When Pearl Buck won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1938, the translations into Swedish of her books with stories from China was importance for the decision. The Swedish Consul-General handed over a collection of the translations to the Pearl Buck Museum in Zhenjiang Friday 24 August. At the occasion he gave a speak on Pearl Buck from a Swedish Perspective:
Pearl Buck won the Swedish Nobel prize in literature in 1938. She had before that in 1932 won the American Pulitzer prize in the “Novel” category. This was at the time the most prestigious prize for American novelists.
Her book “The Good Earth” from 1931 was an instant international hit and was published in Swedish in 1932. Two other books were published in Sweden in 1933, the follow-up, “The Sons” and “East Wind: West Wind”. In 1935 the third book in the trilogy – “A House Divided” was published, translated by the former Swedish Consul-General in Shanghai Mr. Johan O. Lilliehöök.
Ms Buck’s life in China spanned three periods
1892-1911 in Zhenjiang
1914-1920 in Suzhou, Anhui
1920-1933 in Nanjing
Mr. Lilliehöök was Consul- General in Shanghai from 1922-1932. As the capital was moved to Nanjing in the latter part of that period he must have made several trips to Nanjing. Whether he met Ms Buck is not known as the Lilliehöök family has not kept his archive.
The Nobel Prize is often contested by some critics who argue for purely literary aspects and others who pay attention to popularity and other literary innovations. The Swedish Academy has 18 members and the influential members for this prize are the members of the Nobel Prize Committee and the Permanent Secretary. In 1938 the Academy had a number of very influential writers, such as Nobel laureates Selma Lagerlöf and Viktor Rydberg, and the two most influential critics of the 20th century, Fredrik Böök and Henrik Schück.
The discussions are not on record and as the academicians are elected for life, they cannot even in autobiographies write about these deliberations in the academy. We know that there were strong arguments in 1938 to award Virginia Wolf the prize. The deciding factor could have been that Pearl Buck was an author more in line with the will of Mr. Alfred Nobel who’s guiding sentence about the prize is “excellent and in the idealistic tradition”. There was no prize awarded during the war years 1940-1943 so several authors like Virginia Wolf missed the opportunity of a prize.
Swedish critics underline Pearl Buck’s capacity as a storyteller, which from Swedish perspective is very close to laureate Selma Lagerlöf. Her role as introducing the traditional life in China is often mentioned although her very important role as champion of racial non-discrimination is more a part of the American then the Swedish history. The fact that Pearl Buck expressed a view of China that was familiar to the large number of missionaries and other US residents in China but not to the average American is very important for the whole world. Pearl Buck has probably made more than anyone else to introduce China to the US. The fact that at least 27 books have been published in Sweden and that most of them refer to China is also a proof that she has an influence in Sweden on a level similar to some other American Nobel prize winners such as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway.