King Gustavus V of Sweden presenting the Nobel Prize to Pearl Buck in December, 1938
The woods in Robert Frost’s mind were particularly snowy on that day in 1938 when Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize. ”If she can get it, anyone can,” he famously declaimed in rather artless iambic tetrameter, stating more succinctly than anyone to follow an opinion which has ever since dogged both the author and the orchard keepers of that peculiar Northern grove of literary reputations. Buck herself knew what a problematic choice she was, and the weight of this knowledge lead her to a gracious humility (of which she evidently cured herself in later years). In an interview with the New York Times she bowed to Theodore Dreiser as the more deserving author and acknowledged feeling “diffident in accepting the award.” In her acceptance speech she said, “I can only hope that the many books which I have yet to write will be in some mearsure a worthier acknowledgment than I can make tonight.” It all must have been a bit much for her; as Peter Conn, her most eloquent contemporary apologist, points out, she went from being unpublished and unknown to winning the Nobel Prize in less than ten years. It strikes me as both touching and a little melancholy that this most popular of American writers felt compelled to make public statements like crossed index fingers raised against a tide of negative opinion.
Of course, not all opinion was negative. When The Good Earth, her famous tale of a Chinese farmer’s perseverance in the face of crushing odds, was published in 1931, it found an acutely well-primed audience. America was plummeting down the steep slopes of the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s monumental contribution to the literature of perseverance, was not published until 1939, which means that The Good Earth was the brightest literary beacon on the horizon for most of America’s darkest hour since the Civil War.
Her admirers, from the Nobel Committee to the Chinese American author, Maxine Hong Kingston, have lauded her for being the first writer to bring China to the attention of the West. Kang Liao, author of Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Bridge Across the Pacific, goes further, saying that her books were valuable, not only to Americans, but “to us Chinese in learning about ourselves and particularly about the majority of the Chinese people, the peasants and farmers of whom we had little truthful and realistic representation in literature until after the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.” Historian James Thomson rather more extravagantly called her “the most influential Westerner to write about China since thirteenth century Marco Polo.”
But out of the chorus of her defenders’s voices, variously pitched – earnest, sometimes aggrieved, sometimes rather missionary – a curious lacuna arises: They can’t quite get around to praising the writing itself. Some make a virtue of this by disowning the problem. In an essay cagily entitled “Who’s Afraid of Pearl S. Buck”, Jane Rabb takes up her sling against literary academics, a perennially heroic enterprise, and not without some justification. She writes, “After the Second World War, literary scholars favored the New Criticism, a close analysis of texts independent of history and biography, an approach no more suited to Buck’s writing than its convoluted successors, Structuralism and Deconstructionism.” American educator, historian, and literary critic Oscar Cargill charged that, “To reflective Americans outside the [literary] fraternity… the prize seemed well given as a reminder that pure aestheticism is not everything in letters. If the standard of her work was not so uniformly high as that of a few other craftsmen, what she wrote had universal appeal and a comprehensibility not too frequently matched.” That “few other craftsmen” comes across as a pricy concession paid for on credit. Cargill was the author of notable books on both Eugene O’Neill and Henry James, a Nobel laureate and a writer who should have been, neither noted for their “appeal and comprehensibility”. He clearly understood Buck’s shortcomings and all but says “Let’s not go there.”
In his book, Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography, Peter Conn uses Elizabeth Janeway’s New York Times review of Buck’s 1952 novel, The Hidden Flower, to bring in the feminist critique. I quote at length Conn’s quoting of the author of Man’s World, Women’s Place:
“Always widely read,” Janeway wrote, “and at one time the object of critical study, Pearl Buck is…relegated today to some amorphous anteroom of writing halfway – or more – between serious literary effort and best-sellerdom.” Criticism which placed high value on “the private struggle of a human mind with its interior world,” had no tolerance for Pearl, who dealt in busy plots and created characters that behaved like types. Even more damaging, Pearl’s “bias toward morality and toward a belief in order and in generosity,” made her seem merely naive in the eyes of what Janeway called the “intellectual critics,” who mistrusted love and preferred squalor to transcendence.
Janeway’s tone is sympathetic, but defensive and slightly baffled – Although she wants Pearl’s work to be taken more seriously, she isn’t quite sure how to make the case. In the end, she resorts to a rudimentary feminism, identifying Pearl’s importance with her female redership: ”[I]t is too bad that Miss Buck’s audience is, par excellence, the audience that is ignored by contemporary critics of writing[:] the American middle-class woman who reads novels.” (p. 329).
