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“So you tell this story, which I love, where she wanders to the funerals and overhears the Chinese talking about how foreigners are grounding up babies’ eyes and making them into malaria pills. And she says to their face, “Everything you say 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
Revisiting My Family Through the Eyes of Hilary Spurling, Author of Burying the Bones: Pearl Buck in China
TOM: Thank you so much for spending some time with me this evening. HILARY: Well, I’m delighted to hear from you. Tell me, how much did you know or what did you know about your great-grandfather? TOM: Just to set the record straight, my mom is Jean Yawkey, and my grandmother is Grace Yawkey. And my great-grandparents were Absalom and Caroline. My daughter is named Kerry Grace; she was born just a few days before her great-grandmother, Grace, passed away at 94. So I know a tremendous amount about my grandmother, having lived with her, and then I met Pearl and 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 fascinating to me, because it’s not so often that you get a world scholar writing 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 about our great-grandparents. TOM: Well, no. Your topic, obviously, is from a hundred years ago in a different country. And so it’s just wonderful from my perspective 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 different mindset. So I was really trying to get insight that world, to recreate it, to penetrate it, to try and see the thing as it looked to them. TOM: You did a wonderful job. I very, very much enjoyed it. My grandmother and Pearl were sisters and were very close. HILARY: Yes. TOM: Your most recent book before this one was Matisse the Master: The Conquest of Colour, which won the Whitbread Award in 2005. How did you go from Matisse to Pearl? HILARY: Well, it was an absolute straight line. I’d never read Pearl Buck. Everybody I meet now tell me that her books were their mothers’ favorite reading. But they weren’t my mother’s favorite 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 writing about Henri Matisse, there came a point at which everything went wrong in his life. His wife left 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 fit to be tied. 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
reading his correspondence. This was just before the war, ’38 or ’39, and his son, 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 letter in which Matisse said, “I’ve just read this book, this novel. I know I’m nothing like the man in it. Have you read it? You must read this book,” and there were three exclamation marks. And at the end of the letter, there’s a P.S. saying, “Have you read this book?” It was called in French, L’ange combatant, which I had never heard of. And the extraordinary thing is that nowhere else in Matisse’s correspondence is there anything like that. He was a great reader. He read a lot and he often mentioned books he was reading. You might like this, or I don’t think you’d like that or whatever. But always in a perfectly calm way. None of this excitement, these exclamation marks, these You must read it, and so forth. And then reading his parallel correspondence, in the letters he’d written to his daughter in Paris at the same time 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 Fighting Angel. It had just been translated into French, and that is how Matisse read it. It is a study of her father in the form of a novel, but it’s actually a biography of her father who was, as you know, 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 nation to a very Calvinist form of Presbyterianism—which was not actually a possible thing to do, because they belonged to a deeply Buddhist tradition. 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 for the free lunches. You cannot arrive, parachuted in like an alien from outer space, to the interior of China and try to wean those people from everything they understand and everything they know. But he was obsessed by that until 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 brilliant book, 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 sacrificed his own life to what he thought of as the cause, and he sacrificed 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 attention 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 difficulty, with a kind of emotionally 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 they were girls: Pearl and Grace, his two daughters. TOM: So why did Matisse say that Pearl had explained him to himself? HILARY: Because Matisse, too, was a man obsessed. He was a man absolutely obsessed with
totally. He sacrificed his wife and he sacrificed his children. The difference is that people now have decided that Matisse’s paintings were worth this sacrifice. Worth millions of pounds, to put it crudely, but they are some of the most extraordinary, finest, greatest paintings painted in the 20th century. Whereas posterity has not sided with your grandfather, the whole has decided that it was a folly to think you could convert China. He failed, and he was bound to fail. He belonged to a whole generation of ambitious and thrusting young men whose highest notion they could concede, to which they could dedicate their lives, was this mission call. So he wasn’t peculiar. It’s just that posterity’s changed its view about that. And I think—why Matisse? Because obviously, he did recognize himself in this man. The cause was different, but the effects were the same. And he was very much questioning his own life at that point because his wife—I think they were in their sixties—had finally caved in and left him. She never lost her faith in his paintings but she did find him. He was almost impossible to live with, Matisse, as your great-grandfather was. (Laughs.) TOM: (Laughs.) HILARY: So these people paid a heavy price. But I found that very interesting. I was his biographer and trying to understand Matisse at that point, so naturally I got the book and read it and that is my reading of it. And I was so impressed by the author. I thought it an absolutely brilliant study of obsession and what it can do to a man. I think now, as her biographer, that she began that book as a complete justification of her mother, whose side she had always taken, and she felt her mother had been monstrously, badly treated by a coldhearted man who never understood her feelings and didn’t allow for them at all. And she led a life of scrimping and saving and terrible difficulty and [having] to fight and argue for every penny she had to spend on the housekeeping and so on. But instead of it being a work of revenge, which maybe it started out as—that’s to say she wanted to justify her mother and show how badly her father had behaved. I think she discovered very quickly how like her father she was. She’d inherited a lot from him, of course, and also, therefore, that she understood him. So it’s an extraordinary book. It’s often very funny, which is an extremely grownup way of treating what actually could’ve been a really tragic situation—that of her childhood which was extremely harsh and bleak. But by this time, she didn’t just forgive him; she understood him, which is something else, and then wrote this extraordinary book about it. And Matisse recognized that. He understood that this was the kind of driven man that he was, that he too had had no choice, that he had always sacrificed, given up his life, given up everything else in his life, to what he thought was a cause of overriding importance. And he recognized himself. TOM: So in a certain sense, your study of Matisse was a parallel to Pearl’s study of Absalom. HILARY: In a sense, yes. But I also was very impressed by the author, Pearl Buck, then I became extremely fascinated by her.
