- Jews in China and American Discourses of Identity in Pearl S. Buck’s Peony
In December 1938, Pearl Sydenstricker Buck became the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for literature. During her prolific career as a writer, she also wrote over seventy books, won a Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal, was elected to the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees. Yet, in the sixty-five years following her intense exposure to the international literary community, Pearl S. Buck has become “a footnote” in not only international but also American literary studies.1 As Buck noted late in her career, “It is true that the American critics ignore me. They do not know what to do with me. I don’t mind.”2 Although Buck’s work was consistently chosen by book clubs and featured on best-seller lists, it has never achieved comparable success with literary critics or university literature departments. Her biographer Peter Conn has suggested that her neglect by scholars is, in part, due to Buck’s immense popularity or, more specifically, the accessibility of her work for the general public.3 It is also clear, however, that Buck never made any explicit attempts to appeal to American literary scholars unless they were part of a wider readership. Why, then, should we revisit her work now, and if we do, how can we close the gap between her extensive mass appeal and minimal critical reception with it?
I would like to suggest that Buck’s work provides sites of narrative engagement with American sociopolitical discourses popular in the early twentieth century precisely because of its mass popularity and because of the status Buck herself enjoyed as an international public figure and activist. The stylistic realism of her writing, as well as its straightforward, sincere, and moralistic tone, appealed to a large audience that did not economically support the experimental and difficult texts of American “high modernism,” which have come to dominate studies of modern literature. The common association of Buck’s literature with sentimental or traditional modes of writing sets her work apart from that of modernist writers, yet with its focus on inter- and transcultural relations, tensions between traditional societies and technologies of modernization, as well as the status of women in society, her work deeply engages with topics central to modernity.4 One key issue at stake in rereading Buck’s work is a definition of modern literature that does not erase the contribution of popular [End Page 115] fiction to our understanding of the ways in which literature reflected, critiqued, and produced discourses of modernity. Here, I draw upon Rita Felski’s assertion, “‘Modernity’ . . . refers not simply to a substantive range of sociohistorical phenomena—capitalism, bureaucracy, technological development, and so on—but above all to particular (though often contradictory) experiences of temporality and historical consciousness” (p. 9). Buck’s work reminds us that not all discourses of modernity are modernist, and it is not necessary to insist that Buck be considered a modernist writer in order to argue that her novels contribute to a scholarly understanding of literature’s engagement with American modernity.
The 1948 novel Peony is an excellent case study for an examination of the interplay between Buck’s writing and twentieth-century American social consciousness. Set in the K’aifeng province in nineteenth-century China, the novel tells the story of a Chinese bondmaid named Peony, who serves in the household of a Jewish merchant named Ezra. The primary plot of Peony is concerned with the title character’s changing status in the household as the Ezras plan to marry off their only son David. Although she is in love with David, as a bondmaid Peony cannot hope ever to enter into a legitimate relationship with her master. His mother, Madame Ezra, promised him to Leah, the Rabbi’s daughter, when the two were still infants. She hopes to see them wed, despite David’s attraction to Kueilan, the daughter of the Chinese merchant Kung Chen. Although the novel constructs an explicit love triangle comprised of David, Leah, and Kueilan, it also implicitly contains a...