Blog post #200: The Good Earth, the good Earth, and why I’m down on this novel

The project has stalled, as it is seemingly wont to do, on yet another novel I’m having trouble slogging through.  I posted about my struggles with The Good Earth a little while ago, and got several comments in reply—the one that got my attention most, I think, was the dissent from a fellow Pulitzer blogger (and a welcome visitor here anytime), Diablevert.  I hope she won’t mind my quoting a part of her comment—anyone who wants to see the whole thing should hop to “Blog post #197” and read it.  Here’s an excerpt that I’m most interested in engaging with and replying to:

“I was dreading . . . that it would be heartwarming and wholesome and racist and condescending, and it’s not, really. (Well, racist is a complicated issue there’s plenty of room for contention on, but it’s not out and out racist the way something like Scarlet Sister Mary was. Scarlet-Sister-Mary-again-but-Chinese was what I was dreading, basically.)”

I want to be perfectly clear about a couple of things at the outset: first of all, I fully recognize (about all of these novels) that there’s a wide range of acceptable opinion.  When I make my sweeping remarks about these works, I’m trying to capture how I feel, but I’m not trying to invalidate the experiences of others.  So I don’t think this is a case where either Diablevert or I is right, but not both of us.  I think we’re both working as well as we can (from our authentic experiences of the novel) to express what we think is true about it.

Secondly, I think Diablevert is definitely right about some things I should have been better at either seeing or acknowledging—given the era, and the history of the Pulitzers in that time period, it is in fact worthy of note that the book is not flat-out racist in its treatment of the Chinese people and culture.  Scarlet Sister Mary was, as has been mentioned in this space before, ten gallons of awful.  The sentimentality of a lot of racist depictions makes them much more ghastly, and much more repellent (as Diablevert is rightly noting)—Buck avoids a lot of those problems here, and I’m definitely glad about that.

Those things said, though, I still have issues with the book, because I don’t know that Buck is writing a book that allows me, anyway, to read it as Diablevert does.  She notes in her comment that, essentially, the racist and misogynist elements in the story are at least written in such a fashion that the human commonalities present in that culture and ours can be understood with interest.  (Note: If you think I’m misreading you, Diablevert, let me know and I’ll definitely make the edits you prefer: I want to characterize your position accurately!)  I think that this is, in fact, how a lot of the book’s fans read it, if not all of them.

I find it hard to do this because it seems to me that The Good Earth compartmentalizes Wang Lung’s selfish/sadistic treatment of women from all the other things in his life, and really particularly it treats his brutal words and actions as being a subplot much less important than the great question of the title “character”.  Whenever Buck gets the chance, she rushes him back out to “the land”, the great symbol which presides over the story.  Anyone who knows me and my love of Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter will know that I have no objections to a really obvious use of symbolism.  My objections here are very specifically that I think Buck uses the symbolism to escape dealing with these characters realistically.  Wang Lung goes and plows for a day…and suddenly all his interactions with Lotus are different.  His whole temperament changes.  The land (or the lack of it) is used to explain why sons are lazy—it divides the pure and good from the shiftless and conniving.  And who knows, there may be a lot of truth in this—I grant that the attitude is at least anthropologically interesting (assuming that the Chinese did feel/think this way then, a topic about which I really don’t know anything).  But I feel it pulls the rug out from under the story, because it allows Wang Lung a “get out of jail free” card as far as the novel is concerned.  He does awful things, but then he goes back to the land, and everything else is forgotten.  Not just by him, but by the narrative.

I think the real limitation, in all honesty, is that the entire novel is told from his perspective: the descriptions are all given by a third-person narrator who never gets out of his head.  This is the kind of thing a lot of people don’t notice when they read—who is narrating this, and what do they know—but I definitely do.  It has almost ruined really good novels for me (Zusak’s The Book Thief immediately comes to mind), and it’s definitely made decent novels bad for me.  I think that’s the case here.  Because the whole novel is really only concerned with how Wang Lung feels and what’s important to him, it feels as though it implicitly accepts his judgments about the world.  We see O-Lan’s agony, but remotely, like a Westerner changing the channel when the photo of the starving poor kid comes on.  We recognize the injustice done to his children, but only when he bothers to, and then the plot turns to more important considerations like what the men in the town think of him, or whether the rice crop is growing well: the unspoken suggestion to me is that this is what really matters in life.  Pair that with Buck’s fixation on making the land symbolic of all that is good and holy, and the conclusion I reach (whether Buck wants me to or not) is that Wang Lung may do a lot of horrible things, but in the end it’s not that bad, because he’s a man who really connects with the land, and as long as he keeps coming back to do that, he’ll be okay in the end (and therefore, by extension, everything else in the novel’s world will be okay too).  What we work at is important, not who we are, and certainly not how we treat those beneath us.  (I should note, as always, that it’s possible the book’s concluding chapters will alter this for me—until I’m done reading, these are rough draft opinions, essentially.)

