On December 7th, 1941, "a date which will live in infamy," the Empire of Japan staged its surprise aerial attack on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. Two hours and two thousand lost lives later, the "sleeping giant" officially awoke and the U.S. began its entry into the Second World War. On January 22, 1942, a mere month and a half following the attack, Pearl S. Buck released Dragon Seed
– a novel depicting the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. Early in the novel the story's protagonist, Ling Tan, sets out to his fields one morning on "a day like any other it seemed" before looking to the sky and watching, in pure awe along with his sons and neighbors, the same "silver creatures in the sky" that would ultimately rein terror on Pearl Harbor (Buck 66, 67). Charmed at first by the rare sight, the farmers' sense of wonder fades quickly to horror as the procession turns violent, laying the neighboring city to waste as a mere precursor of the violence to come. In the book, the impending terror of the Japanese army ultimately awakens its own "sleeping giant" among the local farming communities in the story.
The striking way through which Buck's novel managed to resonate so overwhelmingly with the, at the time, contemporary experiences of the American population mirror the sentiments of James D. Hart regarding the bestseller. In The Popular Book he writes, "usually the book that is popular pleases the reader because it is shaped by the same forces that mold his non-reading hours, so that its dispositions and convictions, its language and subject re-create the sense of the present," (as quoted in Hackett 8). In fact, beyond mere plot-specific parallels, Dragon Seed manages to tap into the consciousness of the American public of the 1940's in multiple ways including: its connection to the social "coattail effect," by exploring and translating a foreign culture, and by adopting the taste for the American war novel. Together, these qualities allow Dragon Seed to effectively epitomize part of the bestseller phenomenon and define its place in critical and literary history.
Dragon Seed tells the tale of one family's fight for survival in the face of the Japanese invasion of Eastern China. Ling Tan, a wise and stoic farmer, and his wife Ling Sao, a fierce and lively woman, live alongside their children Lao Ta, Lao Er, Lao San and Pansiao as well as their eldest sons' respective families on a farm outside the city. Their lives are deeply intertwined with the land and governed by generations of tradition. What starts as rumors of emerging conflict escalate into the horrors of full-fledged war as bombs drop daily on the neighboring city and soon families across the country begin to flee from the Imperial Army's wake. Buck uses her simple, poetic prose to describe the collective movement and fear of the Chinese people as she depicts how they "poured like a flooding river out from the city over the countryside. And the stream of people from the city was joined by a greater stream from the east… the great river of moving people began to flow inland toward the west" (Buck 88). Ling Tan, most his family and the entire farming community refuse to abandon their land though and, instead, face the Japanese occupation. Through the eyes of this family, the reader experiences wartime suffering at the hands of the invaders: the murder of innocent civilians, rape, torture as well as ever-looming fear, starvation and disease. Underscoring this suffering is a tension between older customs and a newer innovation. While Ling Tang refuses to participate in any form of violence his son Lao Er and his wife Jade lead the community rebellion in fighting back against their captors, the entire family forced to accept that "the whole world in which they must live would never be the same again" (Buck 189). While the village succeeds in challenging the local military presence they are hardly a strong enough force to begin reclaiming the remainder of China and a long future of struggle stretches ahead. Despite this, the novel ends on a relatively optimistic, and also political, note. Huddled around the radio the townspeople listen to a report of "the meeting between the two great white men" who promise that their "sufferings and their resistances will not be in vain" (Buck 376). Through this conclusion, Buck manages to produce a glimmer of hope for the novel's central family while simultaneously calling for the United State's aid in China.
Dragon Seed was not Pearl S. Buck's first novel about China and it was hardly her last. Born in West Virginia but raised China she found her own identity split between the Eastern and Western worlds and sought ways to reconcile these two forces in her life. Her second novel, The Good Earth, managed to do just that and more. The book tells the story of a poor Chinese man, Wang Lung, as he tries to establish himself and start a family. Before he and his wife O-Lan settle down, though, they undergo extreme hardship and poverty until ultimately finding prosperity. Wang Lung's journey paralleled the experiences of thousands of Americans who were struggling to survive during the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl at the time of the book's release. Buck's story resonated so strongly with the country, in fact, that The Good Earth remained the number one bestseller for two consecutive years (1931-1932), sold over two million copies, received the Pulitzer Prize, and influenced her later winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. In The Good Earth and throughout her career critics praised Buck for her rare insight to the Chinese people, "their character, culture, traditions and institutions," with many recognizing her as "the ablest interpreter of China to the Western world" (National Encyclopedia of American Biography 67). In fact, sociologist Harold Isaacs argued that "no single book about China had a greater impact than… The Good Earth," insisting that "for a whole generation of Americans [Pearl Buck] ‘created' the Chinese, in the same sense that Dickens ‘created'… Victorian England." (Isaacs 155). In Dragon Seed Buck succeeded in not only recreating many of the reasons for The Good Earth's success but she also managed to tap into a larger trend within the bestseller lists throughout history.
