Pearl Buck

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Pearl S. Buck
Pearl Buck.jpg
Pearl S. Buck
June 26, 1892
Hillsboro, West Virginia, United States
March 6, 1973
Danby, Vermont, United States

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, most familiarly known as Pearl Buck (birth name Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker) (June 26, 1892 – March 6, 1973), was a prolific American writer and Nobel Prize winner for Literature. She is considered to be one of the most prominent writers of American naturalism, carrying on in the tradition of objective, journalistic prose pioneered by writers such as Frank Norris and Stephen Crane. Although she lived during the period dominated by literary Modernism, her prose stood out for its clear accessibility, as well as for its overarching concern with the moral pratfalls of society. In addition to her elegant style and her acute sense of morality, Buck is also in important figure in the history of American literature due to her connections with the cultures of Asia, and China in particular. Buck, born to missionary parents, lived the first 18 years of her life in China, learned Chinese as her first language, and spent much of her career explicitly concerned with the troubled relations and conflicting values of the East and West. Her novel, The Good Earth, for which she was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, is considered to be one of the greatest works of Asian literature written from a Western perspective. Buck remains an important figure to scholars of Asian, Asian-American, and American culture alike, and her writings retain a freshness and vigor that have made them into enduring classics.


Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia to Caroline and Absalom Sydenstricker, both southern Presbyterian missionaries. The family was sent to Zhenjiang, China in 1892 when Pearl was three months old. She was raised in China and learned the Chinese language from a teacher named Mr. Kung. She was taught English as a second language by her mother and tutor. She was encouraged to write at an early age.

In 1910, she left for America to attend Randolph-Macon Woman's College[1], where she would earn her degree in 1914. She then returned to China, and married an agricultural economist, John Lossing Buck, on May 13, 1917. In 1921, she and John had a daughter, Carol. The small family then moved to Nanjing, where Pearl taught English literature at the University of Nanking. In 1926, she left China and returned to the United States for a short time in order to earn her Master of Arts degree from Cornell University.

Buck began her writing career in 1930 with her first publication of East Wind: West Wind. In 1931, she wrote her most famous novel, The Good Earth, which is universally considered her masterpiece. The novel's story of the peasant Wang Lung's rise to success and ultimate decline won her the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932.

The Bucks were forced to leave China in 1934 due to political tensions, although Buck's writing career continued to flourish and in 1935 she was awarded the William Dean Howells Medal. When they returned to the United States, Pearl and John divorced. She then married Richard J. Walsh, president of the John Day Publishing Company, on June 11, 1935, and with him, adopted six other children. In 1938, she became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to her for her biographies of her parents, The Exile, and The Fighting Angel.

Later in life, Pearl Buck became an extremely passionate activist for human rights, and she diverted much of her energies towards activism. In 1949, outraged that existing adoption services considered Asian and mixed-race children unadoptable, Pearl established Welcome House, Inc., the first international, interracial adoption agency. In the nearly five decades of its work, Welcome House has assisted in the placement of over five thousand children. In 1964, to provide support for Asian-American children who were not eligible for adoption, Pearl also established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which provides sponsorship funding for thousands of children in half a dozen Asian countries.

Pearl Buck died on March 6, 1973 in Danby, Vermont and is interred in Green Hills Farm, Perkasie, Pennsylvania.


The Good Earth

The Good Earth, first published in 1931, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932, and is now considered to be Pearl Buck's greatest single work. The Good Earth chronicles the fictional life of the farmer Wang Lung against the backdrop of twentieth-century turmoil and revolution in China. It traces the rise of Wang Lung from the abject poverty of his early days to his final years by which time he has accumulated great wealth and power, though at the cost of his morality. Buck stresses in the novel the value of pastoral virtues: hard work, thrift, and responsibility. The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy that includes the books Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935).


The novel opens with Wang Lung, his wife O-Lan, and his father struggling through a period of drought and famine. Through frugality and hard work the three of them manage to fare relatively better than other farmers in the village. However, as the weather turns disastrous for farming, the family, now grown to include the couple's three children, has to flee to the city to find work. They sell their meager possessions (but not the land) and take the train for the first time.

While at the city, O-Lan and the children beg and Wang Lung pulls a rickshaw. They find themselves aliens among their more metropolitan countrymen and foreigners. They no longer starve, but still live like paupers—Wang Lung's work is barely able to pay for the rickshaw rental, and the family eats at public kitchens. Meanwhile, the hostile political climate continues to worsen, and Wang Lung longs to return to the land. They are able to do so after Wang Lung acquires a large sum of money by accident—during a riot in the streets, a frightened rich man hands Wang Lung a bag of gold thinking that his life will be spared.

Upon returning to their home with their new found wealth, the family fares better. With their money from the city, Wang Lung is able to buy an ox and farm tools, and he hires help. He is eventually able to send his sons to school, build a new house, and live comfortably. However, the wealth of the family is tied to the harvests of Wang Lung's land—the good earth of the novel's title. Wang Lung eventually becomes a prosperous man, with his rise mirroring the downfall of the Hwang family, who lose their connection to the land. Wang Lung eventually falls to the vices of the rich—he becomes a glutton and takes a concubine. At the end of the novel, Wang Lung's sons also start to lose their connection to the earth and to their values. They plot to sell the land to support their expensive habits, thus showing the end of the cycle of wealth and foreshadowing the downfall of Wang Lung's family.

Selected bibliography


  • China as I See It (1970)
  • The Story Bible (1971)


  • East Wind:West Wind (1930)
  • The Good Earth (1931)
  • Sons (1933)
  • A House Divided (1935)
  • This Proud Heart (1938)
  • Dragon Seed (1942)
  • Pavilion of Women (1946)
  • Peony (1948)
  • God's Men (1951)
  • Come, My Beloved (1953)
  • Imperial Woman (1956)
  • The Living Reed (1963)
  • The Three Daughters of Madame Liang (1969)


  • The Exile (1936)
  • Fighting Angel (1936)


  • My Several Worlds (1954)
  • A Bridge For Passing (1962)


  1. Randolph-Macon Woman's College Retrieved September 20, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • La Farge, Ann. Pearl Buck. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. ISBN 1555466451
  • Gombar, Christina. Great Women Writers: 1900-1950. New York: Facts on File, 1996. ISBN 081603060X
  • Stirling, Nora. Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflict. Piscataway, N.J.: New Century Publishers, 1983. ISBN 0832902616


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