I recognize this is not the only way to read the novel, and it may well not be the best way.  It’s all I’m managing, at present, though—my reading since Diablevert’s comment (and the new perspective it gave me) has been a little easier, but only a very little.  I try hard not to bring judgments about the past to novels written in the past—doing that would rob me of much of the world’s best literature.  But I think what made that literature great is that, despite its racism, its sexism, its condescension to the oppressed of the world, etc., the literature itself grappled with real problems in a way that I can identify with today.  It may be that The Good Earth still does that for a lot of people, and it certainly seems to do that for some.  But for me it abdicates responsibility for problems by placing all its hopes on the mystical qualities of a man’s connection to the soil.  In the end, that’s not enough for me.

I hope folks will chime in with their own reactions—especially if you disagree with me!  As you can see, Diablevert disagreeing with me forced me to do some hard thinking, and even if she doesn’t like what I’ve arrived at, I know I’m grateful for being pushed to think.  I’m hoping the next post on this novel is a review and then it’s on to Stribling and The Store.  We’ll see.

Blog post #197: In which the blogger attempts to be moderate in his criticism of The Good Earth and fails…

I won’t go on a rant.  I am determined not to rant.  I ranted my way through The Able McLaughlins (a novel that is, I know, much much worse than Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth), and it didn’t bring me any happiness.  Well, that last review did feel pretty good when I wrote it—kind of like the five minutes following an exorcism.  But the farther I am from actually having read that book, the more my review looks like a sort of flailing, juvenile tantrum.  I guess we have to get those out of our system at times, but I’d rather not make a habit of them.

What, then, can I possibly do with The Good Earth?  Regular readers of this blog will note that the momentum I’d gained briefly in August/September seems to have dissipated.  I am mired in a book I can’t really abide, but which is still too long for me to just storm through.  I’ll do my best to explain why in brief words.  First, the positive thoughts.

Yes, there are definitely positive thoughts—Buck’s novel opens my eyes to a level of abject poverty and struggle that I can barely imagine.  I get the sense that, through the fictional plot, I am reaching into a very non-fictional abyss in which Chinese peasants lived for what I can only imagine to be centuries.  I suppose it’s not all that different from peasant life in feudal Europe, but when it’s juxtaposed against the lavish wealth of a modern society—a society full of industry and railroads and globe-trotting Western travelers—it suddenly feels very grim.  I’m grateful for having at least that much done for me, since it can be easy to be fixated only on the United States and its problems (living, as I do, in an American media environment, and having as this blog’s primary purpose the reading of American novels).  But I think plenty of books could have done that for me very successfully without being this book.

The critical problem I face is that it feels to me as though Buck is blind to the moral problems in her novel.  To the extent that she can see them, I don’t see how she is helping me, the reader, through them—she doesn’t seem to raise questions, or provide interplay between characters.  Because of his position as a man, and the head of household, and being the very withdrawn and selfish man he is, Wang Lung doesn’t talk to most people.  He certainly doesn’t seek counsel.  He just is the man he figures he ought to be.  And that man is increasingly unbearable—monstrous in his treatment of his wife, who is given so little agency by the author that the abuse she suffers feels gratuitous.  I know a woman in her society and station would likely never have talked back to her husband.  But to remove her from the spotlight entirely, to never provide any real insight into the life she lives and the thoughts she thinks, guts the story entirely.  I’m left watching a man I can’t respect sink into every possible failure—financial, moral, etc.—without having any notion that there’s a payoff to this.  I feel as though the novel’s thesis is that Chinese society is really awful, and that it makes normal people into awful people, and that inequality (both financial and gender) is probably a part of this but there really isn’t anyone in the society who will change it.

Maybe I’m wrong and the 2nd half will astonish me.  For now it feels like condescension from an American woman who (rightly) assessed the lives of Chinese peasant women in the early 20th century as being unjustly oppressed, but whose primary conclusion from this was that the whole of Chinese society and tradition was to blame.  There’s a long-running subtext involving the earth, of course—the idea of the importance of the land, how much better we are when we live on our own land, how detaching ourselves from working the land detaches us from our own humanity.  But that kind of simplistic worship of the noble savage (and his cousin, the noble rural small farmer) is really pretty thin—or else, if there’s depth to that kind of idea, I don’t see it in what Buck is doing.

