Who Was Pearl S. Buck?
Pearl S. Buck published her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, in 1930. Her next novel, The Good Earth, earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. In 1938, Buck became the first American female Nobel laureate. Concurrent with her writing career, she started the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, a humanitarian organization.
Pearl S. Buck was born Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker on June 26, 1892, in Hillsboro, West Virginia. At the time of her birth, her parents, both Presbyterian missionaries, were taking a leave from their work in China after some of Buck's older siblings had died of tropical disease. Buck's parents were so committed to their missionary work that they decided to go back to the Chinese village of Chinkiang with 5-month-old Buck in tow.
Beginning at the age of 6, Buck was homeschooled by her mother for the early part of the day, and taught by a Chinese tutor during the afternoon. When she was 9 years old, the Boxer Rebellion forced Buck and her family to flee to Shanghai. Although her family returned to Chinkiang when the rebellion ended in 1901, Buck decided to attend boarding school in Shanghai in 1907. She completed her course load in 1909, and moved back to the United States in 1910 to study philosophy at Randolph-Macon Woman's College in Lynchburg, Virginia. After earning her bachelor's degree, Buck was offered a position as a psychology professor at her alma mater. A semester later, Buck returned to China to take care of her mother, who had fallen ill.
Back in China, Buck fell in love with an agricultural missionary named John Lossing Buck. The two were married in 1917. They spent most of their early marriage living in Nanking, where John taught agricultural theory. Buck too returned for a while to teach at universities; this time, English was her subject of expertise. But Buck spent the majority of her time in Nanking caring for her mentally disabled daughter, Carol, who was born in 1920. In 1925, Buck returned to America to pursue her master's degree in English at Cornell University. In 1929, she enrolled Carol at the Vineland Training School in New Jersey.
Pearl and John would eventually divorce in 1935, when she left him to marry Richard Walsh, her publishing agent. Though she let go of John Buck, she would keep his last name for the rest of her life.
Major Works and Pulitzer Prize
After graduate school, Pearl S. Buck returned to China yet again. It was 1926, both of her parents were ailing, and her family's finances were in dire straits. Buck decided to start writing in hopes of earning a better living.
In 1930, Buck published her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, focusing on China's difficult transition from old traditions to a new way of life. Her next and perhaps best-known novel, The Good Earth, earned her a Pulitzer Prize in 1932. The Good Earth highlights the life of Chinese peasants, a life that Buck had been privy to growing up in Chinkiang. After receiving the Pulitzer, Buck moved back to the United States permanently. In 1933, she went back to graduate school — this time at Yale University — and earned an additional master's degree. In 1938, she achieved the illustrious distinction of becoming the first American woman and fourth woman overall to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature.
Buck continued to write prolifically thereafter, choosing China as the setting for the majority of her work. Her genres ranged from such popular novels-turned-movies as China Sky (1941) and The Dragon Seed (1942), to children's books like The Water-Buffalo Children (1943) and The Christmas Ghost (1960). Buck's body of work also includes non-fiction. Her final works include the non-fiction book China as I See It and a cookbook about Asian cuisine, Pearl S. Buck's Oriental Cookbook (1972).
Later Life and Death
Concurrent with her writing career, Buck was active in humanitarian efforts to protect Asian Americans against racial intolerance by increasing awareness. She also strove to improve disadvantaged Asian Americans' (particularly children's) living conditions. Toward these ends, Buck founded the East and West Association in 1941.
Also in support of these causes, in 1949, Buck started the adoption agency Welcome House, which specialized in the adoption of Asian-American children. In 1964, she established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation to further "address the issues of poverty and discrimination faced by children in Asian countries." In 1973, she bequeathed her personal estate as the future headquarters of Pearl S. Buck International.
Buck died of lung cancer on March 6, 1973, in Danby, Vermont. Today, she continues to be regarded as a legendary American writer and humanitarian.
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