The 15-Minute Pulitzers
The 1932 Pulitzer winner, The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck stands out to me for a couple of reasons. One, it is only the second Pulitzer so far that I had heard of before I began running down the list of award winners. Two, it is the first Pulitzer to truly “buck” the Pulitzer Board-prescribed scenic choke hold the Americas had on the nominees for the prize.
Now, some of you are probably choking a little on my assertion that The Good Earth is the first Pulitzer to get out of the U.S. of A. because you’re recalling the exploits of Martin Arrowsmith and (here’s the zinger) Thornton Wilder’s, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Well, to be clear, let me reiterate the prescription from the Pulitzer Board: “Preferably dealing with American life.” Let me tell you, you can’t get much more American than Martin (an unrelenting individual from the Midwest) no matter his exotic travels, and the characters in The Bridge of San Luis Rey are technically Americans, Peruvian in nationality though they may be.
But China. Why, that’s a whole other side of the world. And this daring and high-flying leap lands nowhere on its trajectory other than an unnamed rural plot of land in a nondescript area of China in a very common earthen house. The earthen house of Wang Lung and his father. On the dawn of a day around 1900. Wang Lung’s wedding day.
In completion of the otherworldliness of this jump, the wedding day was like no kind of wedding day I had ever heard before, although at first I expected it to resemble something like days I have seen. The day begins with the drinking of hot water and a few tea leaves. The tea, even in its descriptively unattractive state, is so precious that Wang Lung’s father complains that consuming it is “wasteful … like eating silver.” He makes sure his misgivings don’t get in the way of his enjoyment, though. After this “breakfast,” Wang Lung walks to town and grovels just a little before a gatekeeper at a great house. Then, Wang Lung acquires the slave girl he has been promised by the Ancient Mistress of the House of Hwang. “She will work well for you in the field and at drawing water and at all else you wish … I marry my slaves off if any will have them and the lords do not want them,” says the Ancient Mistress. Yep, this is pretty unlike any wedding day I’ve ever been around for.
And so, the beginning of The Good Earth managed very effectively to show me a poverty and way of life I would have had trouble conceiving of on my own. It made me want to be more frugal and put a little “silver” back for a rainy day.
The middle of The Good Earth also made me want to save money. Wang Lung’s fortunes improve a little and he begins to spend hither and thither. The passages in this section made me cringe in fear for Wang Lung, because by then Buck had firmly established in my imagination the vagaries of fortune upon these characters.
The end of The Good Earth made me realize that it is the beginning of a trilogy and if I wanted to I could continue to follow the story of Family Wang. I don’t know if I can deal with more bad news.
There’s something simple and unadorned about the language of the story, and yet the thematic and tonal sustain that Buck exhibits is powerful, even … mind-boggling. I don’t really have a handle on this.
But I got the feeling throughout the book that Buck had a pretty good handle on what she was writing about, which I found reassuring. From the bit I’ve read about her, it seems she knew enough to know how much she didn’t know, which is also reassuring. What I mean is, she had the humility and the courage to bob up and tell a bunch of Presbyterians she was pretty sure the then typical Western missionaries in China were probably kind of a bad idea. She was the daughter of a couple of them, was a missionary herself, and was thus implicated in any assertions of Western ignorance of China that she chose to put forth. She swallowed her pride and made the allegations of ignorance and hubris anyway. The Presbyterians choked a little on her assertion. She quietly resigned from their board (took a leap, if you will). I’m resigning from this post. If only my assertions were a little more equal in potency to Pearl’s.