Thursday, January 6, 2011

An Interview with Hilary Spurling on Pearl Buck

Randall Stephens

The January issue of Historically Speaking will soon be up on the Project Muse site. In the meantime, here's a selection from my interview with Hilary Spurling, which appears in the issue.

In 1932 Pearl S. Buck, daughter of American missionaries in China, won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Good Earth (John Day, 1931). Set in rural China, the book chronicles the struggles of a peasant and his slave-wife. In 1937 the novel was adapted into a Hollywood film. One year later Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The British biographer Hilary Spurling—Ivy: The Life of I. Compton-Burnett (Knopf, 1984); The Girl from the Fiction Department: A Portrait of Sonia Orwell (Counterpoint, 2004); Matisse the Master: A Life of Henri Matisse: The Conquest of Colour, 1909-1954 (Knopf, 2007), winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award and the Los Angeles Times Biography prize—takes up Buck’s story in Pearl Buck in China: Journey to The Good Earth (Simon & Schuster, 2010). Focusing on Buck’s first four decades, Spurling stresses the American author’s intimate familiarity with China. Historically Speaking editor Randall Stephens recently spoke to Spurling about her study of Buck.

Randall Stephens: Why has Pearl Buck’s reputation suffered in recent years?

Hilary Spurling: She had many critics in her own day, too. Her success was so sudden and so enormous, and she was a complete outsider. She was a nobody. She had no contacts, no backup and no track record. When The Good Earth was published at the beginning of the 1930s by a publisher about to go bankrupt, it immediately became not just an American best seller but a global best seller. She won a Pulitzer Prize right away, and a few years later she won the Nobel Prize. Literary critics said, what is The Good Earth? An agricultural history of China? They couldn’t make heads or tails of it.

She had lived in China all her life. Buck never felt at home in America, in the 1930s or afterward. Brought up in China, she spoke Chinese fluently and her childhood friends were Chinese. When she was young, she didn’t know any other Westerners. She imagined she would spend her whole life in China.

When she lived in the United States, Buck was alienated by American politics. She knew and loved China so well that she became in a certain sense an apologist for China, trying to explain China to the West. As America moved sharply to the right in the 1950s, Buck was branded as a communist sympathizer. In communist China, however, she was a public enemy, and her books were forbidden. People were punished and humiliated if they’d even heard of her, let alone met her. She got flack from all sides throughout the second half of her life.

I wrote the biography partly because I wanted to write about China. I wanted to explore China and how it reached the state it is in now. In addition, I think that Pearl Buck is one of the great Americans of the 20th century, and I hope that Americans might look at her again and recognize her achievements as quite extraordinary.

Stephens: How would you sum up her relevance today?

Spurling: Think of how Western attitudes toward China have changed in the last four or five years. When I wrote the proposal for this book four years ago, publishers both in American and in England weren’t very interested. They saw no trace of the shock and awe I think we all feel now on both sides of the Atlantic about China. We understand now that China is a very large part of the future for all of us. And I think it no exaggeration to say that Buck was initially responsible for the West’s change in outlook. Nobody since Marco Polo in the 13th century has opened up the East to the West as much as Buck did. We can see the seeds of our attitudes toward China now in what she wrote so long ago. She was the first to foresee China’s future as a superpower. She was a young woman then. It’s extraordinary to see that as early as 1925 she understood that China would become the leader of Asia and that America needed to cultivate its relationship with China.

Stephens: Has she been reassessed in China today?

Spurling: Yes, she is being reassessed again on quite a large scale. In my lifetime she was officially regarded as a public enemy of the whole Chinese nation. Schoolchildren were told to denounce her. One of them was the Chinese novelist Anchee Min, who told me that as a student she was chosen to denounce Pearl Buck. She asked her teachers if she could read The Good Earth because she said it would give her more grounds. They said no Chinese citizen could read it because it was too toxic.

I finished my book last November, and that very month Buck was named on Chinese state radio—which of course is an official voice of the Chinese state—as one of the top ten international friends of China. I see that as a measure of the rate at which China and China’s opinions are changing. People now want to read Buck. The Good Earth was her farewell to China, the last thing she wrote before she left that country for good. No one else in the West was in a position to write such a book, and no Chinese person either. The Chinese writers who were Pearl’s contemporaries—young intellectuals, many of whom she knew and whose battles she fought—shaped and trained her far more than any American writers would. But the last thing such Chinese writers wanted to do was write about the village life they had struggled so hard to escape from. Roughly 85% of Chinese people were illiterate peasants. Chinese intellectuals at the time yearned to go to Beijing or Shanghai and to write about Eugene O’Neill.


Lisa Clark Diller said...

One of my friends is doing research on the foreign policy influence of American missionaries to China. He argues that missionaries and their children were virtually the only source of information of any weight at all before World War II. They spoke the languages and they wrote voluminously--mostly in thousands of newsletters that went to churches all over the U.S. Most of what Americans knew about China, they knew from missionaries. I'd never thought about this before, and it seems to dovetail nicely with the theme of this interview/biography. Kris Erskine, my friend doing the research, says almost no one has studied the missionary writing in this way. Perhaps Spurling's biography will provoke more work like this--though not before Kris is done with his dissertation and has a good publisher himself, I hope.

Randall said...

There are some great sessions here at the AHA/ASCH on missions and western-nonwestern history.

That's an interesting point about on-the-ground intelligence.