I love people. I love my family, my children. But inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that’s where you renew your springs that never dry up.
Pearl S. Buck
There are several painted portraits of Pearl S. Buck in the Bucks County fieldstone farmhouse where she lived for 40 years. The most striking one hangs over her living room mantel, an oil done by Freeman Elliott when Buck was 72.
In the painting, Buck is quite startlingly beautiful, her snow white hair up in a sweep while the neckline of her black dress takes a deep plunge. She smiles directly at us, leaning her head on one hand and waiting to be amused.
When Pearl Buck died in 1973, at age 80, she was one of America’s most illustrious citizens. A prolific, best-selling author for four decades, she was also renowned for her commitment to cultural diversity and humanitarian work. But although many of the aid programs she founded still continue — the adoption arm of Pearl S. Buck International Inc. still places 100 children every year — Buck is now largely forgotten as an author. Although cited in the 1960s as the most frequently translated American author (Hemingway at the time was No. 2), she has since fallen off not only junior high reading lists but just about all critical appraisals of 20th-century American writers.
Her home in Hilltop Township, at least, endures, open for tours as well as for social and corporate events. It is an imposing but comfortable house with green shutters and ivory trim, nestled at the top of a gently sloping, landscaped hill. Known as Green Hills Farm, the house, along with several out-buildings and 60 protected acres, has been stewarded by Buck’s philanthropic foundation since her death.
That organization reached a crossroads last year: Facing a $1.74 million deficit, board members considered spinning off the house, which was designated a national landmark in 1981 but costs more than $250,000 a year to maintain.
Selling the house to the Heritage Conservancy, a Bucks County preservationist nonprofit, was one option. But ultimately, the board decided that only Buck’s own organization had the commitment to preserve her home. Expanding its grants for operating capital, the foundation hired its first professional site director, Andree Miller, who points out how unique the house is.
"There are fewer than 2,500 national landmarks in the country," says Miller, who is 37 and has a master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. "Of those, maybe 100 tell the story of a woman — while only 10 sites in the country tell the story of a woman through an intact collection."
By "collection," Miller means Buck’s furnishings and effects, with the shelves of her two libraries still lined with the books she owned and read. Her collection contains all the elements of a rich and diverse life, including her long tenure in China, where she lived for most of her first 40 years.
A Chinese ornamental iron sits above a Franklin stove in Buck’s kitchen. There is a calligraphy stone in the living room, as well as a screen decorated with mother of pearl, while a statue of Guanyin, a Chinese goddess of mercy, presides over several rooms of the house, including Buck’s office.
Buck had two greenhouses built onto her office, devoting one entirely to camellias (the towering bushes are still here). The flower — a native of China — was her favorite, and she kept them throughout the house, floating in water. She is buried down the hill from her house, her grave near a bend in a stream surrounded by hosta and bamboo. She had her name carved on her tombstone, not in English lettering, but in Chinese characters.
The house also retains many remnants of the 1835 farmhouse that Buck expanded: narrow staircases, low beamed ceilings, vast stone hearths, a well-scarred farmer’s table in the kitchen. But there is ample evidence of her wealth as well, the result of her bestselling career.
The living room still sports the farmhouse’s original double Dutch door — but Buck knocked down the walls of four rooms to make the large living room space, dominated at one end by the Elliott portrait and at the other by her custom-designed Art Deco Steinway piano.
There are lovely antiques throughout the house, including a grandfather clock once owned by Philadelphia’s Chew family in the dining room. Every Christmas, the house is decorated for the holidays — a tradition started 25 years ago when Good Housekeeping magazine first had the home decorated for its Christmas issue.
Many renovations heightened the home’s elegance, including a fieldstone terrace built between the farmhouse and a one-room Revolutionary War-era building that once served as a summer kitchen. (It became the core for Buck’s office.) Landscaped with beds of iris and azalea, the terrace is bordered on one side by a covered stone walkway connecting the two buildings. Several doors on both sides of the walkway open out to the terrace on one side and to an expanse of lawn on the other.
There is also ample evidence of Buck’s emotional life: a doll made by her daughter Carol stands on an end table beside the rope bed in the master bedroom; the captain’s bench from the office of her New York publisher where she met her second husband; her mother’s sewing table; and her sister’s red glass compote dishes. One of her libraries still contains the seven-volume set of Charles Dickens that her missionary father wouldn’t let her read, but which her mother kept hidden in an attic so that Buck could secretly visit.
And there are distinct reminders of Buck’s renown. A gold Nobel Prize medal sits in her awards room — formerly her sons’ bedroom — along with a photograph of Buck sitting with John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, and Robert Frost. The room contains the hoods she earned with more than a dozen honorary degrees, as well as keys to cities she received.
There’s also ample evidence of Buck’s artistry: Her office contains three busts she made of her children, while a narrow staircase leads to a loft where she did her sculpting. And there are many reminders of the literary life that made it all possible: oil paintings that were illustrations for her children’s books and foreign editions of her novels on her library shelves. Her manual Royal typewriter still on the desk in her office.
