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Pearl Sydenstricker Buck
(June 26, 1892 - March 6, 1973)
Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born at her mother's family home on farmland at the foot of the mountains in Hillsboro, Pocahontas County, in southeastern West Virginia. Her parents, Absalom and Caroline Stulting Sydenstricker, were missionaries in China. Pearl was born while they were home on leave. Caroline lost three children in China, so Pearl's birth was a comfort to her family - hence her middle name.
The Sydenstricker family returned to China when Pearl was three months old, but the family home place in West Virginia was ever important. Pearl recalled her mother saying, "I lift my eyes unto the hills," when she was sad or unhappy. Her memories of home also eased her sorrows.
Growing up in China, Pearl was educated by her mother and a Chinese tutor. She was bilingual and began writing at an early age thanks to the insistence of her mother. She published her first work at the age of six in a children's edition of an English language newspaper in China.
The family traveled back to West Virginia in 1901. Pearl spent an idyllic summer on the beautiful Little Levels farm. She attended the third grade in Virginia, before spending August, 1902 again at the homeplace, and then traveling back to China with her family. This visit augmented and cemented the life-long love affair Pearl had first developed with her mother's house listening to Caroline's vivid descriptions of home.
She returned to the United States in 1910 and attended Randolph Macon Women's College in Virginia earning a Bachelor's in Philosophy. After graduation, she intended to teach at the college but returned to China to care for her mother who was ill. On this return, she met John Lossing Buck, an agricultural missionary for the American Presbyterian Mission.
They married in 1917. The Bucks lived in northern China for several years and it was during this time that Pearl witnessed the difficult lives of Chinese peasants. This would eventually be the basis for the Good Earth. Pearl and Lossing's daughter Carol was born in China in 1920. After her birth, Pearl finds that she will never be able to have more biological children. The Bucks return to America in 1924 and earn Master's degrees from Cornell.
Before they return to China, they adopt a baby girl, Janice. As their biological daughter Carol grew, Pearl noticed that she was not developing normally. Many doctors were consulted and eventually she was diagnosed with PKU a birth defect that leads to severe mental deterioration if not treated early. In 1929, Pearl makes the heart wrenching decision to place Carol in the Vineland Training School in New Jersey where she can receive the best care.
Pearl had published articles in magazines like the Nation and Atlantic Monthly in the 1920s. She wrote her first book, East Wind West Wind hoping to raise money to pay for Carol's school. Although rejected by many publishers, East Wind was published by Richard Walsh at the John Day publishing Company who saw promise in her writing. Her next book, The Good Earth was published in 1931. It was a best seller for almost two years. In 1932 Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for The Good Earth. It was made into a movie in 1937. In 1936, Buck published books about her parents, Fighting Angel about her father, and The Exile about her mother.
While her literary career was taking off, Pearls personal life was changing. The Bucks left China in 1934 after conditions there made life unsafe for Americans. She would never return. Her marriage with Lossing Buck basically ended in 1933. After their divorce in 1935, Pearl married her publisher, Richard Walsh. She purchased Green Hills Farm in Pennsylvania. Walsh and Buck eventually adopt 6 more children. She continued to write fiction and non-fiction.
In 1938, Pearl S. Buck is honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature for the Good Earth and for her biographies of her parents. She is still one of only two American women to do so - the other being Toni Morrison.
This is where the story stops for many people. But Buck's American life is just as fascinating. She spent the last half of her life writing, speaking out and working to make the world a better place. Through her writings and equally through her actions, Pearl S. Buck promoted peace, social justice and cultural understanding.
Continuing to foster understanding between Asia and the West, Buck and Walsh founded the East West Association. They also publish the magazine, Asia.
From the time of her return to the United States, Pearl is an outspoken advocate of women's rights and the civil rights movement. Her early experiences being a minority in China gave her a perspective that most people did not have.
Pearl was also a major advocate for children around the world. In 1949, she founded the Welcome House, the first American international adoption agency. She was dedicated to helping Asian and Amerasian children that were considered unadoptable. Welcome House placed over 7000 children in homes. In 1964 she created the Pearl Buck Foundation to help impoverished children in their own countries.
In 1950, Buck wrote The Child Who Never Grew about her experiences with her daughter Carol. The book was a first in that mental retardation was discussed openly. It influenced the way people thought about mental illness.
Throughout the 1960s, Buck had the ear of the highest levels of our government and media.
She was a prolific writer and published hundreds of novels, short stories, children's books, articles, essays, and plays. Her literary manuscripts were deeded to the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation in 1970 and came to West Virginia in 1974. They were placed at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon at that time.
Richard Walsh, Buck's husband of 25 years, died in 1960 from a stroke. Buck died from lung cancer in 1973 in Danby, Vermont.
Pearl S. Buck International carries on her charitable work for children and cultural understanding. Green Hills Farm is on the National Register of Historic Places and operates as a museum. Buck's literary manuscripts moved to the West Virginia and Regional History Center in 2014 as part of a partnership with the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation and West Virginia Wesleyan College.