Unanimously selected by the Book-of-the-Month Club literary experts—a group who had been selecting titles since 1926—The Good Earth was the first of 15 books written by Pearl S. Buck to be included in the club. After being chosen as a Book-of-the Month, letters started flooding into the publisher and sales skyrocketed, making The Good Earth the best-selling book of both 1931 and 1932.
Many writers, including the poet Adrienne Rich, recognized when they first read The Good Earth that the scenes in which O-lan gives birth were unique to American fiction at the time. Women were rarely portrayed giving birth, and never in such a simple, natural and graphic way.
Despite the fact that The Good Earth was published several months before his health declined, Pearl Buck's father, Absalom, went to his deathbed without reading his daughter's famous work.
Despite myriad ways Pearl Buck's vision was shifted and forever changed by her youth in China, she felt it had also made her permanently uncomfortable with the English language and an expert in many things Americans didn't care to know. Shortly before the publication of A House Divided—the final book in the three-part Good Earth trilogy—Buck gave a lecture at Yale University titled "Advice for the Unborn Novelist." In it she suggested that writers were better off being born in their own country. She says, "Go out and be born among gypsies and thieves or among happy workaday people who live in the sun and do not think about their souls." (Pearl S. Buck: A Cultural Biography by Peter Conn, p. 178)
During her first book tour for The Good Earth—directly after the book won the Pulitzer Prize—Pearl Buck was so secretive and determined to avoid the press that she considered wearing a disguise while in public. She was so remote in the eyes of journalists that many speculated she didn't actually exist! Though her seclusion wasn't a marketing ploy, it did serve to make her even more sought after by both journalists and adoring fans.
Before its first year in print was over, The Good Earth had been translated into German, French, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian and Chinese and garnered a then unheard-of $50,000 from MGM studios to be made into a movie. This was the largest sum Hollywood had ever paid for the rights to a book. The irony that she was becoming wealthy during the Depression was not lost on her.
Writing The Good Earth was a lucrative endeavor. In the first 18 months after it was published, the novel earned its author well over $100,000—a huge sum for the time. Much of the money went to establish an endowment at her daughter Carol's institution that ensured her care for life. As a result, a special cottage was built on the grounds to house Carol and several girls her age.
The MGM film adaptation of The Good Earth opened in January of 1937 to rapturous reviews from both critics and fans. Legendary producer Irving Thalberg's last project—he died before the movie was completed—the film carries his unmistakable stamp in its cinematography and bent towards romance. Though the picture is true to the novel in many ways, in order to give the beautiful Luise Rainer a juicy role, O-lan was transformed from a dowdy slave to a glamorous seductress who claims Wang Lung's erotic lust. The movie earned several Academy Award® nominations and Rainer won the best actress statue for her tender portrayal.
Like her characters in The Good Earth, Pearl Buck and her first husband John Lossing Buck lived in both the Anhwei province and Nanking. When he first arrived in China, Lossing—the son of a farmer himself—tried his hand at planting wheat and battling seasonal floods just like Wang Lung.
In 1972, 80-year-old Pearl Buck was denied an entry visa into China—reportedly for having criticized Mao Zedong, the head of the Chinese Communist Party, by name in the 1950s and because she had invited an actress who had once been chosen over Mao's wife for a movie role to visit the United States. Buck passed away the following year. The ban the Chinese Communist Party had placed on her books in 1949 was officially lifted in 1994.