So, if Pearl Buck’s reputation has fluttered downward from literary icon to one of the names most frequently raised against the Nobel and its process of selection, the fault, according to her arbiters, lies not with her frequently leaden pen and the hassle-free moral universe her character’s inhabit, but with those who value their opposites: facetted writing serving moral complexity. Their arguments take fertile points of inquiry, such as the strong appeal she had for middle-class women, and turn them into smoke bombs, obscuring the issue of her shortcomings and making it all about the anti-feminist elitism of her critics. The charge is not only unfounded but wrong-headed that someone who prefers, say, the high-wire act of The Adventures of Augie March, or the suspiration of time and meaning’s elusivity evoked by the very language of To the Lighthouse, ipso facto “mistrusts love and prefers squalor to transcendence,” and are therefore ill-dispossed to give Buck a fair reading.
Better, wouldn’t it be, to disentangle the issues, make separate files, as it were. In one file we place her rich biography – daughter of Presbyterian missionaries in a Chinese backwater, growing up speaking Mandarin before speaking English, founder of the first international inter-racial adoption agency, her ins and outs with the Chinese government, her difficult relationships with various men. In a separate pile we place her singular role as mouthpiece of the East to the West, the first to really define China for American and European readers. In a third file we address Janeway’s fascinating and somewhat touchy claim that she was primarily a “woman’s writer.” (How fun it would be to make about ten sub-files out of that one, one of which would be her emergence on the roster of America’s most remarkable and influential women.) In a fourth, we put the unavoidable fact that her prolific output is highly uneven, that her writing is clearly not that of a first-rank literary artist, and an investigation into why this is so by, yes Ms. Rabb, looking at the texts themselves.
When we step beyond the barracks of both her defenders and detractors, she all at once ceases to be a two-dimensional figure, a commodity useful to various agendas, and emerges as a fascinating writer, worth investigating on her own terms. The only question remaining is one to be answered by individual readers: Does her cultural and historical moment provide sufficient reason to spend time with her books, or is life too short to read her at the risk of missing Chekhov, or Proust?
Before I say more about Pearl Buck, there is something you should know about me: I have a great affection for hidden writers, those whose reputations haunt hard-to-find alleyways on the cultural map, whose nationality or language has kept them in the shadows of the recognized monuments; writers whose books, once considered great achievements, now sit forgotten in spottily frequented library stacks, or are stumbled across in mould-scented used bookstores when traveling in unlikely places. Such books are heavy with the stories of their own journeys. Their covers are often dull, the embossing faded, or, if it is a paperback, the cover art is unnervingly earnest with the life of its day, reminding us that books, too, have lifespans.
Sir Henry Rider Haggard, author of “King Solomon’s Mines”
The stories of these books, their trajectory from the author’s flaming pen to a collective, embering memory, are as varied as their contents, but, like their contents, follow a few essential gestures. Sometimes a writer’s work gets left in the dust raised as the culture shifts; social attitudes change, blind spots are exposed and corrected and all at once we find that King Solomon’s Mines have yielded, not gold, but Song of Solomon.
Or something new seems to appear under the sun; one writer breaks so spectacularly through a wall that nobody even knew was there that every writer to come after must reassess the whole literary project or risk obsolescence. Waiting for Godot, for example, Lolita, and To The Lighthouse, redefined not just what thoughts or aspects of experience literature could apply itself to, but, in some sense, reshaped what we might, on the average afternoon, think about or experience. Such tectonic shifts can all at once knock other writers, even excellent ones, off the shelves and into the archives. Wasn’t Shakespeare just Christopher Marlowe’s luck.
Often its all rather less grandiose than this; one writer simply etiolates in the shadow of another. Think of Louis McNiece, a magnificent poet by any standard. Too bad for him, and perhaps for us, that he diligently tended his verse while his compatriot, W. H. Auden, was depleting the English-speaking world’s supply of ink.
Bohumil Hrabal, author of “Closely Watched Trains”
Sometimes, for whatever reason, a writer doesn’t export well. The spectacularly gifted Milan Kundera is, at least to Americans, by orders of magnitude the best known Czech novelist (It is a mystery that he has not yet been ushered into the ranks of the Nobelity). But he himself defers to his equally gifted compatriot, Bohumil Hrabal, who, for all his high regard among those lucky to know his astounding satires, is still a name you must work considerably harder to put yourself in line to hear. Even having two famous movies made of his novels, Closely Watched Trains and I Served the King of England, has not made his name trip off more tongues.
