Published on March 2, 1931, Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth won her immediate fame. It became the best seller of 1931 and 1932 and won the Pulitzer Prize and the Howells Medal in 1935. It took Buck only three months to write. Critics praised the novel for its realistic portrayal of Chinese life and its avoidance of the stereotypes usually present in works about China. Enthusiastic reviews were immediately published in Bookman, Books, Catholic World, Christian Century, Forum, Living Church, New Statesman and Nation, the New York Times, Outlook, Saturday Review of Literature, the Spectator, the Yale Review, and Springfield Republican. As Chuang Hsin-Tsai explained in his 1933 article, "Mrs. Buck and Her Works," most Western writers tended to describe Chinese characters as "men with long pigtails and women with bound feet, all skinny with running noses and dirty, ugly faces. Their deeds are always connected with theft, burglary, raping, plotting, and assassinations. For centuries, this has been the image the Western mind has had of the Chinese." (Conn, 130) Western critics were impressed most by Buck's ability to portray a very foreign culture as ordinary and everyday. As critic Malcolm Cowley wrote in 1933, "[Mrs. Buck] has a truly extraordinary gift for presenting the Chinese, not as quaint and illogical, yellow-skinned devil-dolls, but as human beings..." (Book Review Digest 27, p. 143) Nancy Evans elaborated on this idea in Bookman in May of 1931: "The strange power of a Western woman to make an alien civilization seem as casual, as close, as the happenings of the morning is surprising, but it is less amazing than her power to illuminate the destiny of man as it is in all countries and all times by quietly telling the story of Wang Lung." (Ibid) E.L. Walton wrote in the May 13, 1931 issue of Nation: "Her complete familiarity with her material allows her to present her characters as very human and very real..." and the New York Times raved in the same year, "The Good Earth is an excellent novel. It has style, power, coherence, and a pervasive sense of dramatic reality." Contemporary critics were almost unanimous in their appreciation of the novel and their praise of Buck's portrayal of the Chinese. Their reaction is perhaps well summarized in the following review published in the Saturday Review of Literature in 1931: "A beautiful, beautiful book. At last we read, in the pages of a novel, of the real people of China." Buck had gathered the material of the novel from first hand experience. Her parents were missionaries stationed in China, and Pearl spent most of the first forty years of her life in China. (Conn- Pearl Buck website) She learned to speak Chinese before English. After she married John Lossing Buck, an agricultural economist, in 1917, the couple moved to Anhwei province, a rural area which Buck later used as the setting for The Good Earth. Readers were intrigued by the detailed descriptions of Chinese culture. The book was an immediate success, and sales were so strong that Richard Walsh of the John Day Publishing Company had to borrow copies from the Book of the Month Club in order to meet the demand in bookstores. (Conn, 124) Pearl Buck eventually won the Nobel Prize in 1938, due in part to her highly successful second novel The Good Earth.
The popularity of The Good Earth was largely due to the effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s. As Peter Conn explains in his cultural biography of Buck: "the formula that depicts the struggle of farmers on their soil had a particular appeal to Americans in the depression decade." During the 1930s, he describes, "...millions of farm families were pushed off their homesteads, victims of economic collapse and the natural disasters of drought and dust bowl." (Conn, 131) Although The Good Earth was set in a very foreign and not well understood country, Americans hard hit by the depression could relate to the struggle of Chinese peasants in the face of floods, famine, and locusts which destroyed crops. It was this universality of plot which made The Good Earth appealing. It can be usefully compared to Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, both published during the 1930s in that "the suffering and endurance of farmers would become a special subject of fiction." Readers also understood the emotions accompanying a wedding day and the birth of a first child, the suffering from poverty and sickness, the tragedy of death, and, in the wake of World War I, the difficulties caused by war. (Doyle, 38) In addition, readers enjoyed the "engaging and often exciting" plot (Conn, 131) as well as detailed description of the life of Chinese peasants which often included shocking and appalling events. For example, due to their extreme poverty and the widespread famine, Wang Lung's wife O-lan kills her infant daughter immediately after birth, and he wraps it and carries it outside where a hungry dog lurks nearby. He is so exhausted by his own hunger that he does not have the strength to drive the dog away, and after he goes inside, the dog eats the corpse. This incident has a definitive shock factor that draws readers further into the story. Finally, the simplicity of the style made the book widely accessible. The Good Earth continues to be widely read today. Pearl Buck is the most widely translated American author (Doyle, preface). The Good Earth was translated into Indian, Russian, Chinese, Korean, German, Japanese, Spanish, Finnish, French, Romanian, Arabic, Panjabi, Italian, and Thai. (Virgo, World Cat) Although Buck's work has been virtually ignored by literary critics since its publication, "her work continues to be widely read by the general public, and it is particularly popular with students." (Ibid) The fact that The Good Earth was written while China was still developing adds historical significance to the novel (Ibid), which further ensures that it will continue to be read.