TOM: Set the stage for me a bit in terms of Pearl’s childhood. You say that she grew up listening to women screaming for their daughters at night. HILARY: Yes. TOM: Baby girls, dogs, bound feet. HILARY: Yes. It was a harsh world. I think her parents loved her, but for her father, it was a matter of form. Her mother truly loved her, but they had such a hard life that there wasn’t a lot of overt shows of affection in that family at all. Her mother never embraced her or cuddled her or held her on her lap or anything like that, partly because the manners of the time were against that and partly because her mother was just so desperately busy trying to keep the family going at all. There wasn’t any time for extras and frills like that. So it was a hard upbringing, but Pearl knew no other upbringing and it was perfectly normal so far as she was concerned. That’s how people were. She did have a lot of freedom, because her parents were both so busy with the church and house. She could run out the back gate of their house and play in the countryside, either alone or with the children of the Chinese farmers, Chinese peasants who lived in the valley, who were her playmates. So she led this extraordinary double life, where at home she was a little American child, and outside the home, where she spent most of her time, she was a little Chinese child and she lived with other Chinese children. And playing in the fields, all Chinese fields, Chinese farmland, the whole of China, was a great graveyard. That is where they buried their ancestors, in their fields. And Pearl would find tiny bones—just little hands, sometimes leg bones, once a skull with part of an arm attached. And she knew what they were. They were the bodies of babies, almost invariably girl babies, who had been strangled, killed at birth, and left out for the dogs to eat. And when she found these bones, she said she always went out with a little string bag and with a club, a homemade club which was a piece of bamboo that she fixed a stone to, to drive off wild dogs that hung around all the villages and were scavengers. They didn’t belong to anybody. Nobody fed them. So they were hanging around for any offal— and for the little bodies of unwanted babies that were thrown out. And this, to Pearl, was just absolutely part of normal life. She would collect the pieces, human remains that she found, and she would build little graves out of mud and bury them and decorate the graves with flowers and shells, which was exactly what little girls of her generation did—only they were making mud pies out of mud. She was making mud graves. And I thought, that’s a very, very good image for the way her whole life worked. She grew up to write novels which often don’t really confront what they’re writing about, but between the lines, I think both she and her readers knew perfectly well that there were some very bleak and bitter truths buried, as it were, between her lines, just as she had buried the bones. So there were a lot of things in her childhood that were really too frightening or too grim to face. Her parents’ marriage, for instance, was a very unhappy one and the children, of course, were well aware of that but it wasn’t anything that could be discussed or mentioned. It was something better buried.
the territory that lies between what is said and what can be understood
TOM: I very much liked the line in your preface where you say it’s the territory that lies between what is said and what can be understood that is the nub of the book. HILARY: Yes. And then, of course, there are the great public amnesias of the 20th century. In Europe, the Holocaust, which again was something horrific but for a long time wasn’t known about in the rest of Europe, or if it was known about, it couldn’t be talked about. And then when it was discovered, what had happened, it was too terrible. It’s taken a very long time, I think, for the generation that grew up in the war, which I belonged to, to face. People were in their fifties and sixties. These are things too terrible to face, and in a sense, I think [so was] the Great Depression in America. American novelists and writers have indeed faced all that and written about it, but it took a while. It wasn’t possible to do immediately, and I think that partly accounts for the enormous success of Pearl’s novel, The Good Earth. It was refused by all the publishers who saw it. Finally, a very small publishing firm on the verge of bankruptcy accepted it and it became, overnight, a global bestseller. And Pearl won the Pulitzer Prize for it and then a few years later, the Nobel Prize. I think one of the reasons for that was that ordinary American readers had suffered so much in their own lives, and these things were so difficult to confront and face and talk about. But The Good Earth is the story of an ordinary Chinese farming family, who went through, as all Chinese farmers and Chinese peasants did, absolutely horrific ordeals of flood and famine and drought and civil war and bandits constantly sweeping over their land, dispossessing them of everything they had. The house itself would dissolve in the floodwaters. There would be nothing to eat. The people had to flee. These were absolute horrors that ordinary people had to face, and Pearl tells that story completely accurately. In just the simplest terms, makes it clear that Chinese people were ordinary human beings like ourselves. And I think that Americans who had gone through, who had suffered so much themselves, were very receptive to that story at that moment. And yet, it’s set in a totally alien land, a faraway country of which we knew nothing at that stage. And therefore, it was somehow easier to read about these horrors, transpose yourself and read about the horrors other people have had to go through. And that somehow makes it easier to face what you’re going through. So amnesia runs right through my book. That’s a method of dealing with horrors that are almost unfaceable in themselves. And of course, in China, worse things happened even than the Holocaust, in that—under Mao—the Communist regime, which [took hold by the] time Pearl had left China, but still terrible things happened. Millions and millions of people were killed, and it went on far, far longer than the Nazi regime in Germany. And these things couldn’t be talked about. People would be shot or tortured, punished, publicly humiliated if they did talk about them. So I think that amnesia is a thread that runs right through all of the lives of those people. And my title, Burying the Bones, is a kind of an image of that.
