October 27th, 2014
By Marissa Sura
West Virginia University is gearing up to announce a partnership with West Virginia Wesleyan College and the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation that will honor and celebrate the collection of works of Pulitzer Prize winning author and Nobel Laureate Pearl S. Buck.
During Mountaineer Week – a weeklong celebration of the heritage and culture of West Virginia – WVU, Wesleyan and the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation will host a public event to dedicate the collection of this prolific author, humanitarian and native West Virginian.
The event is on Thursday, Oct. 30, at 10 a.m. in the Robinson Reading Room at the Downtown Campus Library.
The following speakers will participate in the event:
- WVU President Gordon Gee
- Jon Cawthorne, dean of libraries, WVU
- Kirk Judd, president, Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation
- David H. Corcoran Sr., first executive director, Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation and publisher-editor, The Glenville Newspapers
- Teresa (Teri) Mandic, vice president of programs, Pearl S. Buck International
- Barry Pritts, vice president for finance, West Virginia Wesleyan College
- Melanie Page, assistant vice president for creative and scholarly activities, WVU
“West Virginians have a passion for their home and Pearl S. Buck was no exception,” President Gee said. “Her worldwide fame as an author and her tireless work as a humanitarian took her far from the ‘Little Levels’ of Pocahontas County where she was born, but she always remained connected to her roots nestled in the Mountain State.”
“Pearl S. Buck was ahead of her time in terms of global relationships, civil rights and women’s rights. Her impact on society can be felt around the world,” Dean Cawthorne said. “I hope those who appreciate her literary and social work – and those who want to learn more about her – come to the Libraries to honor her legacy.”
Westerner in the East, Easterner in the West
Buck’s tumultuous life journey – which began at her birth in 1892 in Hillsboro and continued across China – bore its influence in her writing. The daughter of religious missionaries, she was whisked off to China as an infant. She spent the majority of her first 40 years of life there, with several returns to West Virginia and college in Virginia and New York before moving back to the U.S. in 1934.
Having lived in agrarian China, Buck witnessed the hardships of peasant life, particularly for women and children. Her experiences there played against a background of intense political turmoil – the Boxer Rebellion, widespread famine, the abdication of the Last Emperor, and ongoing fighting between Nationalists and Communists.
Despite these difficulties, Buck embraced Chinese culture. She learned the Chinese language before she learned English and grew to be fluent in both.
While abroad, Buck’s mother, Caroline, told her vivid stories of life in West Virginia. She described their family home in Hillsboro in such minute detail that a young Pearl felt the memories were her own.
Many have said that when Buck pictured America in her mind’s eye, it was West Virginia that came to life.
In her book, My Mother’s House, Buck said, “For me it (the house) is a living heart in the country I knew was my own but which was strange to me until I returned to the house where I was born. For me that house was a gateway to America. May it live again, my Mother’s house, and may it prove for others, too, a gateway to new thoughts and dreams and ways of life.”
Buck’s writing and humanitarian legacy
Buck began authoring short works in the 1920s, and published her first novel East Wind, West Wind in 1930.
Her second and most famous novel, the acclaimed The Good Earth, was an honest look at the life she observed in rural China. It became the first in a trilogy of works that depicted the life of Chinese farmers, a first for a Western author.
Buck hoped that her writing would teach others about Chinese life at that time. Her translation of Eastern culture became the most widely sold book in the U.S., capturing the imagination of Americans who had had little experience with China up to that point. She became one of the most translated authors of her era.
The novel quickly became a best seller, garnering several accolades including the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the Howells Medal in 1935. Following the publication of her biographies of her parents, Buck won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1938. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, as well as a both a Pulitzer and a Nobel Prize in Literature.
During her Nobel Prize lecture in Stockholm Buck, she said, “(T)he Chinese novel was written primarily to amuse the common people? I mean amusement in the sense of absorbing and occupying the whole attention of the mind. I mean enlightening that mind by pictures of life and what that life means. I mean encouraging the spirit not by rule-of-thumb talk about art, but by stories about the people in every age, and thus presenting to people simply themselves.”
The Good Earth launched her prolific 40-year writing career, as she continued to produce troves of novels, short stories and essays until her death in 1973. She was so productive that estimates of her total collection range from 70 to 100 works.
Buck defied the conventions of her time and in her writing was openly critical of the societal structures that oppressed women and minorities in the U.S. and around the world. Specifically, her outspoken critique of government and norms in China led to resentment from the Communist Party.
In recent years, Buck’s reputation in China and her notoriety around the world have undergone a rebirth as scholars and officials acknowledged the importance of her contributions to the larger cultural history of the country.
Perhaps even more than the impact of her writing, Buck is a noted humanitarian and social activist.
She was a vocal promoter of cultural understanding and civil rights. In a radio interview Buck said, “I enjoy life because I am endlessly interested in people and their growth. My interest leads me to widen my knowledge of people, and this in turn compels me to believe in the common goodness of mankind. I believe that the normal human heart is born good.”
Additionally, her concern for women’s and children’s rights – and her own experience with her own adopted children – led her to establish an international organization to promote adoption of children of mixed race, which is now part of Pearl S. Buck International foundation.