05 January 2018

The courage of Pearl

Pearl Sydenstricker Buck

It was the beginning of tenth grade; I was a sophomore at James Madison West High School. Though I had had my suspicions far earlier that there was more to the confluence of radical and conservative politics than I had previously imagined, taking Mr Dreckschmidt’s elective European history class that year went some way toward confirming them. But that was only a small part of my year. I developed an unrequited (as far as I know) crush on a lovely Latina girl named Jasmine who was in the freshman class that year and with whom I shared a gym class. I always have been a bit of a sucker for brown-eyed brunettes in tank tops. I also enrolled in an area studies course because my best friend Eamonn was also taking it. That class happened to be Mr Mjaanes’ course on China, and one of the required readings in that course, one of the five books that materially changed my life, was The Good Earth by Pearl Sydenstricker Buck.

I knew exactly two things about Ms Buck before I read her novel. Firstly, that she was a missionary’s daughter and had spent much of her early life in China. Secondly, that in her old age she had apparently become something of an ill-tempered contrarian – for reasons which were wholly justified. This intelligence was provided me, through my parents, by one of her elderly neighbours in Ithaca, New York. By the time I finished The Good Earth, I knew a third thing: the woman could write a truly fine story. The hook had been baited. The struggles, triumphs, weaknesses and failures of Wang Lung, Buck’s fictional farmer from Anhui Province, were what truly made me a Sinophile – well before Robert Hans van Gulik’s Judge Dee confirmed it.

To tell the truth, I am learning quite a bit more about Ms Buck now, as I’m reading her extended interview with the left-wing mass education activist and rural reconstruction advocate YC James Yen, Tell the People. The people that she wrote about in The Good Earth: the rural poor, and particularly the girls and women she knew among them – among these people were where her heart truly lay, and that fact becomes quite readily apparent in her discussion with Dr Yen. Her later advocacy, on behalf of black and Asian civil rights in America and on behalf of women’s suffrage and œconomic rights, follows naturally from that.

I had not an inkling, though, that Ms Buck was, in addition to all of this, an advocate for the unborn during the late 1960’s. Apparently this was the case, though – and I’m glad I did the research. In 1968 she wrote a foreword to a volume by Robert Cooke entitled ‘Every life is a gift’, within which she made this remarkable statement:
I fear the power of choice over life or death at human hands, I see no human being whom I could ever trust with such power—not myself, not any other. Human wisdom, human integrity are not great enough. Since the fetus is a creature already alive and in the process of development, to kill it is to choose death over life. At what point shall we allow this choice? For me the answer is—at no point, once life has begun.
The humane sensibility which Ms Buck brought to her writing was deeply informed, thoroughly conscientious, and permeated every aspect of her public life. There was no disconnect between her membership in the National Urban League, her rôle as founder of the East and West Association, her long fight for the acceptance of interracial relationships and adoption, and her defence of children born with severe developmental problems and disabilities. Sadly, the modern-day pro-life movement, governed as it is by a suspicion (to put it mildly) of anything smacking of leftism, would likely disown her for many of these stances. In her own day, she spoke out against war, imperialism and the bomb; and she denounced Winston Churchill for his Russophobia. In so doing she incurred the enmity and suspicion of the FBI for suspected communist sympathies – a notable irony, given her infamy among communists across the ocean. The same sympathies for the ordinary Russian worker that allowed her to speak against Churchill were, after all, exercised also on behalf of the victims of the Cultural Revolution. In this, she was remarkably similar to Fei Xiaotong, to Liang Shuming, and indeed to Dr Yen himself – and she felt the pain of her similarly-courageous stand, particularly when thwarted by the government in seeking the right to visit China again in the wake of Nixon’s visit.

I read and appreciated The Good Earth long ago in a youth which seems far away now. It seems a strange thing to come across her work in Tell the People yet again, now that I’m twice the age I was when I first read her better-known novel. But it’s a respect which deepens further on acquaintance.

No comments:

Post a Comment