TOM: One of the images I also love is your description early on of Pearl, and her ability to speak Chinese, even though she was a little American, blond-haired, blue-eyed girl. HILARY: That astonished people in China. Pearl’s parents were among the very first missionaries in China, and they arrived there in 1880. In the interior, there were no foreigners. So Pearl’s parents were literally foreign devils. No one had ever seen a human being with yellow hair. Pearl’s hair was always hidden beneath a little red Chinese cap. [Pearl’s] nurse, who was Chinese, said, “It’s not human, this hair. Human hair is black. You have this yellow hair. We have to hide it.” Pearl didn’t know any white children. So she felt completely one and the same as her Chinese friends. She knew she looked funny, and they knew she looked funny, but they still accepted her as one of themselves. So in a very deep sense, she was Chinese and not American. TOM: So you tell this story, which I love, where she wanders to the funerals and overhears the Chinese talking about how foreigners are grounding up babies’ eyes and making them into malaria pills. And she says to their face, “Everything you say is lies” and it causes the women to scream because they’ve seen the devil. (Laughs.) HILARY: Absolutely, because it was inconceivable that a foreigner could speak Chinese like themselves. And although the parents spoke Chinese, they had arrived as adults and spoke a very funny-sounding and primitive kind of Chinese. But Pearl spoke Chinese like a Chinese person. So it seemed to them really like witchcraft that she could talk to them in that way. TOM: So let’s go back for a minute to my great-grandparents, Absalom and Carrie. They met in Hillsboro, West Virginia, and traveled to Shanghai in 1880. A lot of my writing is about manhood, and so I’m very interested in my great-grandfather. And you have this great quote from Pearl about him and about the family traveling north of Shanghai for the first time along the Great Canal, where, as you say, there had been no missionaries. He had to himself an area as large as the state of Texas, full of souls who had never heard the Gospels. He was intoxicated with the magnificence of his opportunity. This kind of gets back to what you were saying about Matisse. I’m very interested in what you see as Absalom’s motivations, how he became a missionary, what drove him to go forward, how he viewed it—how he viewed goodness. What was he about? How would you describe him? HILARY: I think you’ve put your finger on the core of his being. He and his wife both had grown up in the Civil War, and he watched his five elder brothers join up one after the other and go off to fight. TOM: Which side were they on?
HILARY: They were on the South. They were Confederate. TOM: You’re kidding me? So my blood was fighting for the South? (Laughs.) HILARY: Well, I think so. I remember your great-grandmother saying that, as a child, she believed that the Yankees were devils, that they had horns coming out of their heads. And that’s why they were so upset when West Virginia was separated from Virginia, because they were part of the South, themselves. But when she first saw the Yankee soldiers and they didn’t have the horns sprouting out their heads, she couldn’t believe it. She was very disappointed as a child. It was a hard mountainy country anyway, and then it had been fought over and bled of all its resources to fight that war, which of course they lost. So Absalom, who was a little boy, had stayed at home with his father to run the farm, and therefore they had to work. It was very, very hard, harsh indeed. He hated the farming world. He longed to get away, and did in the end. Every single one of those sons, the seven sons, each one at the age of 21 left, left the farm, and never came back. And they all became ministers. Absalom, who was the smallest and puniest and most timid of all of the boys and who had been tormented by his older brothers, had greatly envied them and wanted manhood. That’s your word. To count for something in somebody’s eyes instead of always being the smallest, that frightened one. He put himself through seminary, and decided that he would show his father what’s what by becoming a missionary and going to China. So when he finally is the only missionary in this enormous territory of North Jiangsu—which, as Pearl said, was as large as Texas—then he has proved his worth. He is going to stamp his image on that whole enormous, vast territory, which is infinitely and grander and more splendid than anything his father had imagined. And China was the place where he was going to prove his manhood. TOM: But how do you think he viewed goodness, in terms of a very Calvinistic biblical sense of good and sinners? HILARY: He believed—absolutely, never questioned that all those millions of Chinese weren’t heathen. They were damned. They were going to burn in hell, except for a tiny, thin line of himself and people like him—there were twelve Southern Presbyterian missionaries when he arrived—which stood between them and damnation. When they arrived, to their great surprise, Carrie, your greatgrandmother, started having babies, and it was a great impediment as far as he was concerned. And worse still for her, these babies died because they were living like the Chinese in Chinese villages. Two of her children died in a cholera epidemic. Malaria raged every summer. And dysentery was a terrible curse. Her fourth child died of dysentery. Her eldest son survived and grew to manhood.
