Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Wealth (and Poverty) of Nations

In 1931, Pearl S. Buck, who would later become the first American woman to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, published the first book of a trilogy. It was called The Good Earth. In 1932 it became the 14th novel to win the Pulitzer Prize. It has retained its popularity better than many other early winners, even making a return to the bestseller list in 2004 when Oprah Winfrey added it to her famous book club.

Buck's prose is simple, compelling and immediately attention-grabbing. We meet the protagonist, a Chinese man named Wang Lung, on the morning of his wedding day. Using clear and straightforward language Buck does more than allow us to observe the wedding and subsequent events of Wang Lung's life - events both large and small - she allows us to live his life alongside him. Over the course of the novel we get married, have children, celebrate, despair, err, regret, lament, and forgive just as Wang Lung does. But more than any other activity, we work the land.

Wang Lung's beloved land is almost another character in the story. It is moody and temperamental, and above all alluring. Wang Lung's livelihood is dependent upon his ability to wrestle it from the unsympathetic earth with his sweat. Toward the beginning of the novel Buck sets the stage with this memorable line, "It was true that all their lives depended upon the earth." As a truly American girl in the year 2013 this is a distant concept. If my own life and the lives of the people I love depended on my ability to produce food (in abundance!) with only a hunk of land and my own body to work it, we'd all be dead. When I consider the amount of work it took just to survive - let alone prosper! - it is sobering. It makes me appreciate the miracle that is my refrigerator a little bit more, I can tell you that much.

This book has many themes - the value of hard work, what it means to be prosperous, the role and obligations of family, the roles of women in Chinese society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For a book of less than 300 pages it is jam-packed with meaning. The element of the story that resonated most deeply with me is about the general human desire to obtain wealth and how it affects our lives, and what happens to a society when there is great inequality of wealth.

Despite spending a large portion of her life in China as the child of Christian missionaries, Pearl S. Buck was still an American woman. She lived through an interesting chunk of history. The Roaring Twenties and the Wall Street Crash of 1929. She published her book at the beginning of what turned out to be a terribly Great Depression, in between two massive wars that ripped the world apart. And she lived in China after the Communist Revolution that overthrew a 2,000-year-old imperialist monarchy in order to establish the Republic of China. I imagine she developed one or two opinions about poverty and wealth.

The themes of poverty and wealth surface over and over again in The Good Earth. Wang Lung's property is meager at first, and his poverty is in stark contrast to the exceptional wealth of the House of Hwang, the major landowning family in the nearest town. It is from this family's slaves that he purchased his homely wife, O-lan. Members of the House of Hwang are depicted as increasingly gluttonous, selfish people, who give into their excesses and neglect the management and cultivation of their high-quality land. Wang Lung looks down on this wasteful behavior from the start, and yet he desires to obtain more land, Hwang land, and accumulate tremendous wealth of his own.

Wang Lung and his family experience many ups and downs but by the close of the novel he ends up owning all the land and property that once belonged to the House of Hwang. And while he does not carry on to excess as they did, he is guilty of some other reprehensible behavior triggered by his growing wealth. He contemplates what has changed, since, "Everything seemed not so good to him as it was before." Observing his son who is well-educated and dressed nicely he becomes resentful, and says to him, "Now then, get into the fields and rub a little good earth on yourself lest men take you for a woman, and work a little for the rice you eat!" Wang Lung learns the hard way what so many others have too, that money really does not buy happiness.

And of course the Chinese revolution is always on the periphery. During a period of extreme hardship when Wang Lung and O-lan have fled the barren land and are begging in a city, the conflict comes into sharper focus, as an observer says to Wang Lung, "If the rich would share with us what they have, rain or not would matter none, because we would all have money and food." Toward the close of the novel, when he has amassed great wealth, a poor man says to Wang Lung that, " day [he] would come back even as the poor do come back when the rich are too rich."

I wouldn't call myself a communist by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe I find this theme from The Good Earth so compelling because it is applicable to how I feel about what is currently happening in the United States. The gap in income inequality has become a nearly unbridgeable chasm. I think it's time those super-duper-rich people started bearing more of the burden of this hard time. I don't expect them to give up all of their wealth, or even most of it, but if not taken to extremes, the idea that, "If the rich would share with us what they have, rain or not would matter none, because we would all have money and food," seems to me to be a generally sound principle.

Not to mention a compassionate one.

The next book on the list is another that I've never heard of, The Store by T. S. Stribling (a man). My copy has two white people on the cover and is subtitled, "a stirring novel of the post-Reconstruction South." It's set in Alabama. I'm bracing myself for the racism buffet that I just know is coming.

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