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'The Good Earth' manuscript to go on display

It was her publisher - and future husband - who gave her the title. She had planned to name her novel after the lead character, Wang Lung.

With gloved hands, curator Donna Rhodes holds the 400-page manuscript at the Perkasie offices of Pearl S. Buck International, where it is to be displayed. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)
With gloved hands, curator Donna Rhodes holds the 400-page manuscript at the Perkasie offices of Pearl S. Buck International, where it is to be displayed. (Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel / Staff Photographer)Read more

It was her publisher - and future husband - who gave her the title.

She had planned to name her novel after the lead character, Wang Lung.

He persuaded her that, for one, nobody was going to buy a book that sounded like "One Lung." And, for another, so epic a book deserved a title to match.

Pearl Buck took Richard Walsh's suggestion and renamed her novel The Good Earth.

Now, finally, four decades after its mysterious disappearance, and two years after it was recovered by the FBI, the original, hand-edited manuscript of The Good Earth is about to go on display in Bucks County. Tomorrow, executives at the author's Perkasie foundation plan to announce an agreement that will let them show the typescript beginning next Tuesday.

"That manuscript is one of a kind," said Janet Mintzer, president of Pearl S. Buck International, known as PSBI, which operates adoption and children's-aid programs and offers tours of the author's historic home. "It's a great opportunity to increase awareness of Pearl Buck."

The aged document arrived at PSBI last week in a plain white box, hand-delivered by one of Buck's sons. The pages are delicate but not fragile, turning toward yellow but still mostly off-white or golden tan.

Across precisely 400 pages, Buck's hand is evident. She has crossed out words and inserted new ones. On the first page, someone - no doubt her publisher, Walsh - has drawn a line through her title. Fingerprints, smudges, stray marks, trims, and notes show the manuscript as a malleable, evolving work.

The type starts out dark blue, then lightens as the pages increase - apparently, Buck's typewriter ribbon was wearing out.

PSBI will exhibit the book inside Buck's country home. The manuscript will rest on a bed of black velvet, set on the desk at which it was written beside the typewriter on which it was typed. The last time all three were together - desk, typewriter, and manuscript - was 80 years ago in China.

The chance to see The Good Earth excites scholars such as Pradyumna Chauhan, an English professor at Arcadia University.

"It's like seeing the original, rather than the print, of a precious painting," said Chauhan, adviser to a documentary on Buck. "If you can see the brush strokes, you get more meaning out of it."

In an era before TV and celebrity news, The Good Earth made Buck an overnight star. The novel was the best-selling book of 1931 - and 1932. It won the Pulitzer Prize, helped Buck earn a Nobel Prize in literature, and was adapted as an Oscar-winning movie.

Today, young people may know the book mostly for the headlines that accompanied the manuscript's discovery. In 2007, while searching the basement of her Montgomery County home for a dead mouse, the daughter of Buck's late, longtime secretary found the document in an old suitcase.

The novel tells the story of a poor farmer, Wang Lung, and his wife, O-lan, who strive to overcome flood, famine and locusts in pre-Communist China. Wang Lung labors to shape, and is shaped by, the land around him.

When it appeared, the story of determined, hard-luck farmers found instant resonance among Americans struggling through the Dust Bowl and the Depression. It introduced the West to China, where Buck spent the first half of her life as the daughter of West Virginia missionaries. The book's themes - courage, loyalty, perseverance - proved universal.

Interest in Buck shrank after her death in 1973, but her masterwork remains one of the best-selling books of the 20th century.

Written in 90 days

In its first 18 months, The Good Earth earned Buck more than $100,000 - the equivalent of $1.3 million today. More than that, it positioned the writer for her future work as a fighter for racial justice and an advocate for interracial adoption.

She wrote the book in 90 days, an astoundingly short time, tapping out the words on a U.S.-made Royal typewriter that had been purchased secondhand in Shanghai. She worked in the attic office of her home in Nanjing, the room's defining feature the window that framed a spectacular view of Purple Mountain. Today the house is used by Nanjing University, the mountain view blocked by newer buildings. That doesn't stop Buck aficionados from making their way up the stairs to pose for photos.

Buck was still living in China when The Good Earth became a critical success, leaving her unaware of the excitement surrounding her book.

When Walsh wrote with the news that The Good Earth had been chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, guaranteeing wide sales, Buck was unfamiliar with the organization.

"Do they know I am not a member of their club?" she asked.

Found in a suitcase

In June 2007, the FBI's Philadelphia office announced it had recovered the manuscript, which had been missing since at least 1966.

Susan Dempster found it in a suitcase that had come from the house of her mother, Helen Shaddinger, who worked 25 years as Buck's secretary. Dempster took the manuscript to a Philadelphia auctioneer, who learned the document had been reported stolen and turned it over to federal agents.

The FBI said it believed that the secretary, who died in 1995, had taken the manuscript. No charges were filed. Some at PSBI believe Shaddinger was trying to shield an invaluable artifact from a shady suitor, a young dance instructor named Theodore Harris, who moved to the center of Buck's universe in the 1960s.

The discovery at first pitted the Buck Family Estate against PSBI. Talks between Mintzer and estate executor Edgar Walsh, another of Buck's sons, led to compromise: The estate would control the manuscript, but PSBI could display it for a while.

Even as that was being arranged, a new claimant emerged. Officials at the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace in Hillsboro, W. Va., told reporters that The Good Earth was rightfully theirs. In a 1970 bill of sale, they said, Buck gave the birthplace all of her manuscripts - making special mention of The Good Earth.

Worried that the birthplace might file a legal claim, the estate halted the loan of the book to PSBI. In September 2007, PSBI officials announced that a public viewing had been postponed indefinitely.

No lawsuit

Time has gone forward with no lawsuit from the Buck birthplace. Further, Mintzer said, birthplace officials told her they had no objection to a public exhibit. The estate is lending the manuscript to PSBI for six months.

"It's a very important manuscript, widely read, known globally," PSBI curator Donna Rhodes said. "I don't think people realize the enormity of it."

There's no guarantee people will trek to Perkasie to see a weathered manuscript. It's not exactly moon rocks. But scholars say its worth is enormous.

While manuscripts "may not be as valuable as a guitar once owned by Jimi Hendrix, they are probably a lot more useful and revealing," said David Blake, author of Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity.

With its scratch-outs and margin notes, a manuscript can reveal changes in plot and character - tracks on the road into the mind of the author.

"The manuscript helps take us back to the moment of creation," Blake said. "It reminds us that the book itself was a product of some very real human labor."

If You Go

The manuscript of "The Good Earth" will go on display for six months, beginning next Tuesday.

Where: The manuscript can be seen during tours of the Pearl Buck historic home at 520 Dublin Rd. in Perkasie.

When: Tours are offered at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, and 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Sundays.

Admission: $7 for adults ($6 each for groups of 10 or more), $6 for seniors, and free for children younger than 6.

Information: Online at