the fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Greg Sheri­dan

WHAT is the most ar­rest­ing im­age from all the nov­els you’ve read? For me it is the scene in Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth where the wife of the Chi­nese peas­ant-made-good protests at his tak­ing a con­cu­bine with the bit­ter re­tort: ‘‘ But I gave you sons.’’

I was in Bonn, the old West Ger­man cap­i­tal, when I read this, din­ing alone in a beau­ti­ful strasse of cafes and one open-air sec­ond-hand book­shop. With noth­ing to read, and hav­ing re­cently been in Bei­jing, I picked up The Good Earth and could not put it down.

Buck won the No­bel Prize for this early 1930s novel but is now much ne­glected. A pi­o­neer­ing fem­i­nist, a doughty foe of racism, a cham­pion of in­ter­ra­cial adop­tion and in­ter­cul­tural outreach of all kinds, she is seen now, wrongly, as anachro­nis­tic.

I loved the book but didn’t feel im­pelled to read more of Buck. I wanted to hear about China from Chi­nese voices. But I re­cently read an­other of Buck’s books, Come, My Beloved, that piqued my cu­rios­ity be­cause it is set in In­dia.

Buck, an Amer­i­can, knew China in­ti­mately, hav­ing spent her child­hood there with Chris­tian mis­sion­ary par­ents and part of her adult­hood as a mis­sion­ary and teacher her­self. Her knowl­edge of In­dia was neg­li­gi­ble by com­par­i­son.

In fact, Come, My Beloved is not about In­dia at all but about a fam­ily of Amer­i­can mis­sion­ar­ies. A multi-mil­lion­aire trav­els to In­dia and con­ceives the idea of a great mis­sion­ary school there; his son car­ries out the idea; the son’s son un­der­takes a more rad­i­cal ver­sion of mis­sion­ary life and, fi­nally, in the fourth gen­er­a­tion there is a daugh­ter, born in In­dia.

It’s a bit of a fam­ily saga and en­ter­tain­ing in its plot. But Buck’s real sub­ject, in this easy to un­der­es­ti­mate novel, is the na­ture of Amer­i­can ide­al­ism. She shows its con­sum­ing power, its some­times dan­ger­ous in­no­cence and the ab­so­lute sense of in­tegrity, nar­rowly con­ceived, that im­pels it, some­times with ques­tion­able re­sults (though more of­ten ben­e­fi­cially, in my view).

This is a far more sub­tle and in­ter­est­ing med­i­ta­tion than Gra­ham Greene achieved in his mas­sively over­rated The Quiet Amer­i­can, which re­lies for much of its ap­peal on a sense of Bri­tish su­pe­ri­or­ity to Amer­i­cans. Greene was a great nov­el­ist but he wrote ab­so­lute rub­bish about pol­i­tics. His keen in­sights were into the ex­is­ten­tial and re­li­gious dilem­mas of in­di­vid­u­als and he was al­ways at his best writ­ing about English characters.

One of the best ac­counts in lit­er­a­ture of Amer­i­can ide­al­ism is Thorn­ton Wilder’s Heaven’s My Des­ti­na­tion, set in the US, whose hero, Ge­orge Brush, is a car­i­ca­ture. But the mag­nif­i­cent, iron in­tegrity of his lit­eral- minded ide­al­ism and gen­eros­ity wins our deep­est re­spect. In a typ­i­cal pas­sage, a girl says af­fec­tion­ately: ‘‘ Ge­orge, you’re kind of crazy.’’ ‘‘ Yes,’’ he an­swers, ‘‘ I know what you mean, but if you no­tice care­fully, you’ll see that I’m very log­i­cal.’’

This com­bi­na­tion of a cer­tain tech­ni­cal com­pe­tence co-ex­ist­ing weirdly with a deep, un­worldly in­no­cence, all en­livened by a re­lent­less drive to ac­tion, a vast mo­ti­vat­ing force of life, is Amer­i­can ide­al­ism. This force has been the en­gine of a great deal of his­tory.

The peo­ple who un­der­stand this best are the Amer­i­cans them­selves. In Thirty Sec­onds Over Tokyo, a mo­rale-boost­ing film made in 1944, Van John­son plays the hero, blitz­ing Spencer Tracy and Robert Mitchum off the screen. John­son ru­mi­nates over the moral­ity of the bomb­ing raid he will un­der­take. In a rep­re­sen­ta­tive scene, he com­ments: ‘‘ I don’t hate the Japs’’, then re­flects it just comes down to the fact that if he doesn’t bomb them, they’ll bomb Amer­ica, sym­bol­ised for him by his wife.

I love John­son’s work. His crit­i­cal rep­u­ta­tion is poor: he was seen as too much the Amer­i­can good guy. (Greene thought John­son’s ren­di­tion of the hero in The End of the Af­fair, the writer’s best and most dif­fi­cult novel, su­perb.) John­son wasn’t just the all-Amer­i­can hero. There was an in­no­cence and vul­ner­a­bil­ity com­bined with his will­ing­ness to take ac­tion, the as­sump­tion that he had to take re­spon­si­bil­ity. Jimmy Ste­wart, an­other favourite, had the same qual­i­ties but in­tel­lec­tu­alised them a bit more. You can­not un­der­stand his­tory with­out un­der­stand­ing the gi­ant force of Amer­i­can ide­al­ism.

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