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the good earth
17 October 2004
The Nobel Prize in Literature is bewildering. It's difficult to take seriously a prize that eluded Tolstoy, Ibsen, Hardy, Henry (and William) James, Wharton, Proust, Conrad, Rilke, Joyce, Borges, Nabokov, Calvino, Mishima, Primo (and Carlo) Levi, N'gugi, Toer, and Penelope Fitzgerald while going to gents like Giosuè Carducci and Carl Friedrich Georg Spitteler who look like the extras in Horse Feathers.
On the other hand, American writers have been relatively well-served by the Prize. Sinclair Lewis and Saul Bellow may not be at the top of college syllabuses, but they are in print and still read. O'Neill, Faulkner, Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Morrison are doing better than that; they are the American canon. In hindsight, aside from Edith Wharton, the most seriously ignored American writers were perhaps Willa Cather and Richard Wright, and it doesn't seem disrespectful to say that neither Cather nor Wright were among the hundred greatest world writers of the past century.
And then there's Pearl Buck. She won the Nobel Prize in 1938 at the age of 46. [Only three writers have won younger: Lewis (45), Camus (44), and Kipling (42).] Her works were known at the time throughout the world in English, in translation, and in film adaptation. She was the pre-eminent interpreter of Chinese culture to the wider world, and one must keep the date in mind: 1938, when the gravest international crisis was the brutal occupation of China by Japanese armies. To honor Pearl Buck, in that context, was to recognize the plight of China.
Yet how odd, in retrospect, that an American expatriate, daughter of missionaries, would be chosen to represent China to the world. It's true that the greatest contemporary Chinese writer, Lu Xun, had died in 1936; but the Prize still might have gone to a Chinese writer; the decision to honor an American who wrote in English seems almost to have put China in parentheses, as a phenomenon to be seen but not heard, at least not in the first person. (Indeed, there would not be a Chinese laureate until Gao Xingjian in 2000.)
Buck won the Nobel Prize largely for her overwhelming success The Good Earth (1931). It was the Ur-Oprah novel, and it was only a matter of time before Oprah herself would gather The Good Earth to her bosom and make it a 21st-century bestseller. Hard-working peasant farmer Wang Lung gets marginally ahead in life, clearing enough money from hoeing his garlic fields to marry the elemental force of nature O-Lan. But sure enough, just as they start making anything more than ends meet, one damn thing after another hits them upside the head. They eat garbage for a while, as Wang Lung declaims, "I will never sell my land!", inspiring Boris's father in Love and Death. Then, in the midst of general anarchy, Wang Lung comes by a big sack of gold, and wouldn't you know, O-Lan stumbles on a big sack of jewels just about the same time. Wealth makes matters worse, as Wang Lung starts womanizing and the other peasants start parasitizing. The moral of the story: You Just Can't Win.
Now, Pearl Buck was a significant humanist: advocate for China, for civil rights, for the rights of the mentally retarded. Her place in 20th-century intellectual and social history, and even in letters, is safe from the attack of nitwits like me. So it seems fair to point out that The Good Earth reflects almost everything wrong with American realist fiction of the 20th century, from Theodore Dreiser through Betty Smith to the work of any living writer whose basic plan for a novel is to follow the plotless life of an unsympathetic person through a series of dull and essentially random events.
The problem with The Good Earth is not even really that Wang Lung is unsympathetic. Good novels have been made about unpleasant men who regret their first marriage – from Hardy's Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) to Ha Jin's Waiting (1999). In fact, Waiting, which strongly recalls The Good Earth in many ways, is a magisterial example of how to do this kind of book right: invest characters with competing dramatic motives, and above all underplay the melodramatic aspects of the story.
In The Good Earth, by contrast, it's just Wang Lung against the Universe, and everything that happens to him is Portentous. As in other Oprah novels, we learn that we're pretty much doomed but can acquire dignity, even if it's only an ironic dignity, just by suffering through. There's a certain nobility in that sentiment, and it's an ameliorating sentiment, but it's just plain dreary. Oprah, I don't mind you making the world better; just pick a better story to do it with next time, OK?
Buck, Pearl S. The Good Earth (1931). New York: Washington Square Press, 2004.