Pearl S. Buck was born in 1892 in Hillsboro, West Virginia, to Absalom and Carie Sydenstricker, two Christian missionaries. When Buck was three months old, her parents took her with them on a mission to China, where they spent most of the next forty years. Buck grew up playing with Chinese children, who referred to her as a “foreign devil.” Although contempt of the Chinese was common among the families of Western Christian missionaries, Buck never developed that sense of superiority. Since Buck grew up in China, she was able to objectively recognize the absurdities of missionary work. Buck’s objectivity is evident in her portrayal of Western missionaries in The Good Earth.
Buck returned to the United States to attend Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia, where she did well academically and achieved some measure of popularity. However, the country of her birth was largely unfamiliar to her, and she felt like a foreigner. After graduating, she returned to China to take care of her ailing mother. In 1917, she married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist and graduate of Cornell. Her first and only biological child, Carol, was born in 1921. Due to a uterine tumor discovered during the delivery, Buck had to undergo a hysterectomy. Soon after, Buck discovered that her daughter was severely retarded. Almost at the same time, Buck’s mother died after a long illness. These misfortunes placed a great deal of strain on Buck’s marriage. She divorced her husband in 1935 and married a man named Richard J. Walsh later the same year.
In 1931, Buck published The Good Earth, her second and best-known book. The novel, a complex moral parable that draws heavily on Buck’s firsthand knowledge of Chinese culture, quickly gained an international reputation and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. Over the next few years, Buck wrote two sequels, Sons and A House Divided, but neither was as popular as The Good Earth. Buck also wrote biographies of her parents. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, mainly in recognition of these biographies and The Good Earth.
Throughout her life, Buck devoted herself to humanitarian causes. She fought constantly on behalf of women’s rights. With her husband, Richard Walsh, she founded an adoption agency for children of mixed Asian and American parentage. These children were often outcasts in Asian countries because of their mixed blood and because they were often the out-of-wedlock offspring of American servicemen. Buck also took an active interest in issues as diverse as the lives of immigrants in New York City and the independence movement in India. In addition to these various causes, she was a staunch supporter of free speech and civil liberties. Buck died in 1973 after a long and active life as an activist, a humanitarian, and a writer.