In politics, the coattail effect refers to the influence of a major leader in securing votes for additional candidates of the same party in an election. This notion of benefit, potentially undeserved, secured through associated popularity has been a reoccurring trend throughout bestseller history. While Dragon Seed is the second and only other book by Pearl Buck to ever make the bestsellers list, its similarities to The Good Earth are certainly enough to draw the power of this effect into question. In his biography of Buck, Paul Doyle directly compares the two novels citing their "same deep feeling for the value of the land," "same quiet tone," same "chronological approach," same "Zola-like Naturalism" and same exploitation of "sensational matter for a telling effect" (Doyle 109). Conn, in his biography, makes a very similar comment linking the two books through their "trademark Buck mannerisms – the quasi biblical style and the one-dimensional characters" (Conn 254-255). While parts of these comparisons are merely stylistic qualities potentially common throughout all of her writing, the content and the timing of these two stories certainly mirror each other as well. It is rare to find a review for Dragon Seed at its release that does not allude to The Good Earth and while the novel was ranked third on the bestsellers list for 1942 it showed little of the same longevity, with a bulk of the sales coming from the first few months of its release before being forgotten critically and academically almost entirely. Why would interest in a bestseller peak and fall so quickly? Despite the similarities between the two books Dragon Seed did receive criticism that The Good Earth did not. For example, many reviewers at the time were put-off by the Mayli and Lao San love-story, Doyle refers to it as "a disastrous attempt to insert romantic materials into a context of realism," a byproduct of an emerging Hollywood influence in literature (Doyle 108). A review from Time magazine captures another frequent complaint regarding the "not quite convincing effort, through radio, to give Ling Tan (and the U.S. reader) a realization that his people suffer not alone but as companions among the peoples of a planet" (Bloody Ballet 82). This blatantly obvious attempt at propaganda really bothered reviewers and ended up severely detracting from the plot for many. These frequently cited complaints critically may have been a disappointment for readers who may have initially expected a novel on the same caliber as The Good Earth; this could have contributed to the quickened fading out of the novel's popularity after its release.
Throughout the history of the bestseller list coattail success is often only recognized in the case of an author's subsequent failure to meet expectations. Otherwise, if an additional novel by a bestselling author is successful, its success is usually attributed to different factors – be it the plot, the style of the author, the theme, or other features. Authors like Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Stephen King and Danielle Steele benefit from this pattern of consumer behavior as their multiple bestsellers have managed to establish a loyal following, securing a future coattail effect regardless of the potentially varying quality of their work. Other authors experience a much briefer coattail effect, leaving the bestseller lists littered with "two-hit wonders." In this case, an author sees major commercial success with a single book and then one of his or her subsequent novels manages to piggyback off the success of the first, often to the disappointment of critics or fans, and the author never appears on the bestseller lists again. Louis Bromfield's The Rains Came (1937), Betty Smith's Tomorrow Will Be Better (1948), Peter Benchley's The Deep (1976), Erich Segal's Oliver's Story (1977) and William Styron's Sophie's Choice (1979) are all examples of these second-time successes that, according to their respective bestseller entries, benefitted heavily from their author's previous success but were often met with disappointment or very brief critical interest the second time around- a pattern Dragon Seed appears to follow as well. This trend spans decades of the bestseller lists and appears less of a factor from a single moment in American literary history than a long-term feature of the country's national psychology in terms of both literature and politics alike.
In addition to the broader patterns within the bestseller list, Dragon Seed also provides insight for a few period-specific trends within the lists as well. The 1940's was an important decade for opening up and expanding the world stage in revolutionary ways. World War II and the early beginnings of the Cold War brought different countries all over the world into direct conflict, while simultaneously the formation of the UN introduced a new notion of international diplomacy and connectedness. In this era decolonization within Asia and Africa released entire countries from European rule. These major global and political changes stirred American public interest of international peoples and cultures. Historically readers were accustomed to, if they chose to read fiction about a foreign country, stories that portrayed "cardboard figures either quaint, comic, or sinister, moving in a stilted, stylized fashion about an exotic and artificial stage not even intended to convince" (Twentieth Century Romance and Historical Writers). Pearl Buck challenged this norm, however, by not only writing rich and complex Chinese characters, but also by, according to critics today, using "her ability to portray her characters in a universal manner… (to) transcend cultural barriers and become understandable to all readers" (Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography). The international-American novel was a major trend in the 1940's: Lydia Bailey (1947) explored Haiti, A Bell for Adano (1944) focused on Italy, Green Dolphin Street (1944) studied the Channel Islands and New Zealand, Night in Bombay (1940) introduced readers to India, while The Keys for the Kingdom (1941) and The Family (1940) both took place in China as well. While American readers were initially attracted to studying differences in culture through literature, it was the similarities of these countries to America that sustained their interest. In this way, a number of books from this era presented familiar storylines – like the romance novel, historical fiction - only transposed into foreign settings with foreign people to cater to this multi-faceted interest.