After that, she had three more children in quick succession, and they all died as small children in these ghastly, terrifying epidemics of fevers. Pearl was the fifth child. Carrie had lost two babies very close together. TOM: Arthur and Edith? HILARY: Yes. And she’d lost her first daughter, too, Maude, a few years before. And she then had an appalling breakdown, obviously, and came very close to losing her faith—her faith in herself as well as her faith in God—and said to her husband, “I cannot stay here burying your child every eighteen months and watching them die. I’m going back to America and if you won’t come with me, I’m going by myself.” And he went with her. But he said years later to Pearl—who was a child conceived in America and brought back immediately to China, when she grew up enough to question him—“I have never seen so hard a heart as hers was.” He was talking about his wife. His wife, who had just lost three babies. He only went back to America because the doctor said to him, “I cannot answer for her sanity. If you don’t, she’s going to lose her mind.” So he took her back to America, but he said, “I’ve never seen so hard a heart as hers was.” And what he meant was that she wasn’t able to think of the millions of Chinese who could’ve been saved or the very small numbers that he might’ve managed to save. They didn’t count for her compared to the loss of the children, the deaths of children she had bore and then watched die in her arms, and said she couldn’t stand to see that again. That was as far as her strength had left her. She couldn’t face this any longer. TOM: It very much struck me. HILARY: It’s two people locked on a collision course, isn’t it? And they’re each driving in different ways. TOM: I’m not sure whether it was Carrie who said this, or maybe Pearl, that at that point, [Carrie’s] marriage had become irrevocable as death. In fact, you quote my grandmother, Grace, saying that the death of the two children coming so close together a fortnight apart almost deranged her mother. But at the same time, Carrie found strength as well. There’s this great story, which I had actually heard before, but you tell it again? About the tea party? HILARY: Yes. This was before either of them were born. It was when Carrie had lost one little girl and still had three small children. It was a desperately hot, and malaria raged unchecked. There were mosquitoes everywhere, and therefore children and women, too, died like flies. One dreadful thing, which made everything much worse, was the Chinese used as fertilizer human excrement, and they stored it in great pots where, of course, the flies swarmed. So the air, the stench was frightful, and the danger was very great because of the breeding of flies and mosquitoes.
seeking converts, and she was alone with her children and her Chinese servant who helped her to look after the children. It was a terrible time for the farmers because there was a drought, and they would have nothing to feed their children themselves. They blamed the foreigners, because the foreigners had just arrived and demanded that people worship the Christian God, and so it seemed to the local Chinese that their gods had turned against them. Absalom had gone, so they said they would kill the woman and children. And this is a myth, no doubt, but Carrie said she heard them plotting under her window, that they would come at midnight and they would slaughter them. She was unarmed. There was no one else she could turn to. And she decided she’d deal with them the only way she could. She spent the whole evening baking cakes. She swept the floor. She put out her best china. She laid the table for an American tea party. And at midnight, the appointed hour, she flung open the door so that these men would not find the door barred against them but the door open. She was ready to invite them in as guests. Her three little children were woken from their beds and brought downstairs and were playing on the floor at her knee. And she totally disarmed the bandits who arrived, cutthroats with their knives ready to do a dreadful deed, and asked [them] in as guests. It unmanned them. And of course, they accepted. Their leader accepted a cup of tea, and the others accepted tea. They couldn’t go forward with it. So in the end, they simply thanked them for their tea and left. And later that night, rain fell. TOM: (Laughs.) HILARY: The rain that they had all been praying for, praying to their paper gods for. Well, this may be a mythologized version. It probably was what actually happened. But it does represent the horrific dangers that Carrie faced alone most of the time, because her husband was mostly away and she had no one—no support. And also, the total culture clash between the world she came from and brought with her and the world that she was dumped in alone, among people who couldn’t understand what she was there for, who were highly superstitious, who assumed that these people were nefarious and, in a sense, they were. They certainly had come to destroy the village life as it has existed in China for thousands of years. They thought it was their bound and duty to destroy and break up all that. So these two cultures are facing each other, and the person who bears the brunt of it is a defenseless woman with three small children. And that is the route that she took and it is indeed true that her children survived. They were not killed by Chinese people. They died of diseases later. But what an astonishing story? Even if it didn’t exactly happen as she said, her courage is absolutely undoubted. Her heroism and her strength, and the fact that she came through all those years, all those ordeals with her children intact, except that even she couldn’t defeat malaria or diphtheria. TOM: I’ve heard a very similar story from my mother and my grandmother. It’s almost identical and this kind of sense that at the end, that the rains actually came and in a certain sense rewarded the feminine courage to face this strange land and these strange men.
