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Pearl Sydenstricker Buck was born in Hillsboro, West Virginia, in 1892, “but fate, in the shape of two missionary parents,” she wrote, “intervened before I was able to protect myself.” When Buck was three months old, her parents, Southern Presbyterian missionaries, returned to China, where they had spent much of the previous decade, and brought Buck with them in a basket. “I have a big brother in college who is coming to China to help our father tell the Chinese about Jesus,” a six-year-old Buck wrote the Louisville-based Christian Observer from their home in Chinkiang. “I wrote this all myself, and my hand is tired, so goodbye.”
In 1911, Buck attended college in the United States, and then returned to China, in 1917, as a professor and Presbyterian missionary. She and her husband, John Lossing Buck, were in Nanking during the 1927 Nanking Incident, and remained there until 1933, when she went to Cornell to study for a master’s degree. During these years, she broke with traditional missionary doctrine, and described William Ernest Hocking’s 1932 report on American missionary work, Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years, which argued against proselytizing an exclusively Christian theology, as “the only book I have ever read that seems to me literally true.”
Buck’s novel, The Good Earth (1931), received the Pulitzer Prize. In 1933, Harper’s published a lecture delivered by Buck in November 1932 to a Presbyterian audience at the Astor Hotel. The answer to the article’s titular question, “Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?,” is a qualified yes: “I have seen missionaries, orthodox missionaries in good standing with the church—abominable phrase!—so lacking in sympathy for the people they were supposed to be saving,” Buck wrote, “so scornful of any civilization except their own, so harsh in their judgments upon one another, so coarse and insensitive among a sensitive and cultivated people that my heart has fairly bled to shame.”
Among her more than eighty other works of fiction and nonfiction, Buck wrote a biography of her father, Fighting Angel (1936), and of her mother, The Exile (1936). In 1937, she garnered a place on J. Edgar Hoover’s “Book Review Section,” devoted to writers deemed subversive by the FBI, joining the company of James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos, and William Dean Howells, among other regular Harper’s contributors. She won the Nobel Prize in Literature the following year.
Buck, who opposed communist rule in China, asked both the U.S. and Chinese governments if she could join Richard Nixon on his February 1972 visit. “Dear Miss Pearl Buck,” a Chinese envoy replied. “In view of the fact that for a long time you have in your works taken an attitude of distortion, smear and vilification towards the people of new China and its leaders, I am authorized to inform you that we cannot accept your request.” She died on March 6, 1973 in Vermont. Nixon eulogized her as a “bridge between the civilizations of the East and West”; her tombstone, as per her request, bears her name only in Chinese characters.
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“All I saw,” said a 12-year-old neighbor of visits to the man’s house, “was just cats in little diapers.”
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”
© 2014 Harper’s Magazine. Banner: Detail from a photographs of paintings on the rock walls of the Chauvet Cave, near Vallon-Pont-d’Arc, France
© AFP Photo / Jeff Pachoud. This image accompanied “The Replacements,” a review by David Quammen, in the September 2014 issue of Harper‘s.