Finding Edith Eaton.
Late one night in 2006, I typed Edith Eaton's name and her best-known pseudonyms ("Sui Sin Far" and "Sui Seen Fah") into the search bar of Google Books. Instantly, a link came up (one that is, alas, no longer there) to a story signed "Edith Eaton" that appeared in the April 1909 issue of Bohemian Magazine. "The Alaska Widow" is not mentioned in Ferens's detailed bibliography, in Annette White-Parks's biography, or in the collection White-Parks co-edited with Amy Ling. It is also uncharacteristic of Eaton's works. Unlike the stories collected in Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings, many of which are set in North American Chinatowns and/or feature Eurasian children, this story takes up the cultural dynamic produced by the Alaska gold rush and the Spanish-American War, and it features a child born to a Native American mother abandoned by a Caucasian adventurer father who later dies in the Philippines. "The Alaska Widow" is also unlike most of the works Eaton published after 1898 in that it is signed "Edith Eaton" without any parenthetical reference to her pen name. Because "The Alaska Widow" is so different from other works by Eaton, it made me wonder: How many other unknown stories by Eaton exist, and how might they challenge scholars' understanding of the author?
In the years Eaton actively published (1888-1914), US print culture changed profoundly. The number of newspapers and periodicals quadrupled. While nascent mass newspapers cultivated advertising dollars by becoming politically neutral and purportedly objective, many periodicals marketed themselves to niche audiences organized by class, age, gender, aesthetics, vocation, and other categories. Together Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Mrs. Spring Fragrance (Ind Other Writings have made available to scholars only about fifty (mostly Chinatown-themed) publications by Eaton. My archival research, combined with contributions from other scholars, including Cutter, Ferens, and Howard, has uncovered nearly two hundred additional texts of diverse genres, themes, styles, and politics published in more than forty different Canadian, United States, and Jamaican periodicals between 1888 and 1914. (1)
In her early career, between 1888 and 1896, Eaton placed signed poetry and fiction in small-circulation Montreal publications such as the Dominion Illustrated and Metropolitan Magazine. She also filed regular, unsigned journalistic contributions (primarily about Montreal's Chinatown) and sent impassioned letters to the editor (signing herself E. E.) about racist policies toward the Chinese in Canada to two local newspapers: the Montreal Daily Witness and Montreal Daily Star. In addition, she filed stories about smallpox outbreaks, fires, and murders from northern Ontario, where she worked as a stenographer from 1892 to 1893. Between 1896 and 1897 she wrote daily society and women's page news for Jamaica's Gall's Daily Newsletter. But Eaton recognized early on that it would be almost impossible to earn a living publishing fiction in Canada. In 1896, therefore, she began to submit Chinatown stories, signed "Sui Seen Far," to periodicals in the United States--the fin de siecle little magazines Fly Leaf and Lotus, as well as the regional emigration magazine Land of Sunshine and popular magazine Short Stories. (2) On the basis of her success placing these stories, Eaton moved to the United States, relocating to California (San Francisco and Los Angeles), probably in 1898. While there she published Chinatown fiction signed "Sui Sin Fah" in other California family journals such as Traveler and Overland Monthly while earning a living primarily as a stenographer.
Around 1902, Eaton's fiction suddenly began to be accepted by more national periodicals such as Ladies' Home Journal, Youth's Companion, and Century. She supported herself during this time by contributing anonymous journalism and a pseudonymous travel column (signed "Wing Sing") to the Los Angeles Express. Biographer Annette White-Parks identified the years between 1904 and 1909 as a "publishing hiatus" for Eaton because her works from this period had not been traced (Sui Sin Far 149). We now know that during those years she published more than fifty works of journalism and fiction in a range of authorial modes: risque sensation fiction signed "Edith Eaton" for the Daily Story Company, a syndication service that supplied short fiction to regional newspapers across the United States; Chinatown fiction in Out West, the Chautauquan, and Seattle's Westerner; didactic fiction in conservative children's and women's magazines such as Good Housekeeping, the Housekeeper, Children's Magazine, Gentlewoman, and American Motherhood; more racialized (and racier) fiction in radical magazines such as the Bohemian; and middlebrow (white) women's fiction in People's Magazine and New England Magazine. While many of her texts voice a diasporic Chinese perspective or are signed "Sul Sin Far," others display a surprising range of viewpoints, including those of Native American women, US imperial adventurers, Philippine governors, self-supporting "New Women" stenographers, and Japanese, Persian, and Arab children.
Like the Gothic thrillers located by Madeleine B. Stern that completely transformed our understanding of Louisa May Alcott in the late 197os, these newly discovered works challenge many of our ideas about Eaton's cultural position, authorship, oeuvre, politics, and popularity. For example, the prevailing assumption that Eaton did not know Chinese is dispelled by texts documenting that by 1909 she was studying Chinese, interviewing people in Chinatown in Chinese, and publishing "translations" of Chinese folktales. She had also been invited to submit a story to a San Francisco Chinese-language newspaper. (3) Similarly, the assumption that Eaton was more racially authentic than her sister Winnifred, who wrote under the Japanese identity of Onoto Watanna, is countered by the revelation that Edith also capitalized on the popularity of Japanese themes in at least four stories for children. (4) Stories set in Alaska, the Philippines, and revolutionary China dramatize Eaton's transnational engagement with the Pacific Rim beyond the experiences of diasporic Chinese in North American Chinatowns. These discoveries of her unknown works expand our sense of her oeuvre. They also invite us to speculate about what untold numbers of texts by other US women writers, particularly those published in periodicals, may still await unearthing--and to consider how to recover them.