HILARY: How do you feel about your grandfather, who after all, is responsible for those tiny lives of the children whom he’d begot on his wife? TOM: It’s very ironic because a lot of the writing that I’ve been doing is partially about my own life, but also the lives of other men in 2010 who are struggling with that very same challenge, which is how to be superhuman at work and yet be good fathers and be good husbands at the same time. It’s almost like feminism flipped on its head, which is that fifty years ago, women were trying to figure out how to leave home, be good mothers, and also have a work life. HILARY: I think it’s something that every generation has to negotiate it for themselves, and both sexes, too. Not by any means solved for women, is it? TOM: No. Well, I think one of the things that’s most fascinating about the tea party story is that obviously that got passed down through Pearl and through Grace all the way to me. One of the reasons I’m most fascinated by your book is because I get to learn more about my great-grandfather. You say that Absalom retreated behind what had long since become an impenetrable barrier against emotions that threatened to swamp him. That stuck out to me because it seems to me that men are still struggling with that. (Laughs.) HILARY: Yes. Well, that happens in every generation. I was trying to suggest, and it seems to me, that he was not a man without feeling. In fact, if anything it was the other way around. He was a man of passionate feeling. And Pearl herself understood that later when she writes very sympathetically about his childhood, the harshness of his childhood and the fact that nobody really ever took his part. He wasn’t special to anybody. He was just the runt of the family. The others were big, fine, splendid, upstanding men. But Absalom was the small, timid one who didn’t have the courage or strength of his brothers. In the end, he proved of course that he did. The few stories he ever told Pearl about his childhood seemed to her heartrending, as a grown woman and the mother of a child herself. She understood how her father had felt, that he felt he could never compete with these brothers. It was an exceedingly competitive family, and he had great pride, as they all did have, but the only way he could express it was finding an absolutely other field. And by the time he reached China, and especially by the time he started having children, he had built himself a very thick skin that was necessary to him because he was a suffering creature inside. So he built this thick, defensive skin that protected him. But of course, if you do that, you then do become insensitive to other people’s suffering. He never did see that his children had their own needs and that he didn’t recognize that he was responsible for protecting them. Three of his
children died in circumstances that could—these could’ve been prevented if he hadn’t insisted that they live in malaria swamps. They would’ve survived. So everything has its consequence, and I think he built himself this thick carapace. He had no sense of his wife’s feelings and how they were violated by his behavior and how she was forced by circumstances imposed by him to lead a life that she could hardly bear, that crushed her emotionally and physically. TOM: Do you think he had any sense that at the end of the day he realized, in retrospect, how futile that was? HILARY: No. I don’t think he ever did. Pearl said he never did. He never questioned his motives at all. He thought they were absolutely pure, and that he was called by God to do what he did and that anyone who tried to impede, namely his wife, was absolutely wrong. And Pearl, of course, had a burning sense of injustice that little children have. It never occurred to her to think that he had his point of view, too, until later, and that is a part of what makes Pearl, I think, a very extraordinary and fine and powerful writer, that she did in the end come to understand what had made him that way. TOM: Well, I guess that’s the ultimate compassion. Let’s talk a little bit about Pearl and Grace, since I know quite a bit about that relationship from Grace’s side. HILARY: There are certain things that Grace knew about them and had observed that Pearl couldn’t because Pearl went back to college when she was 17 or 18, leaving Grace alone with her parents in those rather crucial years when the marriage really did separate, when Carrie realized that if she was to survive at all, she must have an independent life of her own. Grace was the third party there, the only witness, and must’ve seen an awful lot. TOM: How do you suppose Pearl viewed Grace? HILARY: Well, as far as I can tell, Pearl did her absolute best to help Grace. She may have been overbearing. But on the other hand, she was a second mother to Grace. She was, what seven when Grace was born? TOM: Right. HILARY: And that is almost a generation gap between children. And she used to rock her to sleep every afternoon, a baby in her arms. Pearl always loved babies, and she loved Grace, and there’s absolutely no doubt of that. She just adored this baby from the moment she was born. And then later, she did her best to shield her, to help her when their mother was ill and dying. And when Grace, for instance, was being sent back in her turn to college in America, Pearl was extremely sensitive to what she needed and gave her all sorts of advice and presents and letters and then
“I want to reach a huge audience, as wide as I can. I want to be read by millions of readers. What they are reading may not be literature, but it’s something that they want more than they want literature, and I cannot despise it.”