In a mood of faith and hope my work goes on. A ream of fresh paper lies on my desk waiting for the next book.
Diversity was built in Buck’s life from birth. Born in West Virginia in 1892, she was the daughter of Absalom and Caroline Sydenstricker, Presbyterian missionaries who returned to China with her when she was still an infant. She stayed in China until she was 18, speaking Chinese before she learned English.
She came back to the U.S. to attend Virginia’s Randolph-Macon Women’s College, but returned to China after graduating to care for her sick mother. There she met an agricultural economist named John Buck whom she married and eventually moved with to Nanking, where she taught university-level English. (They both spent a year at Cornell University, where Pearl earned a master’s degree in English.) As a girl, she and her family had fled the Boxer Rebellion, while she and her husband experienced unrest in Nanking during the 1920s.
The unhappy Buck marriage produced one daughter: Carol, who was profoundly retarded. Bringing her daughter to the U.S. to be institutionalized, Buck — who returned to China — stopped teaching and began writing full time to pay for her daughter’s care.
She had already sold several articles about China to American magazines in the 1920s, but now turned to writing novels. Her first — "East Wind, West Wind" — was published by John Day and Company in 1930. Her second, "The Good Earth," a saga of a Chinese peasant family published in 1931, struck gold, winning the Pulitzer Prize the following year and spending two years on bestseller lists. The novel’s success made it possible for Buck to buy Green Hills Farm for $4,100 in 1934, choosing Bucks County to be near where Carol was being cared for in Vineland, New Jersey. The novel also brought her together with John Day president Richard Walsh, whom she married in 1935 after divorcing her first husband.
Two more novels followed in the "House of Earth" trilogy, tracing the fortunes of "The Good Earth" family, as well as biographies of Buck’s mother and father. She was surprised and heartened to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, the first American woman author to receive the award. (Princeton resident and professor Toni Morrison is only the second American woman author to win it.)
Buck continued writing until her death, publishing more than 70 books as well as children’s literature, essays, and articles. Her husband actually worried that she might get over-exposed by publishing more than one novel a year and suggested she write some under a pseudonym — which she did.
Her writing financed her humanitarian work that began in the 1940s. Buck first sponsored a cultural exchange of Asian entertainers and lecturers coming to the U.S. — a program that floundered a decade later during the height of McCarthyism. According to one biographer, her FBI file under J. Edgar Hoover ran close to 300 pages
In 1949 fellow artists and Bucks County residents Oscar Hammerstein and James Michener helped her establish Welcome House, the first adoption agency to place Asian, Amerasian, and other children of mixed race. (Welcome House has since helped place more than 5,000 children in American homes.) Buck and Walsh adopted seven children of their own, raising them at Green Hills and in an apartment in New York. Her oldest adopted daughter, Janice Walsh, still lives close by, a board member who helped design and maintain the site’s gardens.
Buck’s forthrightness about Carol’s retardation — which she wrote about in the 1950 "A Child Who Never Grew" — helped spark a national dialogue on mental health, while Buck was also an early supporter of women’s issues such as birth control and of civil rights.
In 1964 she established the Pearl S. Buck Foundation, which has since provided educational, health care, and family planning resources to 25,000 women and children in Vietnam, Thailand, Korea, and the Philippines. (Welcome House and the Foundation merged in 1991, and were later renamed Pearl S. Buck International Inc.) International’s work still continues, headquartered on the grounds of the Pearl S. Buck House.
The only one of Buck’s many endeavors that does not continue to get a lot of play — at least in this country — is her recognition as an author. But according to biographer Peter Conn, an English professor at the University of Pennsylvania, her novels continue to be read around the world and are considered important historical records in China. (Conn’s 1996 "Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography" was a National Book Critics Circle award finalist.)
In the preface to his biography, Conn writes that Buck’s novels "broke new ground," particularly in their depictions of Asian women — an influence since credited by Maxine Hong Kingston, the author of the memoir "The Woman Warrior," about growing up as a Chinese-American. Part of the reason why Buck is now ignored, Conn writes, is that many critics who helped define the American canon had no use for a popular woman author who focused on family and women’s issues.
A former director of the International board, Conn writes that "some reconsideration" of Buck as an author "is past due" — the type of revisiting, he points out, that has helped revive interest in other temporarily forgotten American authors such as John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, and Zora Neale Hurston.
In the meantime, land endures — the life lesson clung to by Wang Lung, Buck’s struggling, careless protagonist of "The Good Earth." While her novels may sit unread in public libraries, shoe-horned in between Art Buchwald and Christopher Buckley, Buck’s home is still a gracious reminder of a passionate, committed life.
The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible — and achieve it, generation after generation.
Pearl S. Buck House, 520 Dublin Road, Hilltown, Pennsylvania, 215-249-0100. www.pearlsbuck.org.