The Buck Stopped Here
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
"Idon't wait for moods," the writer Pearl S. Buck once said. "You accomplish nothing if you do that. Your mind must know it has got to get down to work."
Easy for her to say. Visit the gorgeous home in Bucks County, Pa., where Buck wrote many of her books, and you might find it hard to imagine her -- or anyone else -- suffering from writer's block in the midst of such beauty and comfort.
The Pearl S. Buck House, on Green Hills Farm in Perkasie, about 33 miles north of Philadelphia, is a living and working testament to Buck's twin legacies: her writing and other people's children. Buck, one of two women to win both the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the Nobel Prize for literature (the other is Toni Morrison), was also an internationally recognized humanitarian in the specialized cause of mixed-race children. Her farm is the headquarters for foundations she set up to help with their adoption and care. It's also where she's buried.
Buck is most famous for her 1931 novel, "The Good Earth," about a farmer in China and his connection to the land he owns. And this comely piece of Pennsylvania farmland suggests Buck's own strong bond with the serenity and isolation of Bucks County (the shared name is just a coincidence). Her home is approached by a long and narrow driveway that winds up a hill, offering glimpses of the bucolic scenery that inspired so much of her writing.
The house, a sprawling fieldstone Bucks County classic, is open most of the year for tours and events. On a cool and rainy Sunday in September, my 8-year-old son, Jake, and I stopped at Green Hills and found ourselves alone on a tour led by a gentleman named Ed. Ed liked to talk -- about himself, a bit, but mostly about Pearl Buck, showing knowledge and a towering affection for the writer in every room.
She was born in West Virginia in 1892 but spent most of her first 40 years in China, where her father was a missionary. She wrote "The Good Earth" there and returned to the United States after it became a critical and commercial hit, buying Green Hills Farm in 1935. She, her second husband and their many adopted children added on several times and furnished the house with artifacts from Asia.
The hand-carved Chinese desk where she wrote "The Good Earth" is the centerpiece of Buck's library. It is an enormous, inviting room lined with dark chestnut paneling and overstuffed bookshelves. Her office, on the other hand, is austere but still beautiful.
In an addition to the house connected by a long stone breezeway, Buck built a work space that seems more attuned to her belief that writers shouldn't need more than pen and paper to get down to business. There are side-by-side desks in the center; Buck wrote in longhand at one and handed her work to a typist at the other.
Buck wrote many books in many genres: celebrated biographies, including "The Exile" and "Fighting Angel," both about her parents, as well as children's books, nonfiction, poetry and translations of Chinese works. Above her office desk is a narrow loft that Buck used when she took up sculpting. Busts she made of her children are among the few ornaments in the office.
Artwork from all eras and corners of the globe festoons the walls and furniture throughout the house. There is a Freeman Elliot portrait of Buck, a Tang Dynasty painting of women playing polo, and in her closets beautiful silk clothing and jewelry from China. Among more than 8,000 books are a number of her own in a bedroom still referred to as "the boys' room." It is now filled with the awards and honors Buck garnered over her 80 years, including her Pulitzer and Nobel prizes.
In the living room, which Buck created out of several smaller spaces, sit an enormous grand piano and an organ, both of which she played, and are now used for special musically themed tours.
One of her seven adopted children, Janice Walsh, now in her 80s, still does a good deal of the gardening at Green Hills. She and a sister, Julie Henning, were among those who recently hosted Laura Bush at the farm, where the first lady was named Pearl S. Buck Woman of the Year.
Bush, in turn, lauded Buck's Welcome House, which she hailed as the first international agency to arrange interracial adoptions, and Opportunity House, which provides health care and education in many countries to children who have been neglected because of their mixed race or affliction with HIV/AIDS. The headquarters for both are in Perkasie.
The farm is just one testament to the rich literary traditions of Bucks County. James A. Michener, raised in nearby Doylestown, lends his name to an art museum there. Oscar Hammerstein's farm is nearby, as is an estate that once belonged to Broadway legend George S. Kaufman. Bucks County also claims Dorothy Parker, S.J. Perelman, Moss Hart and many other artists and writers as onetime residents.
Only Buck's home, however, offers a real glimpse of a writer's life and lifestyle. Like Wang Lung, the farmer whose life story she tells so movingly in "The Good Earth," Buck is forever tied to her home and her land. She died in 1973, at 80, and Green Hills is an important part of her legacy.
As Wang Lung says, "the land is there after me."