Friday, July 2, 2010

Pearl Buck Biography -

Book Review
China’s Daughter

The New York Times Book Review, July 4, 2010

Pearl Buck in China
Journey to “The Good Earth”

By Hilary Spurling
Illustrated. 304 pp. Simon & Schuster. $27

In 1929, an American woman traveled from her home in China to settle her severely impaired daughter in a New Jersey institution. She did so with borrowed money, as she could not afford the fees. The parting was excruciating; she was, she recalled, “nearly destroyed by grief and fear.” The house felt empty on her return to Nanjing, but she knew precisely what to do: “This I decided was the time to begin really to write.”

While her younger daughter was at nursery school, she chained herself every morning — another madwoman in the attic — to a battered typewriter. (The 9-year-old she left in America had made a sport of flinging porridge and dirt at the keys.) She felt her story already formed, at the tips of her fingers, and so it must have been: Five months later, a completed manuscript sailed to America. Published in 1931, “The Good Earth” spent two years at the top of the best-seller list and won its author a Pulitzer Prize. Pearl Buck later became the first American woman to win a Nobel for literature.

Buck lived in interesting times, and in interesting places. The child of a Presbyterian missionary to China, she grew up amid bandits, beggars, lepers, typhoons, floods, rebellions, famine, sinister mobs, marauding soldiers, opium clouds. Hers was a fairy-tale childhood of the bleak and semi-tragic variety. Before her birth, her mother had lost a child each to dysentery, cholera, malaria. As Pearl explored the backyard, she stumbled upon tiny limbs and mutilated hands, the remains of infant daughters left to die. “Where other little girls constructed mud pies,” Hilary Spurling writes evenly, “Pearl made miniature grave mounds.” She was 8 years old before she saw running water.

Buck’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker, was a fanatical man with a healthy martyr complex, “proud of his ability to whip up quarrels with himself at the center.” Daily he ventured out to save souls. Daily he was spit upon, cursed, stoned in the street. He produced few converts but plenty of frustration. While he devoted himself to God, Buck’s mother gave herself over to grief and rage. It did not help that her husband never really believed that women had souls, or that the Chinese were people. Money was tight, the more so as Sydenstricker refused to spend any on his wife or daughters. There was every reason why young Pearl should throw herself into the pages of Dickens, her narcotic of choice and her sole link to the Anglo-­Saxon world. Well before she was 10 she determined to be a novelist, as enchanted by ancient Chinese epics as by the Western canon, of which she made quick work. For a period of her childhood she reread all of Dickens annually.

A blond-haired, blue-eyed Chinese girl, Pearl grew up an oddity and remained one. She had no place in the colonial caste system of her adopted country. English was her second language; even as an adult she thought in Chinese. In 1910, she enrolled as a freshman at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia. Everything about her was wrong, from the cut of her jacket to the braids down her back. “Girls came in groups to stare at me,” she remembered a half-century later. As alien as she seemed to it, Randolph-Macon must have felt like a cloister to her; she was fresh from a volunteer job teaching ex-brothel workers and sex slaves.

She drew crowds again after her marriage in 1917 to John Lossing Buck, an American agricultural economist stationed in China. With him she ventured into the interior of the country, the first white woman the villagers had seen. They mobbed around her, peeped under her doors, tore at the sides of her sedan chair. Much from those trips would, Spurling notes in “Pearl Buck in China,” “be absorbed and distilled a decade later in the magical opening sequence of ‘The Good Earth.’ ” For Lossing, Buck cooked without running water or heat or light. And with Lossing, she went to seed. As the marriage dissolved, the Bucks endured several exiles, including a hair-raising one in 1927 when Nationalist soldiers drove them as refugees to Japan. The house to which they would return was in shambles; its kitchen had served as a stable. Buck set about restoring it to order. Throughout these pages she does an astonishing amount of housework.

Her wrenching trip to America with her daughter, and its improbable aftermath, occur more than three-quarters of the way through this sparkling biography. ­Spurling’s is very much the story of what turned an American missionary’s daughter into a writer; of how literature is extracted from life; of what a woman (and a mother) must do to perform that operation; of what fueled Buck’s astonishing output (39 novels, 25 works of nonfiction, short stories, children’s books, translations and countless magazine articles). The American years and the fate of “The Good Earth” mostly fall outside Spurling’s purview, which is just as well: the end is not a pretty one, as opulent and disillusioning as the early years were indigent and fantastical. (You really don’t want to hear about the white mink or the limo with the silver-monogrammed door.) A revelation to America, “The Good Earth” would be an embarrassment to China, which banned it. Like many political innocents, Buck caused her share of dust-ups. Accused in the United States of being a Communist, she was denounced by the Communist Chinese as an imperialist. Time magazine banned her from its pages. China forbade her return, with Nixon, in 1972.

From her evangelical childhood Buck emerged with an abiding faith in the power of fiction. She also subscribed to a selective amnesia: “I have the habit of forgetting what I do not care to remember,” she conceded. (Nor did she believe in reading over what she had written. That was what husbands were for.) There was plenty to obliterate, from the Boxer Rebellion to the years Buck lived in the same house with her feuding father and husband, as well as two small children, one of them compromised. The amnesia also came in handy on the page: her portrait of her mother reads, Spurling notes, “more like a biography of the Statue of Liberty than an actual human being.”

The author of widely praised biographies of Henri Matisse and Sonia Orwell, Spurling is left to contend not only with a great body of Buck’s unreliable autobiographical works, but also with a dearth of documentary evidence and an absence of intimates. Working within those confines, she has fashioned an extraordinary portrait, rich in detail, ambitious in scope, with a vast historical backdrop that informs but never overwhelms its remarkable subject. Precisely and vividly she restores the ordeals Buck preferred to forget. There were a great number of them, both before and after the seismic publication of “The Good Earth.” Unsurprisingly, Buck’s marriage would fall apart. More surprisingly, she would fall in love with and marry her publisher. The girl who collected mutilated body parts would, late in life, adopt four additional children, then three more.

Spurling makes no outsize claims for Buck, who was prescient about China’s ascent as early as 1925. Nor does she make great claims for Buck’s work, with the exception of “Fighting Angel,” a life of her father, which Spurling believes “has the makings of a 20th-century classic.” Throughout her gripping account, ­Spurling’s touch is sure, light and nuanced. Generally she acknowledges the “heavy, cumbersome, potentially toxic baggage” Buck carried with her but leaves us to unpack it. We are to connect the dots between the boorish husband and the fictional scenes of marital rape; the doctrinaire father and Buck’s fierce aversion to racism, sexism and, for that matter, missionaries. Vested early on in the power of narrative, Buck waged her own battle against ignorance and superstition, powerfully bridging two cultures that seemed mutually incomprehensible. In effect, she turned her father’s mission on its head.

Stacy Schiff’s new book, “Cleopatra: A Life,” will be published in November.
A version of this review appeared in print on July 4, 2010, on page BR13 of the Sunday Book Review.

Excerpt: ‘Pearl Buck in China’ (June 9, 2010)
Books of The Times: ‘Pearl Buck in China’ by Hilary Spurling (June 9, 2010)

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