John Cowper Powys, author of “A Glastonbury Romance”
Sometimes the reasons for a writer’s relative obscurity are readily apparent, discoverable in the writing itself. Take for instance the book I am currently reading, A Glastonbury Romance, by John Cowper Powys. It is not by any means an unknown work, but there is no mystery as to why it is rarely encountered. It is a lumbering hippopotamus of a novel, eleven hundred pages of animistic mysticism, insufficiently sublimated sexuality, religious hysteria and spiritual agony, all relaid in the most autumnally swollen prose I can remember. I happen to love it. Or, I should say, I love reading it. There is a difference. It fascinates me as would the grooming habits of someone who is unequivocally brilliant, but perhaps a bit socially maladjusted. I am reading it because one of the goddesses in my literary pantheon, Annie Dillard, deems it a work of genius. This it may be, but if so, it is one that could only appeal to a highly circumscribed group of readers. Which means, of course, there is a measure of ego gratification that attends my personal conquest of its final page.
Vasily Grossman, author of “Life and Fate”
In other cases, the reasons for a writer’s obscurity are complex and hard to fathom. We’ve all heard of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, but only now is a tiny reading public becoming aware of the great Vassily Grossman. Sam Sacks, writing for the literary web site, The Quarterly Conversation, suggests that when his masterpiece, Life and Fate, was published in the United States in 1985, twenty-one years after his death, Soviet-era literature in America had already been “spoken for” by the redoubtable Solzhenitsyn, and that, “whereas Grossman was dead, Solzhenitsyn was very much alive, and in fact a celebrity, periodically sallying out from rural Vermont to fulminate against Western decadence or something else that caused excitement. Life and Fate, on the other hand, could do nothing unless it was read, and with 871 pages and over 160 characters, it was and remains a book that’s easier to tip one’s hat to than read.”
This subject, the darkening of a book’s life, the leave-taking of certain oeuvres, is one to which I will return frequently in future posts because one of the functions the Nobel Prize has served, especially in its first six or so decades, has been to provide a kind of living center for retired reputations. Take, for example, Fredric Mistral, who won in 1904. After a lifetime of service, through poetry, to the dwindling Occitan language of Provence, his conservative, bucolic verse has become among the most difficult to find of any body of work represented on the list. If he were not a laureate, there would be almost no occasion to run across even his name. There must be a few souls in the world who still read him. Who are they, and where?
Pearl S. Buck
And then there are the hundred works of Pearl Sydenstricker Buck. The publication of The Good Earth in 1931 made her an instant celebrity. It was her second novel. By 1935, she had published two companion novels to make a trilogy called The House of Earth. It took an uncharacteristically swift three years for the Nobel committee to leap over an American mountain range whose peaks included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Theodor Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Willa Cather, Wallace Stevens, and the already far more famous William Faulkner, T. S. Eliot and Ernest Hemingway, to make her the third American, and the fourth woman to receive its imprimatur (Edith Wharton had died, un-honored, the previous year).
Today it is difficult to fathom why Stockholm would single her out. The claim has been made that she is the most translated of all American authors. This may be, but, with the exception of her one famous book, she must also be among the least read. Her reputation’s current repose on the lower slopes of a mountain whose summit it once came within sight of owes to reasons that are both apparent, of the John Cowper Powys variety, and complex. Regarding the latter, I will not torture out a comparison to a writer such as Grossman, except to say that, like him, at least some of her current standing has to do with factors other than her writing. This I will address in my next post.
My mother left me with a box of books recently, refugees from her campaign to downsize her library. My job was to keep what I wanted and resettle the rest with friends or used book stores. About half way to the bottom of the box, I pulled out a 1956 edition of a novel by Pearl Buck called Imperial Woman, a fictionalized biography of the last Dowager Empress of China, and found myself having one of those pleasing little memories of the not-quite-nostalgia species. Of course I will keep this book. Not that I am likely ever to read it again. Its the cover that does it for me. I made it. I was in seventh grade. I had chosen this book from my parent’s shelf for an English assignment that involved constructing a slip cover on the back of which I was to write a summary. For the front, I drew a a rather kitchy picture of a Chinese woman wearing a kind of empire/kimono hybrid, pale blue with a pink floral print and decollete, a fuchsia cape, a gold hair-piece with danglies, and holding on her extended wrist some conflation of a nightingale and a peacock. As far as I can remember, this image matches no such description of the book’s titular character, but was a product my raging fourteen-year-old sentimentality piqued by Asian – or, at that time, “oriental” – exoticism. For the summary I all but plagiarized the notes from the record jacket of Evita (My mother had been hired to play violin in the pick-up orchestra for the touring show’s Denver stop, so we’d been listening to this quite a lot.) because there were certain boad-stroke parallels between the two stories about low-class girls who, through looks, wiles, and all-around ruthlessness, ascend to their respective pinnacles of power. It was from this book that I learned what a eunuch is.
