When I first picked up a Pearl Buck book, it was The Good Earth. I was a teen and on a personal “read the classics” mission one summer. I read the description and didn’t think I’d like it. Oh, but then I found out that when a good writer puts words on paper, it doesn’t matter what it’s about. It draws you in.
I had this same response when I read Willa Cather’s My Antonia. I learned something from these two writers: clean, simple writing can be beautiful and poetic.
Buck, especially, has been criticized by having “too simple” of a writing style. Some argued that she wasn’t worthy of the Nobel Prize she received in 1938, but I think this kind of snobbery is the worst thing we can do to each other as writers. The ability to reach a variety of people with your writing is a gift. There are some who read The Good Earth, for example, and enjoyed learning about the characters and the Chinese culture. Others saw symbolism in characters like the poor fool, and still others were drawn into the story itself.
Does it matter why people liked the book? Do we need to argue about the worthiness of a writer’s work once it becomes popular Besides the fact that Buck wrote an extremely popular book and won a prestigious prize for it, there’s another reason I admire her. She was prolific. She didn’t sit around talking about writing. She wrote. Over 100 books, in fact, 43 of them novels. This was before computers and word processors. In fact, she wrote out everything by hand, right to the end of her life. Her son said, “She knew she was dying. But she sat down with a pen and wrote out over 300 pages. Just an amazing tour de force.”
Her final book, The Eternal Wonder, was found years after her death and has quite an interesting story that goes along with it.
As a Pearl Buck fan, I was thrilled to see that they’d found a manuscript by her last year. She died 40 years ago, and to think there were words penned by her hand that had not been seen by the public was truly a thrill. But how the book came to be is even more interesting.
How Came to Be
Buck’s son, Edgar Walsh, received a message in late 2012 about a manuscript that was found in a Texas storage locker. The person who bought the locker said that they’d found a 300 page manuscript penned in Pearl Buck’s own hand. Beneath the handwritten copy was a typewritten version.
The family had dealt with some issues toward the end of Buck’s life. Walsh talks about them in detail in the forward of The Eternal Wonder, namely that some of the people Buck had helping her toward the end of her life took advantage. Walsh’s brothers and sisters didn’t have the control over their mother’s work as they would have liked.
This makes the discovery of The Eternal Wonder even more amazing, and if you’re a Pearl Buck fan, you’ll finally be able to devour her final work.
Still Good, But Unfair to Judge It Against Earlier Works
The Eternal Wonder is described as a “coming-of-age story of Randolph Colfax (Rann for short), an extraordinarily gifted young man whose search for meaning and purpose leads him to New York, England, Paris, on a mission patrolling the DMZ in Korea that will change his life forever—and, ultimately, to love.”
Buck could write on just about anything and I’d read it. The Eternal Wonder has that direct yet thought-provoking vibe she’s known for, and since it’s her last work I really enjoyed it. If you’re new to her work, however, I’d stick with her earlier books.
It’s rather unfair to judge a final (and as far as we know, not yet completed) book after someone’s death. Buck’s husband, who had edited her work for years, was not a part of this book, and I can’t help thinking that if he had tightened it up it would be more attune to what we’d expect from her work. Even with that, it’s a cerebral journey, leaving you thinking about the main character Rann and what he represents in society today.