The extraordinary and eventful personal account of the life of Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature Often regarded as one of Pearl S. Buck’s most significant works, My Several Worlds is the memoir of a major novelist and one of the key American chroniclers of China. Buck, who was born to missionary parents in 1892, spent much of the first portion of her life in China, experiencing the Boxer Rebellion first hand and becoming involved with the society with an intimacy available to few outside observers. The book is not only an important reflection on that nation’s modern history, but also an account of her re-engagement with America and the intense activity that characterized her life there, from her prolific novel-writing to her loves and friendships to her work for abandoned children and other humanitarian causes. As alive with incident as it is illuminating in its philosophy, My Several Worlds is essential reading for travelers and readers alike.
This ebook features an illustrated biography of Pearl S. Buck including rare images from the author’s estate.
One thing I could not understand and do not yet and this was the apparent lack of interest or curiosity in Americans about other countries and peoples. I remember my wonder that my college mates never asked me about China, or what the people there ate and how the lived and whether China was like our country. So far as I can remember, no one ever asked me a question about the vast humanity on the other side of the globe.Pearl Buck is the woman whose name is trotted out to show the folly of the Nobel Prize. No Joyce. No Proust. No Tolstoy or Rilke. But Pearl Buck, right there, 1938. Even at the time it was considered a poor choice, and she knew it.The award came, as I have before, at a time when I needed it most. I had met that difficult period of a writer’s life, when the reaction, which the American public invariably bestows upon anyone whom it has discovered and praised, has set in. Since the praise is always too much and too indiscriminate the opposing criticism and contempt are also too much and too indiscriminate.Yet I grew up reading Pearl Buck’s novels: along with Jack London and Poe they’re among the first serious bits of literature I can recall reading. As early as I can remember I had an insatiable interest in Asia, and I devoured a number of volumes from my small school library, including the series that began with The Good Earth. It’s been so long since I read those, and I’ve heard the scorn that has been heaped on her, and I thought: Well, probably a middle school kid doesn’t know much. But just by chance I walked into a bookstore and looked around for a long time before deciding I really wasn’t interested in buying anything, but as the bookshop owner didn’t seem to be getting much business and looked so hopeful I felt bad about leaving empty-handed, so I grabbed a dusty, cheap paperback copy of Pearl Buck’s autobiography for a dollar (35 Thai baht), not even really intending to read it. I went from there immediately to lunch, and opened the book to find one of the most awkward opening sentences in history:This morning I rose early, as is my habit, and as usual I went to the open window and looked out over the land that is to me the fairest I know.Why the “to me?” Why not just “the land that is the fairest I know?” Things did not immediately bode well for My Several Worlds. And yet lunch continued, as it must, and I trudged on. And I started to like it. Then I really started to like it. Yes, it was quaint and sort of brittle, and there were some unfortunate choices of phrasing, and there were entire sections that I could have done without, but finally it was of enormous interest, and I thought: this woman is spat upon why? Not counting a recent boost from Oprah (naturally), Buck has remained in critical neglect and forgotten by readers for some time. My Several Worlds is long out-of-print. But I’ll wager that few autobiographies are as interesting or as rewarding as this. The woman lived a hell of a life, and it’s amazing to see so many of the events, the trials, and, most of all perhaps, the interior battles that are there on the page and even seem barely realized by the author – and it is these inner conflicts that make the book fascinating. She was raised by missionaries, which is enough to automatically discount most people as worthless, and yet, while she loved her parents, there is also a sad acknowledgment of the futility, and even the potential harm, of the missions: But somewhere I learned from Thoreau, who doubtless learned it from Confucius, that if a man comes to do his own good for you, then you must flee that man and save yourself. Not to mention that she was one of the more notable divorcees of the 1930s. Buck has a knee-jerk loathing of anything associated with “Communism, ” yet she admits that the Chinese merely chose the best of a couple of awful options available to them, and says that the Russian peasants were the lowest of the low, and so it was no wonder they latched onto Communism: I had seen poverty in China and starvation in famine times and I was later to see poverty in my own country in city slums and in southern towns, but never had I, nor have I since, seen poverty equal to pre-revolutionary Russia.This, it should be added, includes a later trip to India.The descriptions of Chinese life are detailed and fascinating (Buck learned Chinese fluently before English), as are the descriptions of the tumultuous times that would eventually drive her out of China forever. Buck got to know a wide cross-section of Chinese society, from the peasants to the intellectuals, who would quickly evolve from the traditional Confucian intellectuals of empirical times to the “Westernized intellectuals” who Buck all but blames for driving the country to disaster. And perhaps she’s right. She reproduces an exchange in the New York Times: a Chinese professor living in the States takes Buck to task for the depictions in The Good Earth as not being true-to-life, and she responds by very carefully and methodically pointing out that the gentleman, despite being Chinese, has no idea what he’s talking about. I’m inclined to side with Pearl.Pearl Buck can seem naïve. She did not live in the United States and barely knew the country until she was in her twenties, and holds it up on a pedestal as being mostly saintly, and entirely innocent of the sort of crass acts of the British, Germans, and other white folk in China, which certainly isn’t true, even if the U. S. was less blatantly obvious about their thieving. She also likes to use the term “we Americans, ” as if to convince herself that she is fully American, as apple pie, like everyone else. But this is undermined time and again by statements she makes, in which she bemoans American insularity, or unfavorably compares the American family system with the Chinese (in which it is very rare that unfortunates like the elderly or orphans are simply left to fend for themselves), and feels American children to be among the unhappiest on earth, or when she finally discovers, in an exhibition of paintings by black painters in New York, the “sad dark faces… dead bodies swinging from trees… charred remains of houses and tragic children” and the disgusting racism of the time: “It was a blow from which I could not recover.” Yet Mrs. Buck is not exempt from a woefully tin-eared attempt at dialect, either, right out of the Stepin’ Fetchit handbook:“Whyn’t you tell me you was comin’ to see Mist’ Billy Phelps, lady?” he demanded. “I always tends to his company first.”I find the author’s contradictions and uncertainties fascinating. She doesn’t hold herself up as an ideal, and her autobiography is thankfully free of self-congratulation. I’m willing to forgive her missteps because overall this is a valuable and illuminating book. We meet figures from her past, like her Confucian tutor (But the important lesson he taught me was that if one would be happy he must not raise his head above his neighbor’s. “He who raises his head above the heads of others, ” Mr. Kung said, “will sooner or later be decapitated.”). We witness a massive nation in the early stages of titanic change. The turmoil that was gripping China in Buck’s time was comparable to that bubbling up in Russia and Europe. There was constant government instability after the end of the imperial dynasty – at one point Buck and her family barely escaped being massacred by a mob through the grace of a servant who was able to hide them – and the country went from empress to child emperor to warlords to Nationalists to Japanese to Communists in a relatively short period of time. Though eventually she finds peace in America – and it here, later in the book, that the focus shifts to America and thus, for me, loses much interest – she remains haunted by the ghosts of her Chinese past. I doubt that America is any less insular now than it was in Buck’s time, and what she feared would eventually happen - that ignorance would lead America to unnecessary wars in Asia - has occurred a few times over. Perhaps now is a worthwhile time to reevaluate Pearl Buck.read more
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