Thursday, July 19, 2012

"What has Pearl S. Buck Done for You Lately?"

"What has Pearl S. Buck done for you lately?" That was the question posed "1 day ago" on Yahoo Answers. It's an odd question, considering she died over nearly 40 year's ago, but one assumes the person who posed it is asking about the impact of her legacy, not what she, personally, has done.

The best response, as chosen by visitors to the site, was highlights of her life taken from the Pearl S. Buck International (PSBI) website. To those who know little or nothing about her, it's informative, and reveals Pearl Buck to be a highly accomplished woman, but the question seems to be asking what is Pearl S. Buck's impact on the world today, and the response provided most definitely doesn't answer that. It begins,

• Lived in Bucks County for nearly 40 years (1934-1973)
• Her Bucks County home is a National Historic Landmark and 1 of only 10 in existence (out of 2,342) to educate the public about a woman’s contribution to society using her personal collection
• Is one of only two female American authors to have been awarded the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes for literature 
The first two points may qualify as a response to the question if the "you" referred to is a resident of Bucks County.  But as to the third point, Pearl Buck won the Nobel in 1938 and it wouldn't be until 1993 that another female American author would receive it, an African-American, so it's hard to see the direct causality.   Winning a Nobel Prize for literature is an extraordinary achievement by any measure, but how does her being only one of two American women to win it in literature answer the question posed?  The response continues in this vein, and it bothers me because it historicizes her influence, and doesn't recognizing it's continuing legacy.  It also totally ignores her connection with China.  (Ironically, it mentions she conferred with President Kennedy on the Korean War.)

All of it is listed as accomplishments in the past, which of course they are.   On the other hand, since I became affiliated with the Birthplace and started doing serious research, I've been discovering that she has been more influential than I realized, in literature and far beyond.  I'm going to focus on just one area in which she had enormous influence on American mores, fundamentally calling us to be better people. 

Can you imagine that at the time when she adopted her own mixed race children or when she founded Welcome House, the very idea of placing a child of one race into a home with parents of another was practically revolutionary. Adoption was supposed to create "natural families," and mixed race families weren't seen as such. So at a time when racism was still a big factor in American society, she not only saw beyond it paving the way for so many children to find loving homes.  This also made her one of the more important figures  in advancing the idea that "family" can be based not only on "blood" or genetics, but on deeper bonds of love and duty that we undertake willingly and pledge ourselves to unconditionally.

It's hard to imagine such walls existed when it seems so fashionable to see celebrities that seem almost like they are in competition for the next child born in an exotic locale. Sometimes the adoption of difficult to place children provides hope for same-sex couples wanting to establish families. Yet none of this would be possible had we not come to accept the possibility that families can transcend race and religion, a process Pearl Buck pushed along!

This is only one of several ways Pearl Buck remains influential.  Had the person who submitted her life's highlights bothered to visit more of the PSBI website, it would have been clear that the organizations founded in her name continue to do work she held dear such as ensuring the well being to children all over the world, encouraging new literary talent and to advancing American understanding of Asia.  We, at the Birthplace, are involved in some of the same activities, on a smaller scale, and we also have a greater role in serving the needs of our own community, a community much more rural and less affluent that that surrounding Pearl's Pennsylvania home.  

Ultimately her biggest influence came from her writing, and her ability to affect hearts and minds.  Where do you see it?  How important were her works in shaping our view of other countries?  Did they impact social views at all?  The more I think about US foreign relations, American attitudes toward communism, and the phenomenal popularity of Pearl Buck's writing about China, the more I wonder about the role of her novels in making something like Nixon's trip to China palatable to the American public. 

I have advanced degrees in literature, and had never really studied Pearl Buck in part because none of my professors believed she was still relevant enough to devote time to.  I'm now convinced they were wrong and, moreover, she has always remained more relevant on the world literary scene than has been in American Letters.  She deserves to be more widely read.  Do you agree with me or with the professors who left her off their syllabi when I was in high school and college? 

I'd like to think we're doing a good job at the Birthplace of using the vision she provided us in My Mother's House to serve our community, but we always need your support, comments and help.  

Visit our website for details.  Be sure to drop us a line. 


No comments:

Post a Comment