Buck learned Chinese and English, and had her first work published at six years of age in the English-language Shanghai Mercury, a newspaper with a weekly children’s edition.
Buck’s writing style was a cross-cultural mix influenced by Charles Dickens and by a Confucian scholar who tutored Pearl in Confucianism, Chinese history, and Chinese writing and reading. Buck’s mother made it a point to expose young Pearl to as much American culture as possible to lessen any potential culture shock upon their return to the United States—she cooked American meals and celebrated all American holidays in their home.
Buck came back to America in 1910 to attend Randolph-Macon Women’s College, from which she graduated with a degree in philosophy in 1914. After one semester of teaching psychology at Randolph-Macon, Buck returned to China to care for her ill mother and teach for the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions. She married John Lossing Buck, a missionary and agriculture specialist from whom she took her last name. Their travels throughout Chinese farming villages provided the physical and cultural backdrop for her best-known novel, The Good Earth.
On March 4, 1920, Buck gave birth to her sole biological child, Carol, who suffered from phenylketonuria, a mental deterioration disease. At the age of nine, Carol was enrolled at the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, where she lived until her death in 1992. Buck wrote the 1952 work The Child Who Never Grew about her life experiences with Carol—the book served to help connect and ease the suffering of parents who had children with similar disorders.
The Bucks enrolled as graduate students at Cornell in 1925, and Pearl received her Master’s in English Literature, which she used to submit writings for publishing income to help pay for Carol’s care. Buck’s literary career launched in 1930 with her first novel, East Wind, West Wind. The Good Earth, which earned her the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and sat atop the bestseller list for 21 months, was adapted into an Oscar Award-winning film in 1937.
Buck continued writing with laser focus, going on to publish over 100 works of fiction and non- fiction up until her death in 1973. Perhaps Buck’s greatest achievement was introducing Chinese peasant culture to the international community; her portrayal of this exotic culture earned her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938, making her the first American woman to earn both a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize.
Likely a result from her exposure to Chinese culture, Buck’s expert use of focus in her work is perhaps best summed up by her famous quote: “The secret of joy in work is contained in one word— excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.” She understood that joy comes from being fully present in what one is doing; that joy comes from removing distractions and truly focusing on the task at hand to become a master of what one is doing at all times.
Buck was able to direct her focus to many causes. In her biography, she is portrayed as “a driving force in humanitarian causes. She was a longtime advocate of cross-cultural understanding and racial harmony as a means of achieving world peace.” She became an avid supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and founded The Welcome House Adoption Agency, which still exists today. Her focus led her to seek out and address prejudice wherever she could find it.
The Pearl S. Buck Foundation was established in 1964 to care for children in foreign countries and provide education, healthcare and job training. In her book My Mother’s House, which she wrote to raise money to establish her childhood home as a museum, Buck wrote about growing up in a foreign country: “For me it was a living heart in the country I knew was my own but which was strange to me until I returned to the house where I was born. For me that house was a gateway to America.” That home, to which she later referred as “a symbol of security and peace in a world where there was neither security nor peace,” is now the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Museum.