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Pearl S. Buck

At three months old, Pearl S. Buck was taken in a basket from West Virginia to China by her missionary parents. “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 Zhenjiang. “I wrote this all myself, and my hand is tired, so goodbye.”

Buck left China to attend college in the United States; returned several years later to work as a professor and Presbyterian missionary; lived in Nanjing through the 1927 Nanjing Incident; returned briefly to the United States in 1924 to earn a master’s degree at Cornell; received the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Good Earth in 1932; and left China in 1934. She broke with traditional missionary doctrine during these years, and would later describe William Ernest Hocking’s 1932 critique of American missionary work, Re-Thinking Missions: A Laymen’s Inquiry After One Hundred Years, as “the only book I have ever read that seems to me literally true.” In 1933 Harper’s Magazine published a lecture delivered by Buck the previous November 1932, which it titled “Is There a Case for Foreign Missions?” Her answer 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 non-fiction, Buck wrote a biography of her father, Fighting Angel (1936), and of her mother, The Exile (1936). In 1937, she garnered a place in the FBI’s Book Review Section, devoted to writers deemed subversive by the FBI, where she joined the company of James Baldwin, William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, John Dos Passos, and William Dean Howells, among other regular Harper’s contributors. The following year she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and J. Edgar Hoover wrote her a fan letter about her Cosmopolitan story “Ransom.” “As I read the story of the young people and their children I again lived the horrors of kidnap[p]ing as I have on innumerable occasions in the past,” he wrote. “I should be very glad indeed to arrange for you to take a special tour of inspection of the facilities of the FBI.”

Buck had hoped to return to China with President Richard Nixon in 1972, though her criticism of the Communist Party had by then made her a persona non grata in the country. She was denied the visa and died the following year in the United States; her tombstone, per her request, bears her name only in Chinese characters. “The first piece of advice I shall give a novelist about to be born is to take the greatest care about where he is born,” she said nearly forty years earlier in a lecture called “Advice to Unborn Novelists.” “Being taken out of my own country in a market basket was the greatest mistake of my life.”