In some ways, The Good Earth reminds me of an uneven but powerful novel I used to teach: Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.  What separates the two, for me, is that Achebe lets me see more than one side of the society.  I see the violent abusive side of Okonkwo, but also the man who loves his daughter, the man who is shattered by having killed his foster son (a killing he felt ethically obligated to join in).  I see the uneasy feelings in his close friend’s perspective on their society, and the complete rejection of Okonkwo’s values by his son Nwoye.  There’s a tension in the book that shows a society as a living thing, as something that can change.  It also engages with questions about the land, with how a man tries to live up to expectations and is cruelly disappointed.  I wouldn’t say it’s the greatest novel ever written, but it does a lot Buck’s trying to do in a much more effective way.  I have a feeling I’ll come back to this comparison as I try to drive through the rest of Buck’s novel as fast as I can—maybe it will seem less apt with time.  For now, all I can say is that those of you who warned me that you didn’t much like this book…well, I can see why.  And I have a hard time understanding what made this such a classic that Buck became an internationally celebrated and award-winning author.

“‘I shall never sell the land!’ he shrieked at them….”

“Bit by bit I will dig up the fields and feed the earth itself to the children and when they die I will bury them in the land, and I and my wife and my old father, even he, we will die on the land that has given us birth!”

The “land/earth” symbolism in Pearl Buck’s novel is a bit heavy-handed, but it’s powerful nevertheless.  Wang Lung, having experienced years of plenty, is now undergoing his own version of the Book of Job.  Unlike Job, however, Wang Lung’s reaction is generally to spit on the gods (literally and figuratively), cling to his notions of duty and honor, and do as little as possible that will endanger his hope of becoming a wealthy man one day.  He believes in himself and in his land—and in precious little else.

Americans don’t get this as well as other folks, I think—most Americans, I should say—because our relationship to the physical environment is not like that of other nations.  As Robert Frost famously, and wisely, said, “The land was ours before we were the land’s.”  I’d venture that most of us still aren’t as connected to the land we live on and in as most of our ancestors were.  Some few of us still live where our great-great-great-grandfathers were born and worked and married and strove and fought and died.  I wonder what it is like for them.  I wonder it particularly as I am a third-generation Washingtonian married to a fourth-generation Washingtonian, and we are now for the first time in our lives living outside the geography of our ancestors.  Did we lose something by leaving—something we will be at great pains to recover, if we ever do?  Or is the tie to the land a paralysis…certainly Wang Lung’s seems that way, at times.

The novel does a few things really startlingly well in this section.  I feel real hunger, real deprivation, as his family slowly starves.  The death that accompanies this experience is both expected and a bit shocking.  The notions of gender that so bothered me earlier have gone underground, but they feel even more poisonous there—I think not seeing and thinking about the myriad ways this society marginalizes women is worse than having it in my face.  I don’t know….I think I’ll be wrestling with that for a while.

And the novel takes a real shift here—eventually Wang Lung and his family are forced away from their land, to a bustling city.  They live in a modern society…modern enough to have railroads, at least.  And yet they’ve lived utterly unaware of it—the train, in particular, is like something out of legend when they first see it.  And the distinction between urban and rural is really interesting to me: Wang Lung thinks of himself as a foreigner, even though he has only gone 100 miles from his farm.  He even takes offense at remarks he overhears about “foreigners” before he learns that they are speaking of people he’s never even envisioned—these strange white people who overtip and speak Chinese in strange and halting accents.  I’m curious what she’ll do with this, since Buck has the makings of a really interesting situation here, but I can’t tell how she’ll use it.  I’m worried the novel will remain claustrophobically obsessed with Wang Lung and his neuroses about success and land and dignity, and if that’s the case, this novel will really be a drag to get through.  But if it can at least give me those things in the context of some larger themes about China’s modernization, or the juxtaposition of culture and class that’s happening in its largest cities, I see hope for a really good novel.  Time will tell.

A side note: I learned this week, given all the hoopla about the Nobel Prizes, that Pearl Buck was only the 3rd American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature when she won it in 1938 (it had been awarded annually since 1901), and the first American woman.  Frankly, that’s shocking to me—having read Edith Wharton and Willa Cather (and a substandard Cather novel, at that!), I’m stunned to think I’m reading the masterpiece of a Nobel Prize-winning author here.  Maybe it’s a reflection on the Nobel’s track record being no better than Pulitzer’s?  I’d expected, given that they get to judge a whole body of literary output and not merely the “best” in a given year, they’d have a much easier time picking well.  We’ll see.  Buck’s going to have to step up her game to convince me this is worthy of that kind of recognition.

Salutations from the Windy City

Most of you (All of you?) who read my blog know that I have recently undergone a great transition—specifically, I have moved from the Pacific Northwest, the region I have lived in all my life, to Chicago.  This move affects me in a myriad of ways: not simply a new job and a new city, but new weather, new transportation, new accents and languages in the air around me, etc.  I’ll be recording my thoughts and reactions to the move in a lot of places, and this blog will be one of those places.

