It was then she realized she had become a celebrity. At a series of events held in her honor, she met other writers, editors, artists and musicians who , unlike her husband and other members of the missionary community, shared her interests in literature, history and current events. By 1935, she had permanently relocated to the United States, divorced her husband and remarried a gentleman by the name of Richard Walsh, head of the John Day Company, which had also published her novel. Within the first two years of her remarriage, the family had adopted three baby boys and a baby girl. (During the 1950's, they adopted four older biracial children.)
During the 1930's, Buck continued writing. She produced additional novels, articles, stories, speeches and pamphlets. Among them were two highly acclaimed biographies, one of her mother (The Exile) and a companion volume on her father (Fighting Angel). By the end of the decade she was one of the most popular and widely translated authors in the world. Her fame was further enhanced in 1938 when she won the Nobel Prize for literature. It was at this time though, that her interest began to shift. More and more, she felt compelled to write and speak out on behalf of various humanitarian concerns such as racism, the betterment of international relations, the problems of the retarded and handicapped kids, and the treatment of orphans.
Buck's concern with racism stemmed from a visit to Harlem shortly after the publication of The Good Earth. She was invited to speak to a group of Black-American professionals and described her experiences as a member of the white minority in China. She then attended an exhibit featuring paintings by local artists. The scenes that were depicted, lynchings, poverty, and despair horrified her. She never imagined that this type of cruelty existed in her native land. Following this realization, she made a point of educating herself about African Americans and used her knowledge to help focus national attention to their plight.
During World War II, Bucks concerns about racism raised to new heights. She watched as the United States formed close ties with European allies and virtually ignored China. China at the time, was embroiled not only in a civil war but also with a war against the Japanese. In America, she was appalled at the internment of Japanese-Americans and spoke against the racist attitudes that tolerated such treatment. These convictions were at the heart of her speeches and articles. She called for the end of discrimination and colonial rule throughout the entire world. Since the United States had assumed a leadership position among democracies, she was quick to criticize its failure to back up words with deeds. She wrote " Can we be surprised if we are mocked as we deserve to be when we declare all men free and equal and then deny affirmation every day of our lives in the way we behave toward our own minorities?...Can we be surprised when nations doubt the validity of our ideals?"
Buck's interest in the problems of the retarded and handicapped children was a natural result of her own experiences with her daughter Carol. She knew that having such a child often led to feelings of shame and despair that were seldom discussed. After hearing the story of a young couple who decided to keep a baby girl they had adopted and was then diagnosed as retarded, Buck decided to write about her daughter for the first time. Titled, "The Child Who Never Grew" it appeared as an article in Ladies Home Journal and later as a book. It also generated an outpouring of letters from parents of retarded children that expressed some relief that they were not alone in their feelings.
At about the same time, Buck became interested in the treatment of orphans, especially those of mixed race. She was a well known advocate of adoption and people seeking homes for orphans often approached her. In 1948 she received word about two half Asian infants that were considered "unadoptable" because the strict laws of the time required the child to match the adoptive couple in religion, race, and believe it or not, physical appearance. Buck took on the cause of the children but was turned down by every agency she approached. She was frustrated and angry and resolved to open her own agency that specialized in mixed race children.
She got together with some friends that shared her beliefs, that it was more important for a child to have a permanent home than to have parents who "matched", and launched the Welcome House near her farm in Pennsylvania. The immediate goal of the Welcome House was to find adoptive homes for American born biracial children. Long range plans included changing restrictive adoption laws and fighting the racial prejudice of judges and social workers. Welcome House eventually expanded to dozens of homes where mixed race children lived in a family type atmosphere until formal adoptions could be arranged. She later turned her attentions to focus on the biracial children of American servicemen stationed overseas, especially Asia. In the early 1960's she established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation which is still active. It cloths, feeds educates and seeks employment for abandoned children in their native countries.