visited her. And again, when Grace was having a baby she looked after her sister. I think she was a kind of ideal elder sister, and certainly Grace thought that. Other people often thought that Grace was totally overshadowed by Pearl, but there are two sides to that. In public and in her writings and indeed in her letters to Pearl, she was immensely grateful for what her sister had done. TOM: I think whenever you have that kind of fame, I think the family relationships are strained. It’s just the nature of the beast. HILARY: And it poses a huge burden on the person that has it. It’s extremely time-consuming dealing with that kind of pressure, the pressure of celebrity and the huge demands made of you. All that of course eats up your time. TOM: I want to go back a little bit to some of the things that you wrote about Pearl and really about her impact. Early on in your book, you say that she had the magic power to tap directly into the currents of memory and dream, secreted deep within the popular imagination. What did you mean by that? HILARY: I was trying to understand the power of a bestseller. This is a book that sells in millions. However successful an ordinary author is, you can’t expect to sell millions of copies of your book. If you sell tens of thousands, that’s a huge success normally. Pearl she sold a million copies of The Good Earth in its first year, another million the next year. The book is still in print. It was— has been in print ever since it was first published. This is a different power of writing, as it were, and many of her other books sold in their millions, too. And she was attacked, heavily attacked for that. People said she wrote pulp fiction—which is true, actually. Some of her later novels are pretty trashy. But Pearl vigorously defended this and said, “I want to reach a huge audience, as wide as I can. I want to be read by millions of readers. What they are reading may not be literature, but it’s something that they want more than they want literature, and I cannot despise it.” I think that’s a magnificent defense. It’s your great-aunt’s defense of the kind of books that she wrote. Part of my aim in writing about her was to try to understand what it is that Pearl defined it—as something that they want more than literature. It’s a basic human need, really, and I think that the figures demonstrate that. It goes back to my title, Burying the Bones. The Great Earth is a brilliant novel, but a lot of her novels are almost unreadable today because they haven’t lasted. But they did reach enormous numbers of people in their day, and I think that they spoke to people’s dreams, to people’s needs and aspirations, not really fully articulated but between the lines. That is to say, buried emotions, buried feelings, buried fear, and buried guilt. And that is my image of Burying the Bones. You know that wonderful American saying, which I love—“he knows where the bodies are buried?”
TOM: Right. HILARY: Well, there are many instances in recent American commercial corporate banking life when people know where the bodies are buried, and some of those bodies have come to the surface, haven’t they? Well, I think that that is Pearl’s territory. That’s what she writes about. I think there is often the kind of pact between her and her readers that they do know where the bodies are buried. And there are deep, subconscious needs and urges and fears in all of us, and I think she knew how to play on those fears. TOM: You also say that she doesn’t really have a place in the feminist mythology. HILARY: I think she should have. TOM: Why doesn’t she? She was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. She obviously opened the doors for women in any number of ways. HILARY: She certainly did, and she never ever, in all of her life, doubted that women had a right to play an equal part with men, which is a view held universally more or less in the West. And Pearl was one of the very first people to articulate and argue for that. TOM: Well, I’m defending my great-aunt. I just feel like she gets short shrift on that one. (Laughs.) HILARY: I think so, too. That’s another thing that I hope, that maybe the feminists should think again. For instance, Betty Friedan, when her book The Feminine Mystique came out, it was endorsed by Pearl on the flap of the paperback. And actually, Betty Friedan’s arguments were the same. I’m not saying she’d necessarily read Pearl; perhaps she hadn’t. But Pearl had been making and publishing the same arguments thirty years before. TOM: Right. HILARY: Her book, Of Men and Women, puts forth many of those same arguments, long before Betty Friedan. TOM: I interview a lot of famous men, athletes and actors and all that kind of stuff, and I ask them what we call our manhood quiz. I’d like to turn it around and ask you those questions and ask them in terms of how Pearl might’ve responded. So for instance, the first one would be, who do you think taught Pearl most profoundly about manhood? HILARY: Well, that’s a very good question. I think the example of her father was a kind of
negative learning. I think she learned from him how a man should not be because certainly on the domestic front, the role in which she knew him, he abdicated. He didn’t really play a part in their family life. She was afraid of him, but she had no other feelings about him. TOM: So were there other role models that were positive? HILARY: No. There were no uncles. Her elder brother taught her to walk. TOM: And then he left. HILARY: So he wasn’t part of her life. She didn’t see him again until he was 20. So there was no active male role model. TOM: So she learned about manhood in absentia? HILARY: Well, I think so. She became very angry with her father. As a young child, she defended him and was bitterly upset when the other missionaries attacked him. But then with adolescence and her teenage years, she began to question: Is he actually God? He thinks he’s God. He acts like God. But is he? And she saw her mother crying and she realized her father was the one who made her mother cry and she sided with her mother. And so her form of teenage rebellion was to question her father’s, you would say, manhood. I think she would’ve said godhead. He acted as God’s representative on Earth, and therefore, due to him was the kind of respect and awe that you would give to God himself. This may be a sacrilegious way of putting it, but that is the fact. Pearl said that she would never have occurred to her not to be standing when her father asked her a question. She was always standing up. She would not have dared to sit down in his presence, and as he told her to. And then as a young teenager, as all teenagers do, she began to ask, Why do I have to obey him? He was a punitive father. And at the same time, he was an absent father. The people who brought her up were her mother and her Chinese nanny. She must’ve met Chinese men in the kitchen. The cook was a man, for instance. The gateman was a man. But these were servants. TOM: How do you think romantic love shaped Pearl as a woman? HILARY: She had very few opportunities for it because she lived in a very protected world of the missionaries where the idea of even talking to a young man, let alone ever going out with a young man, was absolutely frowned on. She had no contact with the male sex [in college] except I think twice a year.
