Anchee Min speaks at Randolph College on November 12, 2013. (Photo by Kevin Manguiob)
Anchee Min spent years getting to know Pearl S. Buck, a member of the R-MWC Class of 1914. While preparing to write the novel Pearl of China, she read Buck’s novels and biographies, interviewed people who had known her in China and America, and envisioned Buck’s life.
Pearl of China by Anchee Min
Visiting Buck’s alma mater in November allowed Min to connect with yet another of Buck’s experiences. While helping Randolph College kick off a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Buck’s graduation, she also probed questions about how the College had impacted one of her favorite role models.
“I said yes to this invitation because I was very curious about this college,” said Min. “I wanted to know what kind of school had prepared and shaped Pearl Buck’s mind at the critical thinking level and also at the global level.”
Buck, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize for Literature, was a senior at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College 100 years ago. Her life at the College provided a solid foundation for her future work.
“I think the College was part of making Pearl Buck who she turned out to be,” said Janet Mintzer, executive director of Pearl S. Buck International, a nonprofit dedicated to Buck’s humanitarian work. “It was a great opportunity for her to flourish. That education helped her find her voice and her pen.”
Buck was born in West Virginia while her parents were on leave from missionary work. They returned to China a few months later. Buck’s college years were her first extended stay in the United States.
Her first year at R-MWC was fraught with culture shock, loneliness, and a sense of not belonging. But as she embraced her American heritage, she began to feel at home. According to Nora Stirling’s biography, A Woman in Conflict, Buck joined a sorority, participated in Evens-vs.-Odds traditions, tutored in several subjects, edited and wrote for The Tattler, and served as president of her junior class.
She flourished under a curriculum that focused heavily on sciences, mathematics, Latin, and liberal arts disciplines. “We were soundly taught and the curriculum carried no hint that we were young women and not young men,” she wrote in her autobiography My Several Worlds.
Buck began her professional writing career in China, where she penned The Good Earth and won the Pulitzer Prize. When she moved to the United States, she continued writing and began humanitarian work.
“Because she faced discrimination as a child, she was acutely aware of the devastation caused by discrimination,” Mintzer said. “When she saw discrimination was accepted here, she was really outspoken about it.”
On Christmas Eve in 1948, a social worker brought her an Indian-American infant who, like other biracial children, was considered unadoptable. Buck created Welcome House, an adoption program that found homes for biracial children.
She found a local family who adopted that boy, whom they named David Yoder, and other children who needed homes. The Yoder children were raised as Buck’s grandchildren. David Yoder remembers Buck was devoted to giving them a good life and never talked about her accomplishments. He was surprised in high school when he found her name on the spines of required books. “Then it dawned on me how important a person she was,” he said in a recent interview.
“But I still saw her as my grandmother.” Buck also launched Opportunity House, which provided education to mixed-race children overseas. Julie Henning, a standout student from the program in Korea, was invited to live with Buck and be raised as her daughter. “She felt that we were all God’s children,” Henning said.
In the 40 years since Buck’s death, Pearl S. Buck International has moved forward with the author’s work by continuing her adoption and education programs. The College has also honored its connection with Buck in many ways over the years.
In 1992, the College hosted a symposium marking the 100th anniversary of Buck’s birth. The symposium included scholarly presentations about a variety of aspects of Buck’s life and legacy.
“I’m amazed at the extraordinary breadth of her interests and concerns,” said Elizabeth Lipscomb, a retired English professor who helped organize the symposium. “She had more to do than anyone else with America’s image of China. She was a very strong voice for racial integration. She made a huge difference with the way people in this country felt about children with handicaps and disabilities.”
Buck’s literary legacy continues through frequent re-printings of her novels, but also through the recent rediscovery of a lost manuscript. Published in October 2013, The Eternal Wonder tells the story of an incredibly intelligent young man named Randolph Colfax who travels the world striving to fulfill his insatiable desire to learn and know.
It may be impossible to know whether Buck named the main character with her alma mater in mind, but the journey of Randolph Colfax parallels the quest that Buck once recommended to R-MWC graduates when she spoke at the 1964 commencement.
“If you wish to live life to the full, continue to read, continue to be curious and to want to know about everything,” she said. “Let your imaginations soar as you will, and you will reach no boundaries of the impossible.”