By Anne K. Kaler, PSBVA
The question why people come to academic conferences answers itself — WHY. Having been an academic who has attended professional conferences for almost forty years, I feel qualified to speak on conferences. So WHY did I come to the recent Pearl S. Buck and the Pulitzer Prize Gateways Conference held in Morgantown, West Virginia, and what did I learn?
I discovered to my pleasure that the study of Pearl S. Buck’s works, life, and legacy has sprouted new roots across the world. In PSBI’s case, this new growth has captured the interest of scholars who have found her stories and life experiences a fertile field to explore for new growth. This conference showed the human curiosity of scholars who ask WHY certain authors feel so strongly about the topics about which they write. A meeting of presenters like this provides a vital nutrient to encourage digging deeper to unearth better soil. What really keeps academic detectives going, however, is that big WHY some things were written and others not written.
The multicultural audience itself gave the presenters new fields with which to sow ideas for future growth of Buck’s legacy and research. This was no dry scholarly affair but a gathering of curious and questioning people who wanted to know more about a subject — teachers, librarians, readers, housewives, retired people, active people from all walks of life and all ages of life, people of all cultures – and we all wanted to know more about this fascinating woman. We wanted to know WHY others wanted to know more.
A signature event to highlight the 100th Anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize, this Pearl S. Buck Living Gateway Conference was hosted by West Virginia University, West Virginia Wesleyan College, West Virginia Humanities Council, the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation, and the Office of the Secretary of the West Virginia Department of Education and the Arts.
With the recent interest in Buck’s writing in the East as well as in the West, the conference covered topics which reflect new avenues of research. The session with the skilled and enthusiastic Buck librarians presented us with tempting new fields of study. For example, the unopened boxes of her material which were donated to the libraries of Western Virginia Wesleyan College and University of West Virginia hold a lifetime of research possibilities. A presentation and tour of these new sources of research thrilled our PSBI curator Marie Toner and her colleagues.
What seemed to delight the audience was the idea of a PSB Writing Center and all of its activities — workshops, classes, conferences, lectures, book publishing, including the many papers which our volunteer association had written and presented at other professional conferences. The value of the conference was to exchange important information on Buck’s world-wide legacy. To that end, PSBI CEO Janet Mintzer presented an overview of the humanitarian legacy of Pearl S. Buck in action today. Zhang Danli of Nanjing Normal University added information on PSBI and PSB studies in China itself. A special feature was the number of Chinese academics and other presenters from other universities who gave varied papers on topics such as how Chinese culture is going global, thanks to Buck.
Of interest to the conference as a whole was the session on Buck’s two husbands conducted by two of our volunteers – Susie Woodland and Jean Silvernail. Buck’s literary theory was highlighted by our Carol Breslin’s presentation of Gateways into The Good Earth.
PSBVA’s Edgar Roosa’s paper theorized that Buck’s humanitarian outreach in establishing Welcome House was influenced heavily by the terrifying experiences she encountered during the Nanjing incident. Another topic covered was Buck’s legacy of multiculturalism in Korea and still another covered her work as a social activist. PSBVA’s Anne Kaler demonstrated how Buck’s philosophy was influential in spreading the legacy of multiculturalism between the East and the West through the thoughts of James A. Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific and the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein ll.
The Pulitzer Prize was given to Buck in part for her recording of a neglected era of historical, social, and political issues in Chinese history in The Good Earth and other writings. Buck’s concern with the daily existence of the peasant classes, the life of the farm women of the time, and the importance of the land itself provided topics for several papers. The early film of The Good Earth was shown and discussed in a topic centered on the choice of words which O-lan says within the film.
Penn State Harrisburg’s John Haddad’s study of the Presbyterian missionary efforts just before Buck’s family went to China provided insight into formation of her character. He discovered that the 1840-1860’s religious outreach into area of good works – establishing schools, hospitals, clinics etc. – was frowned upon in favor of the prime directive just before the Sydenstrickers went to China. Haddad pointed out that, with all his failings, Buck’s father Absalom kept to the prime directive – preach to the people of sin and redemption, rather than to establish charitable works. Since Buck’s family lived in a separate compound rather than with the other missionaries, Buck’s mother did charitable works from her own home. PSBVA’S Anne Kaler provided an insight into Buck’s religious beliefs with a paper citing her use of the Eastern goddess of Mercy, Quan Yin, as a benevolent deity in her books and in her life.
Several papers centered on Buck as one who opposed intolerance, discrimination, and conflict. She lived in China during several revolutions and changes of governments there that affected her life deeply. One session had complementary papers on the dangers of war. David Crowe of Chapman University presents his research on Buck, Raphael Lemkin and the question of genocide in World War II while PSBVA’s John McCabe detailed Buck’s views on the effects of the atomic bomb as seen in her novel Command the Morning.
The final session commented on Buck’s personal journey with topics on her as a West Virginia Nobel Laureate and a memoirist of her times. PSBVA’s Cindy Louden dealt with the many names and nicknames she used throughout her career.
Our PSBVA volunteers have heard some form of most of these presentations at our meetings. What really pleased the conference attendees at the closing meeting was our own Edgar Roosa’s version of his song to Pearl Buck, some twenty stanzas long and accompanied by his guitar to the tune of “The Red River Valley.” It brought an immediate standing ovation for Edgar, a well-deserved response to his performance.
The university could not have been more gracious to all of us. The food was high quality and plentiful ending with a box lunch for those of travelling home at noon. Dinner at the President’s newly refurbished house was served in an elegant large room with many floor length windows and art works of glass displayed. Each glass piece was either blue or gold or a combination as fit the colors of West Virginia University. It was lovely to see a university located in an area known for its glassworks promoting its local history in that way.
We never got to the main campus itself. I had been there before on a conference and remembered it being set in hills above the river with mountainous and dangerous streets. The hilly campus and confusing crossroads were simplified by a courtesy shuttle from motel to the campus. We were fascinated by remote-operated trams overhead, carrying students between campuses.
Instead of having to go into center of Morgantown, we had most of our meetings in the library or the new Alumni Building. Even there, the conference directors had provided special parking for us, morning breakfasts, and other niceties. For those who wanted it, there was a bus going to the Hillsboro homestead where Pearl’s mother’s family was located along with a newly relocated cabin that had housed the Sydenstricker family. Most of us had seen the homestead so we opted out of the trip but many others took it.
How important is research on a literary figure? In a popular novel I read recently, the heroine was a professor whose entire work of study was on the use of the semi-colon in early American Literature. That sounds so small a point of study that it was pitted against the mess of the heroine’s married life. But that is what academics do – search out with wonder the great WHY that no one else cares about. For example, I had researched a paper on how Michener, Hammerstein, and Pearl’s contributions to musical comedy lyrics helped to familiarize America with Asia. Afterwards a woman came up to me and repeated back my major point that, indeed, the song lyrics spoke of peace, tolerance, and joy. That one statement made my research and my writing about the topic worth my while – that one person heard what I wanted to say about Pearl’s impact on her world then and on our world now.
As we near the 125th celebration of Pearl’s birthday, such a conference should encourage each of us to enrich her legacy by contributing whatever stories we have about her. If you have a favorite Pearl story, let me suggest that you write it up and send it to Cindy Louden at email@example.com so that we can publish it through our Writing Center Press for others to read about this great lady – our Pearl. We hope to publish a book of the conference essays to help spread Pearl’s legacy.
So, as Pearl would suggest, keep writing.