Sunday, August 22, 2010

What's the Real Right Way to Think About Pearl Buck [Anthony McCarthy]

By the time I was in college it was de riguer to think of Pearl S. Buck as a cultural imperialist and a hack writer, evidence that winning the Nobel for lit. was a sign of mediocrity -- In fact, the last time I remember hearing her mentioned in the media was exactly that point made by the late, alleged, Boston Radio intellectual, David Brudnoy.

I'd read The Good Earth in high school and a number of short pieces. Until I read Lu Xun, years later, those were about the only literature written by someone with an intimate knowledge of China available to someone growing up in rural Maine. And unlike Lu Xun, her observations didn't have to pass through the second hand of a translator to get to an English speaker.

Perhaps due to my own superficiality, her work didn't interest me enough, then, so that I read more of it. And by the time that the dictates of the real, right way to thinking about her work caught up to me. Other things might have seemed more important at the time.

Reading this column in the paper yesterday, it might be a good idea to look at her work again.

Strangled baby girls strewn across fields and eaten by packs of dogs. Pots of human excrement breeding disease. Grotesquely deformed girls’ feet bound to ensure male dominance. Women crying in the night for their lost babies. A white-skinned family in a region of China the size of Texas. A devout Presbyterian inspired by God at the expense of his wife and children to save those millions of souls. A mother, heartbroken by the loss of child after child to disease, who still found the strength to save her remaining children’s lives by inviting for a formal tea starving farmers set upon killing her family.

That is how Tom Matlack, Buck's great-nephew begins to set the scene of her early life. Unlike many of the, mostly male, writers on foreign lands, which they generally observed as adults, Buck grew up in the world she wrote about. She spoke the language. But her writing about that world she knew intimately is given a low status that than truly superficial observations of other writers about "exotic" lands is. You don't grow up in a place and see it as exotic. By contrast, her near contemporary, Hemingway, is like a travel reporter.

The rest of the column notes that Buck's development was anything but conventional. Her earliest life developed at the intersection of the life of the Chinese peasants, her father's extreme Presbyterian-missionary self, and her mother - who must have been in the throes of almost unbelievable conflicts between those two entities, herself. And as she grew up, those must have both shaped and conflicted with her own childhood and adolescent issues.

It was a life that, in comparison, despite the legendary tales of their great, mostly male, adventures, makes her more reputable peers seem unqualified to write about their subjects. Maybe the success of those writers wasn't due to the depth of their knowledge and perceptions, or even just that most of them were male, but in the fact that they could mirror the conventional thoughts of Western reviewers, critics, professors of literature and a population acculturated to that conventional way of thinking. That Buck had her greatest success with the general public instead of the cultivated tradition must mean something.

How truly different and harrowing Buck's childhood must have been. Consider how you would remember having these experiences.

As a young girl Pearl was left to wander the hillside, a blue-eyed alien in a foreign land, which was all she knew. Where other children might have made mud pies, Pearl collected the dead bones of unwanted female babies and gave them a proper burial. She had a special stick she used to fend off the dogs. She was drawn to funerals of the wealthier farmers who could afford them. Overhearing her Chinese neighbors talk about how the missionaries ground up babies’ eyes to treat disease, as just a little girl squatting in the weeds she spoke the truth.

“Everything you say is lies,’’ she told them in their own tongue, causing women to scream with fear at having seen the foreign devil. In a way, the body of Pearl’s work was an attempt to make the world see a deeper truth of the bones buried just beneath the surface.

You've got to wonder why Buck isn't given more respect, especially for her work in woman's rights and civil rights, as well as on behalf of abandoned children. Looks more worth while than boozing it up with the literary lights and other famous people.