Writer and Humanitarian
By Marylou Morano KjellePulitzer
Prize Winner and humanitarian Pearl Buck was born in West Virginia in June 1892. Pearl spent her childhood and young adult years in China, with her Presbyterian missionary parents, Absolom and Caroline Sydenstricker. Pearl often remarked that she felt more Chinese than American. Because of this, Pearl is often referred to as a woman of two worlds.
Even as a child, Pearl was a great observer of the Chinese people. Each day, after lessons, she would explore the city of Chinkiang, where she lived. When the 1900 Boxer Rebellion threatened their safety, the Sydenstricker family fled for their lives to Shanghai.
Pearl was moved by the plight of the Chinese people, many of whom were poor and uneducated. Her childhood observations were used later in life to write a book about the Chinese people called “The Good Earth”, which won Pearl the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.
Pearl was sent to America to attend Randolph Macon Women’s College in Virginia. It was her hope to remain in America. However in 1914, she returned to China to care for her ill mother. In 1917, while teaching in a missionary school, Pearl met and married John Buck, a professor of Agriculture. They had one daughter, Carol, who was mentally retarded. The Buck’s marriage was an unhappy one and in 1935 Pearl and John Buck divorced. Pearl had several years before returned to America with an adopted daughter, Janice, and had purchased a stone farmhouse in Bucks County Pa. Carol had been living in the United States, in a home for retarded children in Vineland New Jersey, since 1929.
While still in China, Pearl began making a name for herself by writing stories about the Chinese way of life as seen through their eyes. In later years, as a world traveler, she used her writing to draw attention to the needs of others. Wherever she went, she sought the poor and oppressed and worked to show them a better way of life. In America, she fought for civil rights of African Americans and an end to racial prejudice.
Pearl devoted herself to the needs of children, especially handicapped and abandoned children. She was concerned about the unwanted orphaned children living in Asia. She formed an adoption agency called Welcome House to find homes in America for these children Pearl and her second husband, Richard Walsh eventually adopted 9 children.
Pearl was also concerned about Asia’s racially mixed children who could not be adopted. In many cases these children were considered outcasts and neglected by the families they were born into. In the late 1950’s, she founded the Pearl S. Buck Foundation using the money she made from writing, real-estate transactions and royalties from books and movies. The agency was created to support, educate and occupationally train racially mixed children born in Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan and Viet Nam.
Until her death in March 1973, Pearl was considered an expert on Asian affairs. Her knowledge was shared with many heads of state during World War II. President Nixon sought her council during his years in office.
Pearl Buck died at the age of 80. She wrote and worked almost until her last day. She showed us by her life and writings that every person, regardless of the country of birth or segment of society born into, deserves dignity and respect. It is a message all of us need to remember.
Marylou Morano Kjelle is a freelance writer who lives and works in Central New Jersey. She is the author of a book for children living in single parent homes titled “Sometimes I Wish My Mom Was Two People” and is writing a biography of Pearl Buck for young readers called Pearl Buck: Humanitarian Writer.