Just Who Was Pearl S. Buck?
In part one of this 2 part series about the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace we talked with Tour Guide Laura Dean Bennett about the Birthplace house itself, a historical treasure listed on the National Historic Registry. Now, although many of you may have some idea of who Pearl Buck was – the author of “The Good Earth”, a Pulitzer winning novel, there were a lot more accomplishments to her life than that.
Laura Bennett gives us a quick overview.
“She had so many different incarnations in her life” Laura says. “She grew up the child of missionaries in China. She was the wife of a missionary in China. She then became a struggling novelist. She was a teacher. She was a wife and a mother. She adopted 10 children. She was a public speaker and she wrote plays. She championed many good causes in her lifetime. She was an artist –she was a fine artist and a sculptor besides being an author. She had so many different lives.
Laura goes on about Pearl.
“Pearl Buck is one of America’s preeminent authors” Laura says. “She was born in 1892 here in Pocahontas County, in this house in Hillsboro. She was the first woman author to win both the Pulitzer Prize –which she won in 1932- and the Nobel Prize, which she won in 1938. She won the Pulitzer Prize in Literature for The Good Earth- which was not her first novel, but it was her first novel obviously to gain international attention. And then she won the Nobel for Literature for her humanitarian depiction of Chinese characters.”
Laura points out that Pearl was quite the pop culture superstar of her day.
“She was extremely famous in her day” Laura says. “She was honored, and celebrated and fettered and very popular for her speeches. Everyone wanted her to come and speak to their group. She was very much in demand, especially in New York City. Every organization in the world would want her to come and speak to their group. She was a little fussy about who she would speak to though.”
Pearl was both very opinionated and very much ahead of her time, as Laura explains.
“Pearl had her ideas about things” Laura says. “If you didn’t want her opinion, you mustn’t have asked her because she would give it to you. And she kind of got in hot water for that. She was a Feminist before there were Feminists; she was an Environmentalist before that was a thing. She was interested in the cause of Special Needs Children because she had one of her own. And she became friends with the Kennedy family on that account. She was the most celebrated woman of her time. She was a contemporary of Ernest Hemmingway and she was every bit as famous as he was. “
She was a role model for young girls.
“She was an example to any girl growing up anywhere, but especially to our girls here in Pocahontas County” Laura says. “Someone asked her once if she thought of herself as a liberated woman, and she laughed and said ‘I was liberated when I was born, My parents told me I could do anything I would ever want to do and I believed them, so I did.’”
Pearl didn’t spend a lot of time at her birth home –which was her grandfather’s home. Her mother wanted her to be born here so they took a leave from the missionary to come here, but she was back in China several months later. She returned for a while when she was 9 years old and came to love the house. She returned some when she was in her 30’s and attending Randolph Macon college, but returned to China when her mother got sick there.
Pearl came to envision her Pocahontas County home as a safe haven from the dangers she faced in China, as Laura Explains.
“One of the seminal moments in Pearl’s life, she said, was when they were hiding from protesters, demonstrators and revolutionaries running down the streets and looting White people’s homes. They killed a University President who was a neighbor and friend of theirs, and they ended up hiding in the basement of a neighbor’s house for days and days until that unrest was over. But she loved China and the Chinese people. But she always thought of Pocahontas County, West Virginia as the epitome of a beautiful safe haven.“
I asked Laura if she senses Pearl in the house.
“When I come in this house every day, when I unlock the front door I always say ‘Hello house’’ said Laura. And the house answers me back -I swear it does. It sighs or it does something. I feel the house is welcoming me back in. I am never scared to be here by myself- I never have any of that. But I feel like the house is watching me take good care of it. And I do feel a sense of responsibility to Pearl and to her family.”