September 24, 2010
And Does It Matter Who Wrote It?
(Continuing our story of an intemperate letter)
So the writer of the letter, James Graham Jr, was actually a contemporary of Pearl’s, not a “long-term adversary” (so Spurling, p. 211), and by the time he wrote this letter in 1933 he had known her all his life. Family tradition has it that Sophie Graham, the wife of James Graham Sr, had even homeschooled Pearl Sydenstricker and the Graham children in the early days when both families were in Tsingkiangpu (Chingkiang). And later in the mountain retreat of Kuling (Lushan), where many missionaries and other Westerners migrated to escape the summer heat of the lowlands, the Graham’s and Sydenstricker’s summer cottages (both homes regularly occupied by two generations of missionaries and grandchildren) were next door to each other.
It takes no stretch of the imagination to surmise that these were close communities of missionaries, and little passed unseen between those families, at least during their summer hiatus. As another source has it, “You see, Kuliang [sic] is a little summer community, and everybody knows everybody else’s business. It is impossible to do anything without it being talked about” (Edward Bliss Jr., Beyond the Stone Arches, p. 104). Of course, by the same token, these missionaries—whatever their differences and tensions—would quite naturally defend one another against criticism from without or betrayal from within. And by 1933, Pearl Buck had clearly betrayed and offended many within that community.
But here is an interesting thing: when we turn to the 1933 letters that really come from James Graham Sr, the generational contemporary of Pearl’s father, Absalom Sydenstricker, temperance is all we find! In his circular letters to supporting churches during that period, he holds his tongue and says nothing about Pearl, though he does make a point of mentioning how many missionary kids have returned to China to be very effective missionaries. And he does say that, “They are the best answer I know of to the attacks on Mission work and missionaries that are so prominent just now” (February 1, 1933). But of Pearl, he says nothing.
This temperance, according to my mother, is absolutely true to his character: not to speak ill of anyone. And reading his letters would persuade you of this. As well, “Uncle Jimmy,” as he was known, made an effort to keep in contact with these children of missionaries as they went away to college. From all I’ve learned of him, “Uncle Jimmy” sounds like someone who would have felt fondness for Pearl and disappointment rather than anger over the direction she took. But it appears that it is not only the confusion of the James Grahams that has contributed to this historical misjudgment (is there more than one “John” behind the NT Gospel and the Apocalypse?), it is also a characterization of James Graham Sr. as an old enemy of Absalom Sydenstricker.
The biographers point to an incident, perhaps around 1890, when the young Graham had arrived in Tsingkiangpu (Chingkiang), and a tension ensued between the more veteran Sydenstricker and the novice Graham. I do not have access to documentation of this, but I do have the historically anchored fact that years later the two men and their families had their summer cottages next door to one another. Jim Graham Jr. refers to this when he writes, “Her old father spent his last days and died next door to us at Kuling, believing firmly in the same Gospel that he had spent his life in preaching.” Forty years on, old disputes and tensions (inasmuch as they had ever existed) appear to have been forgotten within the Graham family anyway. And my mother (a child at the time) remembers her grandfather and Absalom as friends.
So not only is the Graham letter misattributed, it has a context that is seriously mistaken by the biographers: Jim Graham Jr. and Pearl Sydenstricker knew each other well, had very similar childhoods, and were closely parallel in their mastery of the Chinese language and culture. Both of them carried these backgrounds and abilities into their adult lives as Southern Presbyterian missionaries in China. As an adult, Graham Jr. was well known for his mastery of spoken and written Chinese. So Jim Graham’s testimony about Pearl, as we have it, is worth weighing as someone who had known her and her family as a generational contemporary, and who knew China as few Westerners would. As Graham puts it, “It is distressing to those of us who have known Pearl Sydenstricker all our lives, and now to see her defection and departure from all the things that her parents and her early associates held sacred.”
Graham Jr. does have some interesting things to say, including appreciation for Buck’s skill as a writer. It’s his understanding that she picked up material for the risqué scenes of her novel from Chinese popular novels (something acknowledged by the biographers). For Graham maintains, that he as a man has had long associations with the type of men Buck writes of, and they never would talk to him, a man, about what went on beyond closed doors. How much less with an American woman? Then too he points to the crux of the outrage within the missionary community—that Buck, who was notoriously light on missionary practice and had committed offense in her writing (for her time and within Southern Presbyterian culture), “should be quoted on all sides as an authority on what missionary work should consist of and the kind of missionaries that should be sent to China.”
So to return to my fundamental point about historiography, the kind of thing I’ve been sketching out here can surely be replicated in any number of instances of biographical or historical writing about the more recent past. And this is so even when archives supported by living memories can inform and bring correction to historical narratives that have gone astray on miscues and misinterpretations. But how much more is this so when we turn to early Christian history, where we work with a virtually fixed collection of texts that is only rarely supplemented by new discoveries (usually of a “background” sort). And too often modern historical reconstructions of ancient history trade in hypotheses precariously constructed on hypotheses, which might easily be toppled by a fresh breeze of authentic historical testimony. Just how much ongoing tension was there between Peter and Paul or between, let’s say, the Matthean and Johannine “communities”? And how can we be sure?
Or what of our modern penchant for psychoanalyzing from a distance of centuries or millennia (a practice difficult enough when the subject is present “on the couch”!). I wonder, what would the biographers do with this nugget of family remembrance I recently came across: that young Jim Graham dated young Pearl Sydenstricker during their high school years!
Ahh! So that’s the real source of his “intemperate” letter. Unresolved romantic tensions! Spurned love, no doubt!
Hmm. What if Pearl Sydenstricker had been my grandmother*? Maybe I’d be editing fiction today and not worrying over historiography.