Pearl Buck as Egalitarian Feminist

From Protestants Abroad: How Missionaries Tried to Change the World but Changed America, by David A. Hollinger (Princeton U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 792-816:

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was an extraordinary woman whose significance in the histories of the United States, of women, and of feminism remains to be fully registered. Luce’s importance has been clear for some time, even if rarely analyzed in relation to his missionary background. Buck is most often remembered as an overrated novelist and as a major influence on American images of China. She was both. But she was also more than that.

Buck was, as James C. Thomson Jr. has observed, the most influential interpreter of China to the West since Marco Polo. The Good Earth, published in 1931, was the first and foremost vehicle for her most widely disseminated message, which was that Chinese people were as fully human and endowed with dignity as the average American, and equally worthy of respect. Buck wrote more than seventy other books, fifteen of which were Book-of-the-Month-Club selections and many of which have been published in hundreds of editions. Her writings have been translated into at least thirty-six languages. She is one of the most famous American writers of any generation, and by far the most widely translated female author in American history.

Buck’s anti-imperialist, antiracist, and even feminist credentials are impeccable. She advocated independence for India well before it was achieved, opposed the confinement of Japanese Americans, campaigned for the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and criticized the Kuomintang without romanticizing the Chinese Communists. She demanded that women have access to birth control technologies and as early as 1941 had articulated most of the ideas about women later popularized by Betty Friedan’s 1963 volume The Feminine Mystique. Buck founded and financed the first adoption agency specializing in transracial adoption, and designed a program to rescue the mixed-race offspring of American soldiers—especially African Americans who fought in the Korean War—from neglect and rejection in Asian societies. She was a major figure in the reconsideration of the American missionary project itself. In these and other activities, Buck was “an evangelist for equality,” in the words of biographer Peter Conn. Buck was, for “three decades,” affirms another biographer, Hilary Spurling, a campaigner “for peace, tolerance, and liberal democracy, for the rights of children and minorities, for an end to discrimination on grounds of race and gender.”

Buck especially touched American women of her generation, above all those who read magazines like Reader’s Digest and Saturday Evening Post. As late as 1966 readers of Good Housekeeping voted her as one of the most admired women in America, surpassed only by Rose Kennedy, mother of the recently martyred president. In 2004, Oprah Winfrey renewed The Good Earth’s status as a best-seller by choosing a new edition for her own highly influential Book Club. In a typical reflection of 2010, the young writer Deborah Friedell observed that Buck was the favorite novelist of both of her grandmothers.

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Filed under China, democracy, education, Japan, Korea, migration, military, publishing, South Asia, U.S.

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