Monday, January 3, 2022

This Proud Heart by Pearl S. Buck

Aspiring sculptress seeks work-life balance in 1930s America
I’ve read about 15 of Pearl S. Buck’s books and consider myself a fan, but with some reservations. Buck won the 1932 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature, but not all of her books are award-worthy. This Proud Heart is one of her earlier but lesser-known works. It was originally serialized in issues of Good Housekeeping magazine from 1937 to 1938 before being published in book form.

Buck is best known for writing historical fiction, particularly set in Asia, and her novels often admirably address social issues like racism, human rights, and child welfare. This Proud Heart, however, is set in Buck’s present day of the 1930s, and the protagonist is a middle-class American woman. The issue at hand this time is feminism, more specifically a woman’s right to work. Though written prior to the World War II explosion of women into the workplace, This Proud Heart is an early take on the woman who wants to “have it all”—work, family, love, romance, success, and self-actualization. Unfortunately, the 1930s were still pretty early for such a feminist aspiration, and the only way Buck seems to be able to express the concept is through the medium of what reads like a romance novel, and a rather simplistic and dreary one at that.

Susan Gaylord is an intelligent young woman who seems to stand out as exceptional in everything she does. She sticks out like a sore thumb in her small hometown (somewhere in the northeastern U.S.) and doesn’t quite fit in with the other ladies in her social circle. The biggest dream of her young life is to marry her sweetheart Mark, which she accomplishes in the first chapter, yet she’s far too remarkable to be limited by the standard housewife role of the 1930s. Susan has artistic talent and dreams of becoming a professional sculptor. She self-censors those dreams, however, so as not to threaten her happy home life by intimidating or inconveniencing her devoted but insecure husband.

The most disappointing aspect of This Proud Heart is that for a novel about an artist, Buck really doesn’t demonstrate that she knows anything about art. I don’t believe a single actual sculptor is mentioned by name in the entire book; only the Venus de Milo is namechecked once. Very little technical or aesthetic detail is given to the discussion of Susan’s artistic education. In fact, Buck seems to think that an artist born with a “gift” is capable of generating masterpieces at will without much education or sustained hard work. As a character, Susan is obviously a surrogate for Buck herself and her own experiences with marriage, but Buck’s genius is literature, not art. As the story of an artist’s life and career, This Proud Heart never feels authentic enough to be believed or even interesting.

On the subject of marriage, family, and women’s rights, however, the novel does make some valid points. Mostly it succeeds at pointing out the way marriage sucks, in that it hinders the individual’s ability to reach her full, unbridled potential—a fact certainly true for most American women 85 years ago. A recurring fault in some of Buck’s less successful novels is that in order to showcase strong women she resorts to pairing them with weak men. Susan’s first love interest is practically an emotional and intellectual child, and her second is a creepy chauvinist who makes you dislike her for loving him. This Proud Heart offers a few moments when you really root for Susan, but mostly you’re just annoyed by her and bored with her troubles. Buck’s intentions may have been ahead of her time, but this story comes across too tame, hesitant, and old-fashioned to engage most readers of today.
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