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Tom Matlack, Hilary Spurling, And Pearl Buck

Tom Matlack, Hilary Spurling, And Pearl Buck

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Published by GoodMenProject
Tom Matlack talks to biographer Hilary Spurling about the remarkable life of his great-aunt, Pearl Buck.
Tom Matlack talks to biographer Hilary Spurling about the remarkable life of his great-aunt, Pearl Buck.

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Published by: GoodMenProject on Aug 30, 2010
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07/18/2013

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Revisiting My Family Through the Eyesof Hilary Spurling,Author of 
Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China 
“Everything 
 you say is
 
lies.”
“So you tell this story, which I love, where she wanders to the funerals andoverhears the Chinese talking about how foreigners are grounding up babies’eyes and making them into malaria pills. And she says to their face, “Everything yousay is lies” and it causes the women to scream because they’ve seen the devil.-- Tom Matlack, talking with Hilary Spurling about his great-aunt, Pearl Buck
 
TOM:Thankyousomuchforspendingsomemewithmethisevening.
HILARY: Well, I’m delighted to hear from you. Tell me, how much did you know orwhat did you know about your great-grandfather?TOM: Just to set the record straight, my mom is Jean Yawkey, and my grandmother is GraceYawkey. And my great-grandparents were Absalom and Caroline. My daughter is named KerryGrace; she was born just a few days before her great-grandmother, Grace, passed away at 94. SoI know a tremendous amount about my grandmother, having lived with her, and then I met Pearland I know a lot about Pearl. I didn’t know that much about my great-grandparents, which is why
yourbookisjustabsolutelysofascinangtome,becauseit’snotsooenthatyougetaworldscholarwringabookaboutyourfamily.
HILARY: It’s a long way back, too, isn’t it? Not many of us could go that far and know much aboutour great-grandparents.
TOM:Well,no.Yourtopic,obviously,isfromahundredyearsagoinadierentcountry.Andsoit’sjustwonderfulfrommyperspecvetobeabletoreadaboutmyownfamily,frankly.
HILARY: What I was trying to do was re-create that world in which they lived, in which everything
theydidseemedcompletelynatural.Itlooksveryoddtousnow,butwe’relivingwithadierent
mindset. So I was really trying to get insight that world, to recreate it, to penetrate it, to try andsee the thing as it looked to them.TOM: You did a wonderful job. I very, very much enjoyed it. My grandmother and Pearl weresisters and were very close.HILARY: Yes.
TOM:YourmostrecentbookbeforethisonewasMassetheMaster:TheConquestofColour,whichwontheWhitbreadAwardin2005.HowdidyougofromMassetoPearl?
HILARY: Well, it was an absolute straight line. I’d never read Pearl Buck. Everybody I meet now tellme that her books were their mothers’ favorite reading. But they weren’t my mother’sfavorite reading and there weren’t any Pearl Buck books in the house when I grew up and I never
readthem.ButwhenIwaswringaboutHenriMasse,therecameapointatwhicheverythingwentwronginhislife.Hiswifelehimandhedesperatelytriedtostophergoingbutshedid.
And his children sided with their mother instead of with him, and he couldn’t paint. He was so
desperate.Whenhecouldn’tpaint,hereallywasttobeed.Sohewasinaterriblestate,and
he said he read a book—in French, obviously—that was just published in Paris. And I was reading
Hillary Sperling
Tom Matlack 
 
reading his correspondence. This was just before the war, ’38 or ’39, and hisson, Pierre, was in New York where he was an art dealer. They corresponded
veryregularly—atleastonceaweek—andthensuddenly,there’sthisleerinwhichMassesaid,“I’vejustreadthisbook,thisnovel.IknowI’mnoth
-ing like the man in it. Have you read it? You must read this book,” and there
werethreeexclamaonmarks.Andattheendoftheleer,there’saP.S.
saying, “Have you read this book?” It was called in French,
L’ange combat-ant 
,whichIhadneverheardof.AndtheextraordinarythingisthatnowhereelseinMasse’scorrespondenceisthereanythinglikethat.Hewasagreatreader.Hereadalotandheoenmenonedbookshewasreading.Youmightlikethis,orIdon’tthinkyou’dlikethatorwhatev
-
er.Butalwaysinaperfectlycalmway.Noneofthisexcitement,theseexclamaonmarks,theseYoumustreadit,andsoforth.Andthenreadinghisparallelcorrespondence,intheleershe’dwrientohisdaughterinParisatthesamemeIfoundthesamething.Haveyoureadthis
book? I know I’m not like the man in it. You must read this book.So of course, I got the book and read it and it was your great-aunt’s novel called
The Fightng
 Angel 
.IthadjustbeentranslatedintoFrench,andthatishowMassereadit.Itisastudyof
her father in the form of a novel, but its actually a biography of her father who was, as youknow, was a missionary, and it’s a study of obsession. He was completely obsessed with the
ideathathehadbeencalledtoconvertthewholeChinesenaontoaveryCalvinistformof
Presbyterianism—which was not actually a possible thing to do, because they belonged to a
deeplyBuddhisttradion.Anyway,itdidn’tsucceedatall.Ittookhimtenyearstomaketen
converts, and when he died they all melted away anyway because they were really coming forthe free lunches. You cannot arrive, parachuted in like an alien from outer space, to theinterior of China and try to wean those people from everything they understand and every-
thingtheyknow.Buthewasobsessedbythatunlthedayhedied,andhealwaysthought
that was what made his life worthwhile. That was what he was living for. And it’s a brilliantbook, I think. It’s very funny. If it hadn’t been very funny it would’ve been absolutely ghastly—
anightmaretoreadbecausethisisamanwhosacricedhisownlifetowhathethoughtofasthecause,andhesacricedhiswife’slifeandthelivesofhischildren.Andtherefore,Pearl
grew up with this great burden of a father, obsessed, who couldn’t think anything was serious,
whopaidalmostnoaenontohisownchildrenandspentallthemoneyhehadandallthemoneytheyhadonthecause.Andtherefore,theygrewupingreatpenury,withgreatdicul
-
ty,withakindofemoonallyblockedfatherwhodidn’treallyseethemashuman.Hecertainly
didn’t see their needs as important, because not only were they not heathens, but also theywere girls: Pearl and Grace, his two daughters.
TOM:SowhydidMassesaythatPearlhadexplainedhimtohimself?HILARY:BecauseMasse,too,wasamanobsessed.Hewasamanabsolutelyobsessedwith

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Humanitarian and author of "The Good Book," which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, Pearl S. Buck (born on this date in 1892), is the subject of this article -- Tom Matlack talks to biographer Hilary Spurling about the remarkable life of his great-aunt, Pearl Buck.
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