“But wait!” you may say, “isn’t this blog about Pulitzer Prize winning novels?  Or wasn’t it supposed to be?  You’ve lost your way, O traveler, and are not sticking to the strict boundaries of the blog!”  And I reckon there’s a kind of accuracy in your comment.  But of course I make the rules here, and on a deeper level, what I’m doing is consistent with why I started this, about 2 years ago.  I read the Pulitzers, as opposed to the Man Bookers or the Caldecotts or the MLA’s list of the 100 greatest novels, because they purport to tell me about the nation in which I live.  And I think my adjustment from Pacific Northwesterner to Old Northwesterner, from PST to CST, from the Mariners and the Seahawks to the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears, from the Space Needle to the Willis Tower, from Guterson to Bellow, from Roethke to Sandburg, will be a transition that impacts my ideas about my country, its art, and who I am as an American.  This post is the first, therefore, of what I expect to be a goodly number of musings on the journey I’ve taken.

Opening thoughts: this country is enormous.  It is more varied than people will tell you—to hear folks talk, I thought the road from Ellensburg to Wisconsin would be straight, flat, and featureless.  But it’s not: Montana and South Dakota are different places.  Heck, western and eastern South Dakota are different places.  And though most of the land east of Bozeman is flatter than Seattle’s surrounding terrain, almost none of it is pancake-like.  There is a special and remote beauty to the great plains, the clouds hanging luminous and pink above your head as the sun slips behind the Rockies, the lightning crackling ahead of you as you make slow gains on a storm that dwarfs all human scales.  You feel every rise and fall of the road, longing (at least I did) for the little river valleys, peering into stands of trees to see if farmhouses still nestle there.  I confess no real desire to stop and live in those places, but harbor a real fascination with what it must be like to live and work and hope and dream in a world as enormous and confined as those prairie small towns look from the road.  I had the good fortune to stop and visit with a friend who has done just that—live much of her life in a small town—and I saw how truly happy that life can be.  It is a kind of living I doubt I will ever really know, and so I wonder how much of it I can reach vicariously through art, how much of it I can incorporate into my idea of my country by hearing about it and trying to imagine it.  It makes me curious about a couple of the novels I have already read (Willa Cather’s in particular), and interested in what lies ahead in the upcoming books.

Chicago is impossible to capture in any kind of detail.  My one trip to the Loop thus far impressed on me one major realization—no matter how many times people say it, no matter how much you read about it, you cannot fathom until you are there the bigness of Chicago.  Not just the size of the city itself (which sprawls across the landscape like the descriptions of Mrs. Manson Mingott’s obese frame in Wharton’s The Age of Innocence) but the size of the individual buildings.  Walking around downtown, time and again I saw a building in the distance and thought “oh, that’s large”, and then, as I walked nearer it, gradually realizing that holy mackerel this is a building built on the scale of Olympus scratch that Zeus himself would throw his back out lifting it wow I wonder if the thing creates its own weather downwind of itself.

I say this with a certain amount of pride, tempered with my usual skepticism about the American fascination with the “bigger is better” approach.  I’m seeing a lot to love about this city, which is American in a way I haven’t experienced before.  The diversity of my neighborhood combined with a sort of raw energy makes you feel the melting pot’s sides rising around you—it’s not what it was in 1910 (and thank goodness for that) but I start to get the feel for what it might have been to grow up in that world.  How it might have been for a young Pole or German or Swede, and how it may be today for a young Arab or Latino or Korean or Ukranian, to come to this city and say “I’m making a fresh start here”.  Many of the people I encounter in the city are immigrants, and some of them share a little of their stories.  The Iranian cab driver who fled the revolution in 1979. The young African woman at my college’s info desk whose parents had to decide, more than a decade ago, whether they would settle in Chicago or Seattle.  The Muslim baker down the street staying open late for Ramadan so that the community can get something sweet after they break their fast.    I don’t know if I can become a Chicagoan like they are—whether the roots soaked in that Pacific drizzle and shaded by evergreens will ever feel at home in Midwestern soil.  But they’ve come farther than I have, and know more than I do about what it means to make a home.  I like living in their city, and maybe one day it will be mine too.

This is rambling and less detailed than I’d intended.  That would probably make a decent description of 90% of my blog posts, I know!  But I’ll leave it here.  I’ll say more about Chicago, and what I think it may be telling me about America’s meaning for me.  And I should probably note, since I’m now a professional, that this blog often carries personal opinions of mine on a range of topics, but it is in no way affiliated with my work for my employer, and of course my opinions are in no way a reflection of the opinions of my employers.  I don’t think I’ll say anything truly unfair here, and hopefully little that is unwise, but it seems prudent to me to issue some kind of disclaimer.  Now to serve up a piping hot dish of Poetry Friday—my best to you all, wherever you may be scattered across the wide world!