Isabel Hilton celebrates the life of an extraordinary American writer who outlasted all her critics

She wrote 39 novels, eight books of short stories, 16 children’s and 25 non-fiction books, including separate biographies of each parent and scores of magazine articles. Spurred to write by the need to support her disabled daughter, she became a millionaire bestselling author, scoring Book of the Month Club 15 times, winning both the Pulitzer prize and, in 1938, the Nobel prize for literature (the first American woman to do so). She also translated the works of essayist and polemicist Lu Xun, China’s leading 20th-century writer, and one of China’s best loved 17th-century novels, The Water Margin (All Men Are Brothers).

She brought up seven adopted children and her own daughter, founded societies and foundations to help others, argued against racism and in favour of women’s independence and self-determination and, after two husbands, lived her last years in the company of a fortune-hunting dance teacher many years her junior. The mystery is that, after such a life, Pearl Buck should have been forgotten at all, let alone forgotten for several decades.

Hilary Spurling has written an elegant and sympathetic portrait of one of the most extraordinary Americans of the 20th century. Buck was born in the US in 1892, the fifth child of a missionary couple who had already lost two daughters and a son to disease in China. She grew up speaking the Chinese of the kitchen and the village, surprised as a child to be regarded as in any way different by her Chinese playmates and their families. She survived the famine and wars that ravaged China in the 1930s, finding her refuge in compulsive reading. She re-read Dickens every year and devoured popular Chinese stories with an enthusiasm that never left her.

She showed signs as a young adult of tending towards a more docile life: an early marriage to a farmer’s son who was bent on an agricultural mission to China suggested that she might follow in the footsteps of her missionary parents, though by then their personal and professional failings were all too plain. As her own marriage deteriorated, Buck took refuge first in teaching, then in writing travel articles. The acceptance for publication of these early efforts gave her the confidence to continue.

The publication in 1931 of her novel The Good Earth caused a sensation. It was to transform her life, her financial position and the American readers’ perception of China. It brought her huge success, but nothing really brought her a sense of belonging.Looked down on by both the literary elite and the scholarly sinologists, Buck was fated to live between many worlds, at odds with all but the one she herself created and peopled with her legions of fictional characters. China, where she had grown up and which had shaped both her emotional and her literary self, rejected her. Its literati sneered at her evocation of the lives of the poor, not circles into which many Chinese writers strayed. The Communist party, which might, perhaps, have shown more sympathy for the subject matter, despised her for treating Chinese peasants as individuals rather than a suffering class. Both sides agreed that writing about China should be left to the Chinese.

She was between worlds, too, in her American life: she first got to grips with the US as a teenager, when her heroically determined mother managed, against her father’s objections, to send her there to complete her education. But she was too Chinese to fit in.

Back in China, expatriate and colonial society was shocked by her familiarity with the lower rungs of Chinese society. As the daughter of a fanatical missionary father and his suffering wife, she grew up with a fierce attachment to justice and a profound respect for a people she felt she understood far better than her parents. Finally, though, she developed a contempt for western missionaries.

Shocked missionary circles reciprocated when she left her husband, married her freshly divorced publisher and wrote vigorous scenes of marital rape into her novels. Her articulate and vocal criticisms of the China mission earned her some furious denunciations as an unbeliever.

When war in China and the needs of her daughter forced Buck to return to the US, the door slammed behind her and she never returned. In 1960 she was denounced as a US imperialist, and in 1972 Zhou Enlai personally refused her a visa to visit the country in which she had spent half her life. While her work was banned in communist China, in the United States the FBI had her under surveillance for suspected communist sympathies.

It is impossible not to think, reading this illuminating and compelling biography, that Pearl Buck had the last laugh. Her prodigious output was, at best, uneven, but the ideological certainties that fuelled Chinese contempt for the impassioned realism of her fiction have crumbled away. The immense service that she did in presenting Chinese people as sentient human beings, individuals even, to the American reading public was to be the most important assault on the racism that had informed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Eventually, Buck was to succeed in forcing the repeal of that discriminatory law.

Visitors who called on Buck towards the end of her life were struck by the degree to which she had come to resemble the Qing dynasty’s most famous empress dowager, Zi Xi. Today, her mission to build bridges and create understanding between the US and China seems both far-sighted and enduring. In Zhenjiang, on the Yangtze River, Pearl Buck’s childhood home where once the mob would hurl threats and insults at her, there is now a museum in her honour. In her other home, Oprah Winfrey selected The Good Earth for her book club in 2004. She outlasted her critics, and this incisive account of her character and life explains many of the reasons why.

Isabel Hilton’s The Search for the Panchen Lama is published by Penguin. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds