In a Time of Racial Divide, Remembering Pearl S. Buck’s Multicultural Orientation

Recently my wife and I visited the Pearl S. Buck House in Perkasie – the former residence and estate of Buck, the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938 and the second American woman to win a Nobel Prize .

Buck is best known for writing the novel The Good Earthwhich also received the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. The book was a rarity for its time – it provided the West with a compassionate and introspective insight into the world of Chinese peasants and their struggle to survive, in an easily readable style.

Born June 26, 1892, Buck was taken to China at the age of 3 months by her parents, who were Southern Presbyterian missionaries, and grew up among the Chinese. She was fluent in Mandarin and knew what it was like to be a white foreigner in Asia.

Despite worldwide praise for a cross-cultural novel that can only be created by someone who is both an insider and an outsider in two separate cultures, Buck was ridiculed by poet Robert Frost, who said after his Nobel Prize that “If she can get it, anyone can.” It’s tempting to wonder if jealousy, elitism or misogyny factored into his derogatory commentary, given the standards of the time.

What struck me during a guided tour of her house — she lived there from 1934 to 1969 — was her collection of books. There were two large libraries in this renovated 1825 farmhouse, with volumes of Dickens (apparently his favorite), Eastern and Western political thought, modern and ancient history, and medical and scientific monographs. Balzac’s entire work was in his bedroom. I remembered a quote attributed to Oscar Wilde (but probably said by Unitarian minister Charles Potter): “It’s what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you’ll be when you can’t help it.”

You’d think Buck should be the first hit on a Google search for “First American Woman Nobel Literature” – but sadly it’s not.

She barely featured in searches for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month despite her bold efforts to condemn the heinous internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. She was an early advocate for fairer immigration laws for mixed-race children born to American servicemen and Asian women.

His love for the Chinese people – coupled with unbridled criticism for the authoritarian government of Mao Zedong – earned him the scorn of the Chinese Communist Party, which denied him a visa when Richard Nixon visited China in 1972.

She was proactive beginning in the 1930s regarding women’s equality and civil rights for African Americans, which led to her being placed on an FBI watch list of J. Edgar Hoover. Ironically, Hoover felt that his humanist social and political views might be subversive and anti-American. Her genuine respect for other cultures is evidenced by her advocacy of missionary work without proselytizing, which led to accusations of heresy by some members of the Presbyterian Church, of which she was a member.

As I reflect on the unfortunate escalation of racial divisions in our country, I also remember Pearl S. Buck, a white Christian who spent his formative years in China and became a champion for Asians, Blacks and women at a time when such positions were unpopular and not without personal risk. Following in the footsteps of this insightful woman, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity offers a path to redemption. She should not be forgotten.

Raman L. Mitra, MD, Ph.D., is the Director of the Electrophysiology Laboratory at North Shore University Hospital in Manhasset, NY. He is originally from Pennsylvania and graduated from the Perelman School of Medicine.

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