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.