Pearl Buck was a strong supporter of humanitarian interests during her lifetime, a fact which led critics to say that she was distracted by these interests from devoting more attention to her writing. Many critics felt that she wrote too much too quickly, and felt that Buck's over sixty books, two hundred articles, short stories, and nonfiction works were compromising quality for quantity. Buck was, however, admirably devoted to her humanitarian pursuits throughout her lifetime. She was active in the American Civil Rights movement and the women's rights movement. She published essays in Crisis, the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The daughter of missionary parents, she spent her lifetime divided between living in China and the United States. She knew first hand of the abuse that Chinese peasants suffered at the hands of government officials and landlords and was sympathetic to their struggles against floods and famine. (Doyle, 36) Further, she was very sympathetic to the predicament of Amerasian children, who were often not considered eligible for adoption. In 1942, she and Richard Walsh founded the East and West Association to promote cultural exchange and understanding between Asia and the West. In 1949, she established Welcome House, the first interracial and international adoption agency. She instituted the Pearl S. Buck Foundation in 1964, the purpose of which was to aid the illegitimate Asian children of American servicemen after World War II. In 1967, she donated most of her earnings to the foundation, which came to more than seven million dollars, part of which had been generated both by the publication of The Good Earth and the production of the Metro Goldwyn Mayer motion picture based on the novel.
The motion picture version of The Good Earth came out in January of 1937, made by MGM and directed by George Hill, Victor Fleming, and Sidney Franklin. The film was a success and earned several Academy Award nominations. Luise Rainer won an Oscar for her portrayal of O-lan. Frank Nogent wrote in the New York Times that MGM had "once again... enriched the screen with a superb translation of a literary classic" (Conn, p.191). Ticket sales are estimated to have exceeded twenty-five million in American and Europe. (Ibid) Buck had received fifty thousand dollars from MGM for the film rights to her novel, and the success and presence of the film did much to make the novel more well known. The play performed in 1932 was, however, not nearly the success that the film was. It was performed by The Theater Guild in New York and opened on October 17, 1932 in Guild's Nixon Theater in New York. The adaptation was written by Owen Davis and directed by Phillip Moeller. Critical reaction to the play was harsh and highly negative. As John Mason Brown wrote in the New York Evening Post, "Dragged indoors; played by white actors with English accents and Occidental hearts... The Good Earth does little more than demonstrate the limitations of the theater as a medium." (Conn, pp. 146-7) The very qualities that readers and critics alike praised in the novel were absent in the play; the accurate and realistic portrayal of the Chinese people was lost in the dramatic adaptation. Western actors were incapable of expressing what readers loved about the novel, its ability to draw them into Chinese life. The play closed after fifty-six performances. However, the failure of the play did not harm the reputation of the novel itself. As Peter Conn explains, "Almost unanimously, the critics who skewered the play lavished praise on the novel." (Ibid)
Only two American writers had won the Nobel Prize in Literature before Pearl Buck in 1938: Sinclair Lewis and Eugene O'Neill. Only two other women had ever won the Prize: Selma Lagerloef and Sigrid Undset. In addition to the Nobel Prize, Buck's celebrated second novel The Good Earth won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 and the Howells Medal for Distinguished Fiction. The Good Earth has been translated into over fourteen languages and made into a major MGM motion picture and a play, and Buck's collective works have been translated into African languages, Arabian, Armenian, Bengali, Burmese, languages of Ceylon, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Malayalam, Indonesian, Norwegian, Persian, Polish, Portuguese, Serbo Croat, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Swedish, and Vietnamese. A reviewer for Living Church wrote in August of 1931, "A strong, absorbing book. A recent lecturer on China, remarking that no Westerner has yet produced an authoritative work on that ancient civilization, added, ?But [The Good Earth] is not only a fine product of the artistic imagination, but is the absolute truth about Chinese life.'" Readers of the 1930s, many of them American farmers hard hit by the Depression, could relate to the struggle of any farmer to survive in the face of poverty and natural disaster whether that farmer was from Oklahoma or China. As William Cowper wrote in his poem "The Castaway," "...misery still delights to trace/ Its semblance in another's case." Readers liked The Good Earth because of the universality of its themes, and critics praised Buck for her ability to incorporate these themes into a narrative of a foreign and highly misrepresented culture. Although it has been said of Buck that her humanitarian interests distracted her from producing more novels of quality, she was able to use the profits of her writing to fund charitable institutions to aid the very people she describes in her novel. The universality of the novel and its commonplace, simplistic style have made it still popular today.