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Monday, June 5, 2017

June 5, 2017: The Pulitzers at 100: The Good Earth

[The first Pulitzer Prizes were given out 100 years ago, on June 5, 1917. So to celebrate that centennial, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying five Pulitzer-winning works of fiction, leading up to a special weekend post on the most recent winner!]
On the obvious limits of an influential novel, and one way to move beyond them.
Between its debut in 1901 and the end of World War II, the Nobel Prize in Literature was only given to three American writers; students of American literature might be able to guess that Sinclair Lewis and Eugene O’Neill were two of those recipients, but I’m willing to bet that you could stump most guessers with the third: Pearl Buck, who received the Nobel in 1938 (just two years after O’Neill). Buck had published a handful of novels by that time, as well as semi-biographical books about her mother and father, but to my mind she received the Nobel for one reason: her hugely popular and influential, Pulitzer-winning novel The Good Earth (1931). Focused on Chinese farmer Wang Lung and his multi-generational family in the years before World War I, Buck’s novel, along with the popular 1937 film adapation of the same name, has been credited with significantly shifting American public opinion toward China, a change that also affected our foreign policy and our role in World War II. The novel was the #1 U.S. bestseller of both 1931 and 1932, has remained in print ever since, and was chosen for Oprah’s Book Club in 2004, to cite a few examples of its continued prominence and influence in the nearly ninety years since its publication.
Pearl Sydenstricker (1892-1973), the daughter of missionaries, moved with her parents to China was she only five months old, attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia but then returned to China as a missionary herself, married another missionary John Buck in 1917 and raised two daughters (one adopted) in China, and was living in Nanking at the time she wrote The Good Earth, only moving to the United States for good in 1935. As detailed and analyzed in Jane Hunter’s wonderful book The Gospel of Gentility: American Women Missionaries in Turn-of-the-Century China (1984), missionary identities and communities were complex and multi-layered, with Buck’s (as I’ll return to in a moment) even more so than most. But at the same time, a missionary to China is not only not a native-born Chinese person; he or she is very much not an immigrant either, instead performing a role that by definition remains separate from and outside of that culture. Although Buck was deeply immersed in Chinese culture, I believe that missionary perspective still influenced her work in The Good Earth, and particularly her consistent focus on Wang Lung’s relationships with his wife and multiple concubines. (The film is much more overtly stereotyping, especially in its casting choices.) At the very least, it’s important to recognize that Earth is an American novel about China, not a Chinese novel.
With that said, however, it’s also important to note that Buck was far from a typical Christian missionary to a non-Christian nation. On a theological and organizational level, she took the Modernist side in the Presbyterian Church’s Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the 1920s and 30s, a perspective that led to Buck’s resignation from her missionary role just a year after Earth’s publication. Moreover, she weeded those views to an evolving, striking perspective on missionaries and culture, as evidenced by her 1932 lecture “Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?” (published in Harper’s in January 1933), which controversially answered that question in the negative. Those evolving views, as well as her own experiences as the mother of an adopted Chinese daughter, led Buck to co-found Welcome House, Inc., the first international, interracial adoption agency, in 1949. None of those details make Buck or her novel any more Chinese, as I believe she herself would be the first to admit; but they certainly reflect an individual striving to move away from the religious, cultural, and even national categories in which she had been born and raised, and to embody—in her perspective, in her family, and, it certainly seems, in her writing—a deeply cross-cultural identity instead. The Good Earth might mark one partial and imperfect stage in that evolution, but that nonetheless offers an important additional lens through which to read this compelling novel.
Next Pulitzer winner tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on other prize-winning (or –worthy) books?

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