Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Pearl S. Buck reconsidered

It was impossible for me to read Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth the way most people have, I suppose, given where I grew up--and when.  The Good Earth won the Pulitzer in 1932, was a best-seller in the U.S., and eventually brought Ms. Buck a Nobel Prize in 1938.  But her name, for me at least, lived in a kind of infamy.

The Good Earth is the story of an unlearned but industrious Chinese peasant named Wang Lung, who is, in just about every way possible, a country bumpkin, with one exception--he is blessed with ambition and industry sufficient, even in his time and place, to make money.  The trajectory of his life takes him from deep poverty to significant wealth, at least more wealth than other men in his community.  By way his own initiative, and his deep and absolute commitment, a kind of religious commitment, to the land itself, Wang Lung achieves significant and near fatal doses of both wealth and status.

Wealth's unbidden blessings include children who don't share his ideology and therefore are, in many ways, more of a curse to him than a blessing.  One friend and employee sticks by him throughout, but most of those in the community, including some in his immediate family, dislike him and are envious of his rise to power.  

The wife he (literally) takes, O-Lan, is the court slave of a rich family, a woman he chooses as he might have an ox or an ass, for the sturdiness of her thighs and her obvious homeliness; she will want no other man and no other man will want her, he says.  O-Lan gives him everything he needed her for, including sons and love itself, but Wan Lang is a victim of his own cultural prejudices.  He doesn't fully recognize her gifts and simply takes another woman, a prostitute he meets at the tea house.  She too comes under his roof once he has accumulated capitol enough to buy a trophy wife.  

The Good Earth is an episodic novel that follows the life of Wang Lung in a fashion that displays clearly the dangers of excess wealth.  The story is constructed on what Ms. Buck saw as traditional Chinese culture, pre World War II, as the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries. She grew up in China, considered China her home; interestingly, however, the Christian faith has no real presence in the story.  Wang Lung is "religious" only when he is doing well financially, at which times he lights candles as tributes to the gods.  Wealth diminishes what little faith he has, as it often does in every culture.  What remains, through thick and thin, is his reverence for "the land."

I loved the novel.  I'd never read it before, but it carried me along blessedly, largely because of the panoramic life of Wang Lung and O-Lan, his notable achievements and his pathetic failures. I'm hardly one to judge her faithfulness to Chinese rural culture in the early years of the 20th century, but it's not difficult to become deeply engaged by the trials of Wang Lung, who seems to fail most when he wins most.  

It has the earmarks of its era, a kind of scientific objectivity with respect to the life and times of Wang Lung. But it rises above a Dreiser, for instance, when it surprises us with unforeseen insights Wang Lung himself reaches.  Neither he nor O-Lan are quite the beasts more naturalistic writers often create.  There is a kind of inevitability to the story, however, which makes its own conclusion almost ineffectual.  Life will simply go on in the patterns it always has, Ms. Buck seems to say.

Still, The Good Earth seems to me to be prescient, offering an analysis of Chinese life that is the very landscape of the Cultural Revolution, something Ms. Buck knew nothing of when she wrote the novel.

It was, I'm sure, a great read in 1931, when it was published, and it's been a great read ever since.

I grew up with members of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC), and my memory of the name Pearl S. Buck is rife with horror.  In the 1950s, when I was a boy, the OPC was a fledgling denomination still nursing its own scars from the split it cut into the side of its own mother church, the Presbyterian Church of the United States.  In two adjacent communities in southeast Wisconsin, two adjacent Presbyterian churches left the denomination in dramatic fashion when the preachers both declared, from the pulpit, that they were leaving and did, right then and there.  In both churches, most parishoners followed.  A memorable sabbath.

The OPC's patron saint, Dr. J. Gresham Machen, went to war with modernism in the denomination he served as a faculty member at Princeton Sem, and one of those he had in his sights was Pearl S. Buck, who seemed deliberately to make her "modernism" incandescent.  She didn't believe, necessarily, in the virgin birth, nor even in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Furthermore, she thought all world religions taught something of the truth. She was the quintessential "modernist," in the language of the time and made a wonderful lightning rod for Machen and other conservative Presbyterians.  

Somehow, in the cobwebs of my memory, Pearl S. Buck is decidedly villainous, even though I'd never read a single word she ever wrote. Everything the OPC came to stand for was made flesh in Pearl S. Buck, and Ms. Buck rather apologetically appreciated the disdain of the "evangelicals," which only increased the temperature.

I was wrong about The Good Earth.  I thought it would be a missionary novel.  It isn't.  It has nothing to do with Christian missions in China.  Its strongest themes are agrarian--a reverence for the land itself, "the good earth"--and economic--an examination of the horrors of filthy lucre.  

Dr. Machen wasn't wrong.  Pearl S. Buck was everything he claimed she was.  But she was more too, much more, including the author of a novel that is everything the literary world has ever claimed it to be.


Janet said...

I remember reading that book - and crying and crying and loving it despite the tears because of the journey it took me on - both emotionally and culturally. I still read books for the journeys. Thanks for the memories!

Jan said...

I also read the Good Earth recently and wondered why I had missed this great book all these years. You may want to read the rest of the trilogy--Sons and A House Divided.

Pam said...

Find out just who Pearl S. Buck was with a tour of her national historic landmark home, the Pearl S. Buck House in Bucks County Pennsylvania - about an hour north of Philadelphia. Guided tour reveals her life and her legacy. Collection includes the desk and typewriter she sat out when writing The Good Earth.