So she would’ve been 21, I think, when she came back to China. By this time, her Chinese contemporaries, all her girlfriends, were married. The boys and girls she played with when they were very young, they were all married people by then. So there were no young Chinese men. She taught at a boys’ school, and the students were only a few years younger than her. And she loved that and she loved the interchange, but they weren’t the same age as her and there was no question of anything more than teacher and pupil relationship. When she occasionally went out with one or two young American men from Standard Oil, she was holed up by the mission wives and told that she was a disgrace to their calling and that this must stop. It was a very prurient society. She was watched at every stage. So she had very few opportunities for romantic love and I don’t think it played a huge part in her life. She had a couple of very minor love affairs shipboard coming back from America alone to China, but those just lasted as long as the voyage did, a few weeks. And she was met by her father and returned then instantly to the mission community. Her own mother was rather ill by that stage, so there was not a lot she could do. Her father’s line was to suggest she should marry a Chinese boy, which Chinese marriage in those days was a very grim affair. Her mother fought against that as she always did. And then the first fully-fledged love affair she had, when she really fell in love, was with her future husband, John Lossing Buck. And as she said later—because that marriage didn’t in the end last, they were divorced—she said, “Well, I married because I was there and there was nobody else.” That’s not an entirely fair description of what happened. She did fall madly in love with him, and he with her. But partly because they were both so protected. There were so very little choices. I don’t mean it wasn’t a genuine love affair. But neither had had much experience at that stage. TOM: Back to Absalom. What two words do you think Pearl would’ve used for Absalom to describe her dad? HILARY: Well, when she wrote a book about him, called The Fighting Angel, and that refers to the quotation in the Bible about Jesus coming with a sword in his hands. A flaming sword. And that is how he saw himself: as a fighting angel. TOM: How do you think Pearl was most unlike him? HILARY: She was intensely sensitive to other people. She understood their feelings. She could enter into them. She created them as characters in her books but also in her life. She was an astonishing listener all her life, a very good listener to people and people told her their stories. And this is the stuff out of which she then wove her novels much later. She was passionately interested in people. TOM: What do you think Pearl would say was the mistake that she learned the most from?
her marriage and that she didn’t really begin to live until she was, I suppose, 40, until she started to write. But so in that sense, she thought that her early life was all mistaken. She did eventually lose her faith. She came to take a very objective view of her father’s mission calling and on balance, she thought missionaries had done a great deal of harm in China. She also thought that she had married the wrong man in retrospect, that her younger self had been mistaken in that marriage. She was right in that they were both too powerful personalities, she and her husband. And I cannot really see how that marriage could’ve worked out. They were both people of immense ambition, very high-powered. They both had a very clear vision of the future of China. And each of them needed a good deal of support. Two people who marry, each of whom need a great deal of support, are not in a position to give it to each other. The only way that marriages could’ve worked would’ve been if Pearl had just simply denied herself, had lived the kind of frustrated and really extremely unhappy life that her mother did by completely suppressing and frustrating all her own wishes and needs and desires. So that was a mistake. In a sense, her child perhaps was not a mistake but a burden. The child developed very early on a protein deficiency and didn’t develop either mentally or physically, and Pearl also had a tumor in the womb that had to be removed, which meant that after that, she was barren. But Pearl was not the sort of person who sat down and allowed this to crush or defeat her. I think she watched this happen to her mother and her mother being crushed again and again and again, and getting up each time and picking her life up again, and pulling herself together and carrying on. And that was Pearl’s way. So whatever mistakes Pearl may have made, she never allowed them to defeat her. She was a person who learned hugely from her mistakes. TOM: Well, in a way, the struggles of her earlier life and particularly with her daughter are what inspired her really as a writer. And she learned that courage from her mother. HILARY: Yes, I think she’d grown up watching her mother knocked down time and time again by life, by her husband, by everything, and picking herself up and going on. TOM: Do you think Pearl was more successful in her public or her private life? HILARY: I suppose one would have to say in her public life. It’s as if she went down a series of one-way roads in her private life and then they always ended in impasse and she came back and tried another one. Even her second marriage, which was a very happy and successful one, but at the end, after her husband died, she really ditched that. She abandoned the family house. She abandoned the children, the family that they had brought up in it—and I think that goes back to her earliest childhood, which had also been a succession of flights which simply comes from her parents attempting, as the missionaries all did, to implant themselves, to root themselves in a totally alien country, which was not possible. And so she was used to their lives being uprooted. Her mother’s life had been uprooted. Her parents’ lives were uprooted when hey uprooted themselves from America and went to China and the…revolutions in China. The first people the Chinese would turn on were always the foreigners.
