A Literary Voice for the Unheard: The Inspiring Life of Pearl S. Buck

by Holley Snaith

“The test of a civilization is in the way that it cares for its helpless members.” 

 Pearl S. Buck
In addition to being the first female writer to win a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature, Pearl S. Buck was an advocate for civil rights, women’s rights, and a champion for mixed-race adoption.
(image: Pearl S. Buck International)

In addition to being the first female writer to win a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature, Pearl S. Buck was an advocate for civil rights, women’s rights, and a champion for mixed-race adoption. Source: Pearl S. Buck International

On December 10, 1938, Pearl S. Buck arrived at the Stockholm Concert Hall for the Nobel Prize Ceremony, but she was not merely attending the celebrated event. That winters’ night, she was making history as the first American woman to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize “for her rich and truly epic descriptions of peasant life in China and for her biographical masterpieces.”

The novels that ignited Pearl’s literary career and led to the prestigious honors were The Good Earth (1931) and its two sequels, Sons (1932) and A House Divided (1935). The trilogy, inspired by Pearl’s own life in China, offered many readers their first glimpse into Chinese culture. But the consequential years of her life in spent in China, witnessing the struggles and triumphs of the Chinese people, did more than stimulate Pearl’s writing, it also inspired her remarkable life of service. 

Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born to Caroline and Absalom Sydenstricker, Presbyterian missionaries then stationed in China, in Hillsboro, West Virginia on June 26, 1892. After their furlough at home in the United States ended, the Sydenstricker family returned to China and settled in Zhenjiang. There, they chose to live in the village amongst the Chinese people instead of the missionary compound, so Pearl and her siblings grew up immersed in the local culture. Her tutor, Mr. Kung, taught her Chinese history, writing, and Confucianism.  

The Sydenstricker family in China, ca. 1901. From left to right: Pearl, Absalom, Grace, Carie, and their governess, Wang.
(image: Penn Arts & Sciences, Department of English)

Caroline Sydenstricker homeschooled Pearl and taught her the importance of being a competent writer. When she was only 6 years old, Pearl’s first literary piece was published in the children’s section of the English newspaper, Shanghai Mercury. Gaining an affinity for reading early on, Pearl was devouring books such as Oliver Twist and all of Charles Dickens’ works before the age of 10. 

At the age of 18, Pearl returned to the U.S. and attended Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Virginia. Four years later, she graduated with a degree in Philosophy and was honored to be asked to teach at her alma mater. Unfortunately, her stint as a professor did not last long. After one semester, Pearl returned to China after learning that her mother was seriously ill. 

Shortly after her return to China, Pearl met John Lossing Buck, a Cornell graduate serving as a missionary. The couple married in 1917 and spent the first few years of their marriage in the small town of Suzhou in Northern China, the region inspired Pearl when she wrote The Good Earth

Her only natural child, Carol, was born on March 4, 1920. When Carol was a child, Pearl noticed that she was not developing as she should be, but John and the doctors paid little attention to the mother’s concern. Finally, Carol was diagnosed with PKU syndrome, leaving her with a permanent intellectual disability. At 9-years-old, Carol was enrolled at the Vineland Training School in New Jersey and would remain there until her death at the age of 72. Pearl’s book, The Child Who Never Grew (1950), was inspired by her real-life experience with Carol and living with PKU syndrome. 

In the mid-1920s, John, Pearl, and young Carol journeyed back to the U.S., where Pearl enrolled at Cornell University and earned a master’s degree in English Literature. Before returning to China in the fall of 1925, John and Pearl adopted a baby girl named Janice. The rising tension between Nationalists and Communists made life in China tumultuous, especially for foreigners. During the 1927 Nanking Incident, the Bucks left their home in Nanking and escaped to Japan for a year. 

After the family returned to China, Pearl and John made the decision to send Carol to Vineland Training School, but they lacked the money to pay for her schooling. While still living in Nanking, Pearl invested more time and effort into becoming a professional writer, and she boldly pitched her first novel, East Wind, West Wind, to numerous publishers. After being met with numerous letters of rejection, Richard Walsh, an editor with John Day Publishing Company, finally agreed to publish the novel. In 1930, Pearl S. Buck became a published author. 

The next year, The Good Earth was released, topping the bestseller list for nearly two years and winning the Pulitzer Prize. In just one year, Pearl went from being an obscure writer residing in China to a literary sensation. The novel received more acclaim in 1937 when it was made into a feature-film starring Luise Rainer, who took home an Academy Award for her performance. 