Dragon Seed further exemplifies this concept of "familiar diversity" in the way it adapts many of the qualities of the American war novel. According to Mary Favret in her book War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime, "the advent of mass media" triggered a nation-wide desire for additional information and stories from the front while maintaining "a mediated relationship to distant violence," (Favret 13). For Dragon Seed, the thousands of miles between the U.S. and China certainly provided that sense of mediation, although the attack on Pearl Harbor forced many to question this distance as well. World War II was an especially popular topic in literature at this time, Norman Mailer's The Naked and Dead (1948), Ben Ames Williams' House Divided (1947), Irwin Shaw's The Young Lions (1948), Herman Wouk's The Caine Mutiny (1951), James Jones' From Here to Eternity (1951) and Nicholas Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea (1951) only scratch the surface of literary reactions during and immediately following the war. World War I, the Civil War and the Cold War have also been well-represented on the bestseller lists, though World War II in particular had a very distinct place in the hearts and minds of readers, as the subject was revived in the late 1950's to 60's as a response to the Cold War with Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago (1958), Leon Uris' Mila18 (1961), and Katherine Anne Porter's Ship of Fools (1962). While nowadays a war novel will appear again, from time to time, on the bestseller lists, these two points in history specifically brought the World War II novel to the forefront of the American literary consciousness and culture.
In American Novel of War: A Critical Analysis and Classification System Wallis Sanborn highlights common feature and themes in the American war novel throughout history, many of which also appear in Dragon Seed. Despite the fact that the novels he discusses focus only on American soldiers at war, the Chinese farmers of Buck's novel manage to work interchangeably with his formula. Most simplistically, the novel follows the same linear style Sanborn discusses and engages in the stereotypical plot features one might expect: the death of fighting allies, the murder of noncombatants, the devastation of a community's entire infrastructure, war rhetoric, weaponry, large-scale relocation, and themes of prostitution. The novel takes an interesting approach to what Sanborn describes as the "opposition dyad between the occupying/invading forces and the indigenous/local people," by metaphorically pitting the main characters, whose lives are so incredibly intertwined with nature, against the violence and destruction of the invading forces (Sanborn 16). By juxtaposing rich figurative language with the darker realism of the story's violence, Buck creates a striking contrast for readers. While for Ling Tan she writes, "his man's mind could take the seed and fertilize it with his thought and bring it up to fruit and so he did," she adapts a very harsh tone in describing the rape of his youngest son, Lao San, writing, "they took this boy and used him as a woman… And Ling Tan, his gorge rising and his vomit in his throat… fell on the soldiers… (but) they bound them so that they must face the thing they did, and prodded them when they closed their eyes" (Buck 200). While try and try as the invading army might to stifle the life of this community, Ling Tan and his family perpetually spring back from the earth, as if reborn, ready to defend all that they have. While the novel certainly recognizes the distinctions between these Chinese farmers and their American soldier counterparts in literature, Dragon Seed effectively uses the tools of this subject in literature to resonate directly with American audiences throughout history.
Hart speaks to the temporality of the bestseller in The Popular Book , asserting that though, "[bestsellers] die away as soon as that present becomes the past" they remain "etched deeply into a national consciousness" (Hackett 8). Historically, the same can be said about Pearl S. Buck herself and Dragon Seed alike. While the two are often forgotten within literary criticism today, their significance and impact resonate nonetheless, although maybe below the surface. While Buck's influence in altering the perceptions of the Chinese throughout this country will forever linger, Dragon Seed itself contributes, in its own way, to the ongoing and ever adapting national consciousness. Transcending its own plot the novel speaks directly to tendencies within the country's popular culture by highlighting the impact of the coattail effect, the American approach to the international novel, and the place of the war novel in the bestselling literary canon. Through these attributes Dragon Seed offers a perpetual lens into the year 1942 that no other resource studied today will ever be able to provide.
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