When Pearl Buck tangoed with Mike Wallace

Fifty years ago, a televised showdown between the sexes. With a cameo appearance by Red China.

By Andrew Leonard

Published April 8, 2008 6:54PM (EDT)

Like a moth to the flame, I could not resist reading the transcript of an interview conducted in 1958 between Pearl Buck, the Pulitzer-and-Nobel-Prize-winning author of "The Good Earth," and Mike Wallace, he of so much "60 Minutes" notoriety. I don't know what I expected -- I confess, ashamedly, that I've never even read Buck's famous tale of rural Chinese life. Maybe I was just amazed at how long Wallace has been in business. He was 40 years old at the time, and quite well established, starring in his own TV show on ABC, "The Mike Wallace Interview."

Last week the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin made transcripts and video clips of 65 of Wallace's interviews from 1957-58 available online. The roster of interviewees is impressive, by any standard, ranging from Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan and Texas oil robber-barons to Frank Lloyd Wright, Henry Kissinger and Salvador Dali. But when the master of the tough question spars with Pearl Buck, Wallace, to my eye, comes off the worse for it. (Thanks to Danwei for the tip.)

Wallace didn't bring Buck on his show to talk about China, though at one point he does toss off a question asking whether "the United States can do anything to lessen the menace that Red China would seem to be to the West at this time." (Some things never change.) Instead, he wants to talk about the state of womanhood in America. It seems that there is this little problem in 1958 -- some women want to have careers and raise a family, and it's hard. (Some things really never change.)

But Wallace doesn't seem very sympathetic to the plight of American women or to what he describes as Buck's "attacks" on "our devotion to 'sex appeal' and 'romance.'" At one point, he even wonders if problems between the sexes are "because women themselves try to emasculate men, and therefore build -- I'm, I'm quite serious about this and for that reason I don't mean to go over psychological here -- but they want to usurp the place of men."

I concede, discovering that Mike Wallace was a sexist in 1958 is about as shocking as learning that "The Mike Wallace Interview" was sponsored by Parliament, "another fine product of the Philip Morris Company," as Wallace takes pleasure in saying at the beginning of every broadcast. (Mike Wallace and tobacco -- they go waaaaay back.) But I come here not to bury Wallace, but to praise Buck.

This excerpt provides the full flavor of the exchange:

WALLACE: Well, aside from biology, what are the important differences between men and women Miss Buck?

BUCK: Heavens! You ask me that in this little while?

WALLACE: Well, we have uh... fifteen minutes if you'd care to discourse.

[Some back and forth]

BUCK: ...whatever I'd like to say? I think women do have a particular point of view, uh, it isn't competitive with men at all, uh, I think they're less romantic then men, less emotional, much more practical, uh, much more independent then men are.......

WALLACE: You're talking about American women?

BUCK: Uh, women anywhere in the world this is common woman state,

WALLACE: Uh huhmmmmm....

[Some more back and forth]

WALLACE: ...... I would gather from what you have told me now for the past minute or two, that you don't respect men very much.

BUCK: Well, I think I respect individual men very much. I don't say... I would never say I don't respect men...

WALLACE: Well, I know, you can't generalize.... but...

BUCK: But uh.....

WALLACE: But look at all of the things that you've said over the past minute or two. I think that you think that men are infinitely superior really......oh not infinitely, but considerably superior to men.

BUCK: Women are superior to men?

WALLACE: As human beings, yes.

BUCK: You mean women, you said men.

WALLACE: Oh, I...thank you....

BUCK: Yes....

After reading the transcript -- the full video can be found here -- and finding myself fully charmed by Buck's obvious imperviousness to Wallace's attempts to stir up trouble, I visited her Wikipedia page and then discovered a fascinating critical appraisal of "The Good Earth." I learned that Pearl Buck founded the first international, inter-racial adoption agency; that, even though she was the daughter of two Presbyterian missionaries, she became a vigorous critic of evangelistic Christianity; and that she was, in addition to being a pioneering feminist (although she eschewed the term), a vocal critic of colonialism and racism.

Pearl Buck rocks. And "The Good Earth" finally makes its way onto my reading list.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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