Misinformed and Ripe for Disillusionment
The second major storyteller of Pearl’s early years was her mother, whose repertoire transported her children to “a place called Home where apples lay on clean grass under the trees, and berries grew on bushes ready to eat, and yards were un-walled and water clean enough to drink without boiling and filtering.” In the enchanted idyll of her mother’s West Virginia childhood, America lay open and free, untouched by the taint of disease, corruption, injustice, or want. (“I grew up misinformed,” Pearl wrote dryly, “and ripe for some disillusionment later.”) The family were Dutch immigrants who had ended up a decade before the Civil War in a small settlement sixty miles west of the Shenandoah Valley, a corridor that allowed Confederate forces to launch raids on Washington from one end and move supplies into Richmond through the other, fought over with relentless ferocity for four years until victorious Federal troops finally laid waste the valley, destroying buildings, slaughtering livestock, and burning crops. Five years old when the war began, Pearl’s mother grew up in a borderland repeatedly occupied by the scavenging, sometimes starving armies of both sides. Like Wang Amah, she reorganized her memories in later life into broad-brush narrative paintings depicting sudden dramatic reversals and hair’s-breadth escapes, with streams of galloping gray and blue cavalry superimposed on the pagoda and the groves of bamboo her listeners could see beyond the veranda.
She applied the same bold graphic technique to her early experiences in China. Caroline Sydenstricker had set sail for the Orient as an idealistic young bride with only the haziest notion about what a missionary career might entail. For her it turned out in practice to mean housekeeping and child rearing in cramped, inconvenient lodgings in the poorer quarters of the more or less hostile cities where her husband parked his growing family, while he himself pushed forward into unknown territory in search of fresh converts. He drove himself on by totting up the staggering totals of heathen sinners to be saved and the pitifully thin line of men like himself standing between them and damnation, an insoluble equation that appalled and maddened him to the end of his life. When the Sydenstrickers first landed in Shanghai to join the Southern Presbyterian Mission in the autumn of 1880, they brought its numbers in the field up to twelve. Apart from a handful of foreign compounds in or near the main trading ports, the interior of China seemed to be theirs for the taking. Seven years later Absalom Sydenstricker persuaded the Mission Board to let him launch a personal assault on the vast, densely populated area of North kiangsu, setting up his campaign headquarters in the walled city of Tsingkiangpu, nearly three hundred miles north of Shanghai on the Grand Canal, where no missionary had ever settled before. “He had to himself an area as large as the state of Texas, full of souls who had never heard the Gospel,” his daughter wrote later. “He was intoxicated with the magnificence of his opportunity.” The local people received him with passive and often active resistance. A younger colleague eventually dispatched to join him boasted that for three years he made not a single convert, coming home from country trips with spit on his clothes and bruises all over his body from sticks and stones hurled as he passed. Almost overwhelmed by the numerical odds stacked against him, Absalom spent more and more time on the road.
His wife had long ago learned to manage without him. One of the thrilling stories she told her children later was about the night she faced down a mob of farmers with knives and cudgels, who blamed an unprecedented drought on malevolent local gods provoked beyond bearing by the presence of foreign intruders. This was the sweltering hot August of 1889, when rice seedlings withered in the parched fields around Tsingkiangpu. Alerted by men beneath her window plotting in whispers to kill her, Carie found herself alone with Wang Amah and the children (by this stage there were three: eight-year-old Edgar, four-year-old Edith, and the baby Arthur, age seven months), surrounded by an angry populace, a hundred miles from the nearest white outpost, with no one to turn to and no time to send a runner for her absent husband. Her response was to stage a tea party, sweeping the floor, baking cakes, and laying out her best cups and plates. When her uninvited guests arrived at dead of night they found the door flung wide on a lamplit American dream of home-sweet-home, with the three small children waked from sleep and playing peacefully at their mother’s knee. This preposterous story passed into family legend, along with its triumphant outcome: the hard heart of the ringleader was so touched by the spectacle laid on for him that he repented of his murderous mission, accepted a cup of tea instead, and left with his men shortly afterward, only to find rain falling as if by magic later that very same night.
