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Reviews 99 Peter Conn. Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. xvi, 468 pp. Hardcover $29.95, ISBN 0-521-56080-2. It is an interesting coincidence that of the five best-known Americans whose destinies were closely bound to modern Chinese history, all had surnames that began with an "S." They were Anna L. Strong, Edgar Snow, Agnes Smedley, John Leighton Stuart, and Pearl Sydenstricker (alias Pearl Buck).1 Yet the irony is that while Strong, Snow, and Smedley have been revered and researched as "The Three S's" in China,2 Stuart and Sydenstricker have been officially ignored for many decades and virtually erased from the memory ofmany Chinese. However, on the other side ofthe Pacific—in their American homeland, where ideological divergences are more tolerated, these five sons and daughters ofAmerica are still, albeit to various degrees, fondly remembered. Since the 1980s, each has been honored with at least one biography for their lofty pursuits and humanitarian efforts in their long and intimate relations with the Chinese people. And as one would expect, among them, the Nobel Prize laureate Pearl Buck has been the most cherished : every decade or so since the 1940s has seen the publication ofa new biography ofher, the latest being Peter Conn's Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography (hereafter PSB). To write a new biography about Pearl S. Buck, a household name in America, "seemed too risky an investment," as Conn put it (p. xii). The biographer would not only have to study carefully and critically all the previous biographies, but also be expected to come up with new findings and fresh interpretations. Facing him or her, there are at least two challenging biographical studies: Pearl Buck: A Woman in Conflictby Nora Sterling (1983) and Pearl S. Buck: A Biographyby Theodore F. Harris (1969). The former is the first biography published after Buck's death in 1978. Nora Sterling was privileged to have had the generous assistance and fresh reminiscences ofBuck's close friends and family, who allowed her access to Buck's personal letters. Sterling's is a solid work that is valuable for its accurate account of Buck's life3 and its sharp focus on Buck as a woman—pertinendy thematized as "a woman in conflict." Unlike Sterling's book, Theodore F. Harris' work is an authorized biography written in close consultation with Pearl Buck herself. And yet, it is a work that has been underrated, ifnot altogether dismissed. Apart from the somewhat anticipated critical skepticism over authorized biographies, this work suffers from its© 1998 by University author's reputation as a charmer ofdubious character with an allegedly ulterior ofHawai'i Pressmotive. Harris was Pearl Buck's confidant and companion in her late years and was believed to have had "undue influence" over her, and was actually taken to court on that charge. But, a review ofHarris' biography ofPearl Buck today does ioo China Review International: Vol. 5, No. 1, Spring 1998 impress the reader with the author's admiration for her and his intimate knowledge ofher daily life and inner feelings—in her preface to the book, Buck writes: "he [Harris] knows me better than anyone else." Despite its obvious limitations and partiality, Harris' biography, in my view, is a work that no serious Buck reader can afford to ignore. It is a sensitive and intimate read that is akin to an autobiography, primarily because it contains, under the direct guidance of Pearl Buck herself, an abundant citation and highlighting of Buck's published writings and personal correspondence. In comparison, Peter Conn's PSB is a work by a literary scholar, who, through academic discipline and professional detachment, has reconstructed Buck's life in a different light. While retaining the many fine qualities and major facts of its predecessors, PSB differs in material and more significantly in method. In this new biography, Conn provides us with new findings, new statistics, subsequent details, and synthesized interpretations, all of which are obtainable only through dedicated research and after the passage of time. For instance, Conn had access to two-thirds of the three-hundred-page FBI file on Pearl Buck (he is still appealing for release...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-9367
Print ISSN
1069-5834
Pages
pp. 99-109
Launched on MUSE
2011-03-30
Open Access
No
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