And so I came to Pearl Buck idiosyncratically: this book first, before ninth grade when Miss Grossman assigned the obligatory The Good Earth. Which is to say, I have read fifty percent more of her works than anyone I know. Anyone, that is, who has read any of her at all. She must be read still; our local Barns & Noble always carries about three of her novels, and recently I saw on its shelves, bizarrely, The Story Bible, apparently famous for its straightforward, “no-interpretation” retelling of Bible stories. She is, so the preface to Peony tells me, the most translated of all American authors. Really?
A few years ago a friend’s book group chose to read The Good Earth. This surprised me a bit. I tend to lump The Good Earth together with The Lord of the Flies, perhaps unfairly to both, as a sort of literary vaccine given to resentful sixteen-year-olds in danger of liking books. (The Old Man and the Sea, and The Pearl might round out this list of books, read hardly at all in later life, but regularly resorted to by red-eyed high school English teachers, not for their depth or their ranking in the echelons of the language, but because they are short enough, and unfussy enough that they might just go down, like peas hidden under pepperoni and cheese.)
Myself? I enjoyed reading The Good Earth for wacky Miss Grossman’s class. The second half of the book hovers on the edge of memory in a kind of hazy, jade-lit interior, built to hold Wang Lung’s hard won but nonetheless corrupting wealth. Indelible, though, is the episode early in the book in which O-lan, his wife, takes a break from her stupefying work in the fields to have a baby. Was it in the shade of a tree? Out of doors in any case, and alone. I seem to recall much worrisome discussion of breast milk production. Such images fasten themselves tick-like to an adolescent imagination. Idly turning the pages of Imperial Woman, I remember being fascinated by Tzu Hsi’s palaces, her silky ladies in waiting, the fat baby emperor bathed in milk, the oily eunuchs, the grisly power plays and intrigue, her resistance to modernization, and her sense of kinship with Queen Victoria. It would make an outstanding mini-series.
I wonder how these books would strike me now. To arrive at any kind of authentic response to them I would have to factor out two significant and conflicting variables: First, there is the cloud of sentiment that engulfs a book read when young. Any book read with one’s wits about one will accrue a little of the local zeitgeist in which it was read. My wits, at that time, were being renovated to accommodate the coursing of new emotions in unruly degrees, to say nothing of erotic awakenings. I’ve always caught romanticism a bit too easily and at the time I met Pearl Buck’s oddly archaic books my immune system was virtually useless against it. Her China was so sublimely elsewhere, her morality tales so bracingly more sober than the comedy unfolding around me – to which I felt in every way unequal – that I didn’t so much read them as believe in them. So, to re-read, say, Imperial Woman now, as an adult, would be to read with a long-faced ghost looking over my shoulder.
Second, there is what I know now of Pearl Buck’s reputation. She is widely regarded as one of the most laughable blunders of the Nobel committee, which in 1938 awarded her the prize ”for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.” People have been fussing about her ever since. How was it that she was given a place that could have gone to James Joyce? (Wait till you read, in my next post, what Robert Frost had to say about her win.) And why does the citation include that word “truly”, as if those descriptions might be misconstrued as not epic, or not quite, without it? Reading one of her books, I would be forever assessing whether or not my response squares with this broadly held opinion.
There is much to be learned about what we read for and why from the example of Pearl S. Buck. Much, too, about the mysterious machinations that drive the Nobel Prize. In my next post I will be sharing with you the voices of her supporters as well as her detractors and why I think both have the wrong idea about her. Until then, I leave you with this little curiosity I found while skulking about on some of the more deserted avenues of the web. It is a YouTube audio file of an actress reading roughly the first two pages of the first chapter of Imperial Woman, that book whose now-faded cover prompted me to write all this nonsense. We are so rarely read to anymore. I suggest you sample this at night, after you crawl under the covers. You can turn out your light, or leave it on if you wish, but put your head on your pillow and let the narrative take you were it will.