Saturday, August 11, 2007

Ownership of The Good Earth Manuscript

Pearl S. Buck portrait

This article about Pearl Buck's The Good Earth manuscript appeared in last week's Pocahontas Times, and has gone behind their firewall. I thought it significant enough to warrant a longer circulation time, so here is an excerpt.

For the record, I think it would be a terrible mistake for any more Buck manuscripts to be housed in Hillsboro. The Pearl S. Buck Birthplace used to display the manuscript of Absalom Sydenstricker's translation of the Bible into Chinese, until it was destroyed through carelessness a couple of years ago. Sydenstricker was Buck's father, and his translation from Hebrew and Greek into Chinese was the first Chinese Bible, and is still in use. The old Stulting house contains an assemblage of late nineteenth century furniture and bric-a-brac unrelated to Buck or her family, and the ladies that maintain the landmark find this stuff much more significant than some unintelligible old manuscript. It costs $6 to tour this faux-plantation house, and for many people, it is only a chance to brag that someone once had enough money to build an ostentatious house in Hillsboro.

Good Earth unearthed: Rightful home of manuscript May be in Hillsboro by Drew Tanner, August 2, 2007 Pocahontas Times

While Pennsylvania-based Pearl S. Buck International and the author's heirs have been in the national spotlight in their dispute over the ownership of a long-lost manuscript, the rightful owners may be right here in Pocahontas County.

In June, the FBI recovered Buck's original, type-written manuscript of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel, The Good Earth, in a suitcase of Buck's personal documents and letters after the daughter of one of the author's former secretaries tried to put the items up for auction. Officials at the Samuel T. Freeman & Company auction house notified investigators of the find.

In a bill of sale recorded at the Pocahontas County Courthouse, Buck signed over all of her manuscripts to the Pearl S. Buck Birthplace Foundation for one dollar in 1970, "including... the Good Earth manuscript[,] the exact location of which is unknown."

Members of the Foundation have been hesitant to make much of their claim to the manuscript, saying they are more interested in promoting Buck's legacy than causing a stir with PSBI or the author's family.

However, they insist, the manuscript belongs with the others the foundation owns, which are stored in an archive at West Virginia Wesleyan College, in Buckhannon. They are currently working with an attorney to figure out how to proceed.

Foundation board member Ruth Taylor said she would like to see a permanent home for the manuscripts constructed at the author's birthplace, in Hillsboro, as the author and the foundation originally intended.

Retired Lewisburg attorney Robert Jacobson said he was at Pearl Buck's home in Vermont when she made the decision to turn over possession of the manuscripts the evening of October 15, 1970.

....Buck wanted to be able to tell representatives from PSBI that she had already conveyed her manuscripts to the Birthplace Foundation. In order to do that, Jacobson said he told the author she needed to record that decision in writing.

The value of the manuscripts, estimated at the time to be worth between $650,000 and $1 million, helped the foundation secure the grants necessary to restore the author's birthplace. Buck was active in promoting the restoration of the house, and penned the memoir My Mother's House to further aid the foundation in its efforts.

The Birthplace Foundation has since restored the house to the way it appeared in 1892, the author's birth year. The house is open for tours from May through October, and the foundation has two employees who sell tickets, guide tours and keep the house clean. The house is full of many of Buck's personal effects, family heirlooms and period furnishings.

....In Hillsboro, the birthplace gets much of its support from the West Virginia Federation of Women's Clubs, said foundation president Rose Anderson. Additional income is received from private donations, people who pay to tour the house and sales at the gift shop. Taylor said the birthplace receives just a few thousand visitors each year, but that she would like to see that change.

....With an archive of the manuscripts on site, Taylor said she envisions the birthplace as a center of study on Buck's writings and her role as a leader of civil rights and women's rights, and as a pioneer in international adoption and racial understanding.

....The manuscript and the suitcase of documents in which it was found are being held by the FBI until the rightful owner is determined.

4 comments:

OfTroy said...

i first read The Good Earth as a tween--and i read it on the sly...i was so young and lived so protected a life, that i was sure my parents would not permit me to read it if they knew--what with concubines and other goings on!

i can't say i've read much more of Pearl Buck, but i still have vivid memories of reading that book!

Rebecca Clayton said...

Reading on the sly is so much more fun. That's a pleasure we lose in growing up, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I own a Pearl S. Buck Manuscript, and I was going to loan it to the Foundation at her birthplace to display. I think I will wait for now. It was a copy of her Asia Column, so belonged to Asia Magazine. If someone has more info about how they destroyed the Chinese ccopy of the Bible, I would appreciate it. One last thing...the FBI has no business adjudicating this. Was it reported stolen 50 years ago? Posession is 9/10 of the law, and the burden of proof is on the family, or whoever to prove it was stolen in the first place, otherwise, the secretaries daughter gets to keep it. This is how it works in the real world. The secretaries family needs to get a good lawyer. People do give things away then forget.

Rebecca Clayton said...

According to an article in the Pocahontas Times, a dehumidifier's water tank overflowed, flooded the floor, and water dripped through to the lower story, soaking Absalom Sydenstricker's original manuscript in dirty water. (It wasn't just a "Chinese copy of the Bible".) The Stulting house was not open at the time, and no one was monitoring the dehumidifier.

I believe this happened in May, 2005. If you need to know precise details, you can pay to access the Pocahontas Times archives.