This and similar incidents became part of a folkloric family epic, whose episodes were conflated, transposed, and repeated so often that Pearl, and in due course her younger sister, Grace, knew them and their punch lines by heart. The same stories figure in accounts published later by both sisters, where their mother’s courage, resourcefulness, and determination stand out, burnished to a high gloss against a dull undertow of futility and waste, unfulfilled ambition, stifled hope and desire. There were other stories Carie knew but didn’t tell. At Tsingkiangpu she set up one of a succession of informal clinics for women, where she taught young girls to read and offered sympathy and practical advice to their mothers. Even before they were old enough to understand what was said, her children could hear the urgent, uneven monotone of Chinese women explaining their problems to Carie. Pearl said it was a first-rate novelist’s training.
As a public figure in the second half of her life, Pearl campaigned tirelessly for what were then unfashionable causes: women’s rights, civil rights, black rights, the rights of disabled children and the abandoned children of mixed-race parents. As a writer she would return again and again to her mother’s story, telling and retelling it from different angles in her various memoirs and in the biographies she wrote of each of her parents. Her analysis of Carie’s predicament in The Exile and elsewhere is searching, frank, and perceptive. But it is in the daughter’s fiction that the mother’s voice echoes most insistently between the lines, at times muted, plaintive, and resigned, at others angry and vengeful. In her sixties Pearl published a lurid little novel called Voices in the House about a prime fantasist, a brilliantly precocious and imaginative child who might have grown up to be a novelist herself but descends instead into gruesome madness and murder. All the other characters in the novel are lifeless and bland compared to this energetic self-projection at its core. Voices is the book in which the author said her “two selves” finally merged, meaning not just her American side and her Chinese side, but also her outer and inner selves, reason and instinct, the two aspects of her own personality embodied in the cool, clever observer through whose eyes the story is told, and the implacable heroine who ends up possessed, “people would once have said by a devil, and yet there was no devil… except the reverse energy of dreams denied.”
Pearl Buck knew perfectly well that most of her later novels had few literary pretensions, just as she understood why critical opinion dismissed popular fiction as trash. “But I cannot, I keep going back to it. It is what most people read.” She wrote initially for herself and was genuinely astonished when her work spoke directly to the mass market, which she promptly adopted as her own, vigorously defending the magazine stories that kept her in close touch with her public. “One cannot dismiss lightly a magazine bought and read by three million people… It is a serious thing for literature if three million read—not literature, but something that gives them greater satisfaction.” The Good Earth, published in 1931 and still in print, sold tens of millions of copies worldwide in its author’s lifetime and since.
Buck is virtually forgotten today. She has no place in feminist mythology, and her novels have been effectively eliminated from the American literary map. In the People’s Republic of China her fiction remains unique because it accurately depicts the hard lives of an illiterate rural population ignored by the Chinese writers who were Buck’s contemporaries and subsequently obliterated from the record by Communist Party doctrine. “In China she is admired but not read,” ran a recent article in the New York Times, “and in America she is read but not admired.” Both views could do with reappraisal. The Good Earth transformed the West’s understanding of China, partly because of the picture it painted, and partly because it reached a readership most other books never could. Buck won a Pulitzer Prize for it and went on to become the first of only two American women ever to receive the Nobel Prize for literature. Everyone read her in her day, from statesmen to office cleaners. Eleanor Roosevelt was her friend. Henri Matisse said she explained him to himself as no one else ever had. Jawaharlal Nehru read her Chinese Children Next Door aloud to Mahatma Gandhi. My book aims to look again at the early years that shaped Buck as a writer and gave her the magic power—possessed by all truly phenomenal bestselling authors—to tap directly into currents of memory and dream secreted deep within the popular imagination.