Fight Brews Over 'Earth' Manuscript

The Pearl S. Buck manuscript, including handwritten corrections, surfaced this year at auction, four decades after the author reported it missing.
The Pearl S. Buck manuscript, including handwritten corrections, surfaced this year at auction, four decades after the author reported it missing. (Photos By Tom Mihalek -- Associated Press)

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By Maryclaire Dale
Associated Press
Tuesday, August 7, 2007

PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 6 -- A literary mystery appeared to be solved this year when a long-lost manuscript of Pearl S. Buck's novel "The Good Earth" surfaced in a sale tied to a former secretary's family.

The auction house involved called the FBI, and U.S. officials proudly gave the typed manuscript to Buck's heirs, her seven adopted children. But at least two foundations with links to the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner, who died in 1973, now hope to share in the discovery.

And a legal brawl could be on tap after one of them -- a board of mostly elderly women that runs Buck's birthplace in West Virginia -- stepped forward in recent days to lay claim to the valuable papers.

The board maintains that Buck left all of her manuscripts to the birthplace in a 1970 legal document.

"She said her intent was to provide these as a source of funds if ever needed to maintain her mother's home," said lawyer Steve Hunter of Lewisburg, W.Va., who represents the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace in tiny Hillsboro. Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker was born on the West Virginia property on June 26, 1892.

The legal affidavit was signed and notarized on Oct. 15, 1970, and filed at the Pocahontas County Courthouse on March 21, 1973, two weeks after Buck died. In the document, Buck estimates the value of her collection of manuscripts at $650,000 to $1 million, although she calls them "priceless to me."

She lists scores of documents she was giving to the birthplace, including " 'The Good Earth' manuscript, the exact location of which is unknown."

"The Good Earth," Buck's most famous book, follows the life of a peasant farmer in pre-revolutionary China as he marries, accumulates wealth, and experiences both success and heartache. Buck, the daughter of Presbyterian missionaries, lived mostly in China through age 40.

The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and helped earn Buck the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.

Hunter said he spoke with U.S. Attorney Patrick Meehan in Philadelphia late last month about the manuscript, only to learn that Meehan's office no longer had it. The FBI had recovered the well-kept 400-page manuscript in June, after the daughter of one of the author's former secretaries tried to put it up for auction. No charges were filed against the daughter.

"I suspect Ms. Buck knew where it was," said Hunter, who said his wife once served on the board of the birthplace. "[The secretary] had been with her a long time, and she didn't want to create a situation."

Pearl S. Buck International, a cultural nonprofit Buck founded at her farmhouse in Bucks County, Pa., also has an interest in the manuscript. The group had agreed with the heirs to display it for several months later this year while the children retained ownership, according to family lawyer Peter Hearn.

Hearn declined to comment Monday on the new development, as did Buck's son Edgar S. Walsh, the estate's administrator. Janet L. Mintzer, chief executive of Pearl S. Buck International, did not immediately return a telephone message Monday.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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