It was a way of expressing their despair and their anger and their frustration. And missionaries would be slaughtered and other missionaries would flee. So Pearl was used to these terrific dislocations. They run right through her life. And she continued that pattern all through her life, to her last flight, I suppose. She left China itself, which she’d never expected to do, in 1934.and went back to America. Exactly halfway through her life. She was American, but it was a foreign land so far as she was concerned, and she often said she never really understood it or felt at home in America. And then she built this terrific family life, adopted six children, brought them up. But when that ended, she fled again from that family house. She left everything and went and camped out in the woods in Vermont. TOM: Well, that’s where I met her, in Vermont. (Laughs.) HILARY: Is it? Is it? TOM: Yes. So one last question, and we often ask guys what makes them cry. What do you think Pearl cared the most deeply about in the end and what do you think would bring tears to her eyes—particularly later in life? Just from your research. HILARY: She wasn’t a person who cried easily. She was brought up in a world that was very stiff upper-lipped. They didn’t cry easily in her family at all. I’m sure your grandmother didn’t either. There are very few accounts of Pearl crying. She loved babies always… TOM: That’s what came to my mind actually: something about children. I think the one thing we haven’t talked about is her involvement in mixed-race adoption. HILARY: Well, you asked me about public or private, and her public life was so extraordinary and she achieved so much in it. [In] her private life she achieved much but then there were so many terrible fractures and ruptures, and that pattern that was set down in her childhood, and she’d heard from her mother, too, of terrible flights that they had had to make when they were constantly having to leave everything and flee before the mob. Fracture was the pattern of her life, and she never really managed to root herself anywhere, and so her private life was fractured again and again and again. But in public, she gave her life, the second half of her life to campaigning for a series of causes which we’ve touched on. Women’s rights, black rights, rights of children (especially disabled children), and children of mixed race—all of those were deeply, deeply unfashionable causes in her day. They are all absolutely PC and accepted today, which is why I’m rather shocked that Pearl doesn’t have the reputation she should have as a public campaigner. But she was enormously successful in that, and I think also that there is no doubt, nobody would dispute that it was Pearl who initially changed the attitude single-handedly of the West to the East. It was she who made people for the very first time realize that Chinese people were ordinary human beings like themselves. And that was a huge change in thinking. Before that, very
few people had ever seen a Chinese person except the immigrants whom they bitterly resented arriving in America and taking their jobs. That’s how they saw it. But the popular images of Chinese people were either a kind of Fu Manchu figure with slitty eyes and yellow skin and long fingernails doing extremely shady and sinister things in opium dens, or the comic Chinaman. And Pearl single-handedly transformed that perception. So that was a huge achievement, absolutely astonishing. She also became a kind of unofficial advocate for China. She was very skeptical about the Nationalists, the American government. American politicians were very optimistic about the future, overoptimistic of the Nationalist government. Pearl had no illusions about the Nationalists. She’d lived with them. She knew Chiang Kai-shek; several of her and her husband’s students became ministers in his government. So she didn’t have at all an idealized view of them, but nor did she have the Communists. I think she took a very realistic view of the Communists, what we would feel now was a realistic view of their future. And they, of course, bound her from China. She was considered a public enemy under Mao, a dangerous cultural imperialist because her view—her absolutely accurate view of what it had meant to be a Chinese peasant, [which] wasn’t at all the idealized view the Communists held of peasant life. So Pearl, in all those ways, was a tremendous pioneer and years before her time. She foresaw the future of China as a superpower and the great, inevitable leader of Asia—those are her words, already in 1925 when she was a very young woman, which was really before anybody else, I think. And she campaigned for it, and as you say, she set up a whole adoption agency. She was the first person to do that, for the children of American fathers and Korean mothers in the Korean War, who were rejected by their own country, Korea, their mothers’ country, and rejected by America, of course. And the same thing happened in Vietnam. Pearl saw the situation and was touched at the bottom of her heart. It appalled her that she couldn’t adopt all of these hundreds and thousands of children. She took in a lot of them to her house, but there comes a limit to the number of children one woman can look after. So she set up an adoption agency finding American families to adopt them. And that was hugely successful and still runs to this day. That’s just one of the many, many things that she did. She was an immensely practical person and her organizing power was terrific, and her fundraising power was terrific. And a lot of her own funds, which came from her bestselling novels, went into supporting these good causes. So she was a feminist before the term. She was a tremendous campaigner for black rights, as well. She was a friend of many American presidents, from [Franklin] Roosevelt to Kennedy, and gave them extremely good advice about America’s role in Asia—and nobody really played a blind bit of notice to what she said. If they had, the whole history of the world might be different. Our relationship with China might be very different now if people had listened to Pearl from the beginning. But that’s not what my book is about. My book is about Pearl in China, but I have a great admiration for her as a public campaigner against all the odds.
About Tom Matlack
Tom Matlack is just foolish enough to believe he is a decent man. He has a 16-yearold daughter and 14- and 5-year-old sons. His wife, Elena, is the love of his life.
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