Pearl S. Buck receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature at the Stockholm Concert Hall on December 10, 1938.
(image: Refocus Digital Media, LLC)

As the situation in China worsened, so too did Pearl and John’s marriage. In 1934, the family returned to the U.S., and the next year, Pearl filed for divorce in Reno, Nevada. The day of the divorce, she married Richard Walsh, the editor responsible for launching her career. This marked the beginning of a creative and formidable partnership that lasted until Walsh’s death in 1960.  

Pearl and Richard purchased Green Hills Farm in Bucks Country, Pennsylvania. The property consisted of around 500 lush acres, and the house, made of solid stone, dated back to 1835. Here, Pearl and Richard raised their seven adopted children and foster children. Pearl’s literary career remained proactive. She wrote on a variety of topics, including biographies of her mother and father, several novels inspired by her life in China, children’s books, and her autobiography. In total, Pearl published more than 100 pieces of literature. Her final manuscript, The Eternal Wonder, written just months before her death in 1973, was posthumously published in 2013.  

As her name grew in recognition, Pearl began to invest more time in humanitarian work. She was staunch in her belief that all human beings deserved equality and was one of the first public figures to be a vocal supporter of civil rights in the U.S. Noticing the increase in the number of children fathered by American servicemen in Asia and then left behind, Pearl established the Welcome House adoption program in 1949. This unique program was the first adoption agency to prioritize the placement of biracial children, and it successfully ran for more than 60 years. 

Yearning to do more for children overseas, Pearl established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation in 1964, helping give children access to healthcare, education, and proper job training in their native countries. The Pearl S. Buck Foundation continues to thrive today as Pearl S. Buck International. The same year the Foundation was founded, Pearl traveled to South Korea to open the Opportunity Center and Orphanage, which later created offices in Vietnam, the Philippines, and Thailand.

Pearl sitting with children at the Welcome House in Pennsylvania, which she founded in 1949. The Welcome House was responsible for matching more than 7,000 children from around the world, many being biracial, with families in the U.S.
(image: Temple University, Urban Archives)

As she entered her twilight years, Pearl clung to the hope that she would one day return to the place of her childhood, especially after the U.S. and China normalized relations in 1972. After applying for a visa and reaching out to Premier Zhou Enlai, Pearl received a firm answer from the Chinese government: No. A diplomat informed her that because of her “smear and vilification towards the people of new China and its leaders” she could not return. 

In all her career, Pearl had only been an advocate for the Chinese people, being their voice when the rest of the world was not listening, but she did not mince words when it came to her opinions on the Communist Party. Her 1962 novel Satan Never Sleeps highlighted the tyranny practiced by Communist leaders, and for decades, the Chinese government remained hostile towards Pearl. It was not until the early 21st century that Pearl’s literary prowess was finally recognized and applauded in China. 

Less than one year after making her final plea to enter China, Pearl S. Buck died of lung cancer on March 6, 1973. She was laid to rest at her tranquil home Green Hills Farm, which is now a National Historic Site open to visitors. Pearl S. Buck’s literary works continue to be recognized and read across the globe, but it is her legacy as being a champion for the unseen and unheard that continues to inspire and transform lives. 

Recommended Materials 

Article: The Nobel Prize – Pearl Buck 

Pearl Buck – Biographical (nobelprize.org)

Article: Pearl S. Buck International – About Our Founder 

Pearl S. Buck International | About Our Founder Pearl S. Buck | Pearl S. Buck International (pearlsbuck.org)

Article: The Pulitzer Prizes – What makes a novel ‘American’? Pearl S. Buck challenged the status quo

What makes a novel ‘American’? Pearl S. Buck challenged the status quo – The Pulitzer Prizes

Video: The Nobel Prize – The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 1938 

The Nobel Prize Award Ceremony 1938

About the Author

Holley Snaith is a writer and historian who specializes in 20th century U.S. history. Her passion for history began in high school when she completed her senior project on Franklin Roosevelt and the creation of the March of Dimes and interned at Roosevelt’s Little White House in Georgia. After graduating with a B.A. in History from the University of Florida, Holley moved to New York and began an internship with the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum. Next, she embarked upon a historical restoration project in partnership with the National Park Service at Eleanor Roosevelt’s home, Val-Kill, and served as program assistant to the Girls’ Leadership Worldwide Program at the Eleanor Roosevelt Center. 

Holley has also worked for the Richard Nixon Foundation in California. There, she conducted research and created an exhibit on Pat Nixon at the University of Southern California, as well as managed donor relations. As a freelance writer and historian, Holley continues to write articles on inspirational historical figures and has been published in American Heritage Magazine. She holds an M.S.A. in Public Administration from the University of West Florida. 

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