Lost Pearl Buck Manuscript Recovered

Last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigations in Philadelphia announced it had recovered the original manuscript of Peal S. Buck's award-winning novel, The Good Earth. The document had been missing since the mid-1960s. Donna Rhodes, who curates the Pearl S. Buck International Collection and was involved in authenticating the manuscript, talks with Debbie Elliott.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In the decades before and after World War II, a single work of literature shaped the way Americans view China. It was Pearl S. Buck's novel "The Good Earth." It became an immediate bestseller after its publication in 1931 and led to Buck winning the Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes.

The original hand-typed manuscript was sent on tour around the country. Then in the mid-60s it disappeared, apparently, purloined. Suddenly, last month, the 400-page typescript turned up at Freeman's Auction House in Philadelphia, its yellowed pages packed carefully in a decorative red box. Freeman's called Donna Rhodes, curator of the Pearl S. Buck International Collection, and asked her to authenticate the document.

Ms. DONNA RHODES (Curator, Pearl S. Buck International Collection): From what I could see with - my jeweller's loop's certainly not a forensics' team. It looked like it was enough information to contact the FBI and ask them to step in and secure the manuscript.

ELLIOTT: Now, the FBI's theory is that it could have been her secretary who took it.

Ms. RHODES: Well, actually, the FBI had indicated they felt that it was someone - her employee, possibly or a business associate - and then at that point ,it was misconstrued into the word secretary.

ELLIOTT: Did she suspect anyone when this went missing?

Ms. RHODES: She did not suspect anyone in particular. She did, in fact, submit a claim to the FBI before she passed away in the hopes that if it was found, there would be documentation as she thought it was missing. But she really wasn't sure what had happened to the manuscript.

ELLIOTT: It must have been pretty exciting to realize that this manuscript had been found.

Ms. RHODES: Very exciting. It was a very important manuscript in terms of literature and in terms of history, so it was very exciting.

ELLIOTT: How that "The Good Earth" tell a story that helped Westerners understand life in China?

Ms. RHODES: "The Good Earth" reveals an area of China, of peasants that are a living in near starvation and they are working very hard to survive.

ELLIOTT: It's the story of one family, right?

Ms. RHODES: One family through turbulent times in China. And this, again, is new for readers because Pearl writes very candidly about childbirth, about relationships with men and women. And no one has ever done that at this point. So she's giving people a look into how life is existing and a portion of the world that no one has been to yet.

ELLIOTT: Now, along with this manuscript, the FBI also announced that there was this trove of previously unreleased letters.

Ms. RHODES: Yes.

ELLIOTT: What were the letters about? Who were the letters to? Who were they from?

Ms. RHODES: A variety of letters. There's about a hundred of them.

ELLIOTT: Can you give me a few examples?

Ms. RHODES: Sure. There's one from the prime minister of India at the time period. There's a correspondence to Eleanor Roosevelt. There were several letters that she had written and a personal context to her publisher, Richard Walsh, who would eventually become her husband.

ELLIOTT: Do you know what she was writing to Eleanor Roosevelt about?

Ms. RHODES: Oh, yes. I do. She was often writing to Eleanor Roosevelt about ideas of equality, not just in women, which was one of the main areas that she championed but also for children, for people who suffered mental and physical handicaps.

Ms. Buck has a daughter born in 1920, and her daughter Carol was born with PKU, which is phenylketonuria. Her daughter needs to be institutionalized with constant care, and this is the main reason that Ms. Buck begins writing. She needs to provide for her daughter. So she spends three months working feverishly with the idea of creating a book that is within her, and that's how she creates "The Good Earth."

ELLIOTT: Donna Rhodes is the curator of the Pearl S. Buck International Collection. We spoke with her from WHYY in Philadelphia.

Thank you.

Ms. RHODES: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: One more story out of Philadelphia: James Earl Jones, who's the baritone with the voice of Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" movies, will be in the city of brotherly love this week. He'll read the Declaration of Independence at the National Constitution Center. James told ABC's "This Week" that on the 4th of July, this will be an opportunity to focus on the declaration itself, not just the great explosions and bombs bursting in air.

(Soundbite of music)

ELLIOTT: Coming up, I'll talk to one of the giants of jazz guitar, Kenny Burrell.

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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