In many ways, recovering the uncollected works of American women writers has been made easier by the digitization of historical periodicals and newspapers. Today, resources such as the Modernist Journals Project, the American Periodical Series (APS), Pro quest Historical Newspapers, Historic American Newspapers, America's Historical Newspapers, and NewspaperARCHIVE.com provide not only access to unknown publications but also links to advertisements, reviews, and other kinds of articles that can yield clues about where to look for uncollected stories by writers like Eaton. Without Google Books, I would not have found "The Alaska Widow"; without Google News archives, I would not have been able to track Eaton's rising and falling reputation.
That said, digitized texts have their own limitations: Web links are incredibly unstable, so that a story unearthed today via Google Books might not be available tomorrow, and searches of digitized sources can fail to find texts that one knows are in that archive. If an author's name, particularly a non-English or less popular name, had not scanned properly, or if an author's name is embedded in an illustration rather than printed as text--a common design feature of Progressive Era periodicals--the results of an author search will not be comprehensive. Similarly, databases are not always clear about the limitations of their archive; for example, start and end dates of journals collected in APS vary from journal to journal, and the digitized edition of Sunset, a California magazine to which Eaton contributed, excludes works of fiction. To circumvent the limitations of digitized sources, one has to use multiple tactics simultaneously and to refuse to accept any results as conclusive. If one knows the titles of stories (mentioned in an author's letters, for example), one can search newspaper databases for articles that survey tables of contents for monthly magazines. A New York Times column called variously "The [name of month] Magazines," "Among the Magazines," or "Contents of the Magazines" has been very helpful in my search for titles by Eaton.
My archival methodology for recovery work has entailed a combination of strategies. I have carefully mined databases. I have perused, hands-on, the tables of contents of magazines to which Eaton is known to have submitted her work. And I have used intuition. Eaton's letters, autobiographical publications, and the acknowledgments page of Mrs. Spring Fragrance, as well as reviews of and editorials about her work, provide clues about magazines and newspapers in which she published or to which she sent her writing. Preparing spreadsheets for forty-six such publications, along with a timeline of Eaton's biographical and bibliographical information, has helped me develop hypotheses about where she might be publishing and when. Over the past five years I have borrowed every circulating issue of these forty-six magazines, or I have hired graduate students based near relevant libraries to do research on-site. Given the short lives of some modern little magazines and the brevity of Eaton's own career (twenty-six years between 1888 and her death in 1914), the task of looking through bound volumes or tables of contents for key years of monthly magazines has not been overwhelming.
Searching the daily newspapers in which Eaton is known to have published is more daunting. Most relevant titles have not yet been digitized, and those that have been are by no means error-free. Using Google News archives and subscribing to databases such as NewspaperARCHIVE, I have made some important discoveries, but I am still waiting for newspapers such as the Montreal Daily Star, Chicago Evening Post, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, New York Evening Post, and Boston Globe to become fully searchable.
I found "The Success of a Mistake" (the story presented here) using a combination of methods: I knew from a letter Eaton had written to Century editor R. W. Johnson that she had submitted a story with that title to the magazine in March 1904, but it did not show up in any digitized periodicals I had checked through APS. From an editor's comment that appeared in the November 1909 issue of the Westerner, I knew that Eaton's stories had "appeared at intervals in this magazine the past three years" ("A Word" 34). Although Ferens's and White-Parks's bibliographies had noted a series of stories published in the summer of 1909, these other sources convinced me to read issues published before and after that period. When I checked all available issues of the magazine from May 1904 (when it premiered) to 1910 (when Eaton moved to Boston), I was delighted to discover ten unknown stories by Eaton, including "The Success of a Mistake."
Jean Lutes's essay below analyzes many of the story's fascinating themes. What intrigues me most about "The Success of a Mistake" is Eaton's portrayal of an inventive mode of authorship. The white newswoman is at once a passive transcriber of the "news" (dictated by Wah Lee) and an author figure whose creative version of events thwarts an arranged marriage while enabling a marriage based on love. This form of writing, what I would call "stenographic authorship," mimics the objective neutrality of the journalistic tradition while actually enacting the power a stenographer wields in her capacity as transcriber of authoritative discourses, a theme Eaton explores in other stenographic fictions, from "Mrs. Spring Fragrance" to "The White Woman Who Married a Chinese." "The Success of a Mistake" reveals Eaton experimenting with a New Woman mode of authorship that is both playful and professional.
Accommodating stories like this into Eaton's oeuvre forces us to revise our understanding of an author we assumed we knew, challenging us to recognize how she complicates and exceeds both the perspective and the subject matter encompassed by her best-known pseudonym. Discoveries like "The Success of a Mistake" also caution us against accepting the authority of an archive we must assume is always incomplete and to challenge the historical positioning of women writers within that archive. Popular US women's writing fell out of critics' line of vision once before for numerous reasons--for example, because New Critical criteria discouraged appreciation of popular texts, and because novels have, historically, been appreciated more than short fiction. In our efforts to recover the unknown works of popular US women writers, we need to ensure that we do not become complacent about the thoroughness of the digitized archive and that we never, ever ignore a "hunch."
Cutter, Martha J. "Sex, Love, Revenge, and Murder in 'Away Down in Jamaica': A Lost Short Story by Sui Sin Far (Edith Eaton)." Legacy 21.1 (2004): 85-89.
Eaton, Edith (see also A Half Chinese and Sui Sin Far). "The Alaska Widow." Bohemian Magazine Apr. 1909: 491-96.
--. Letter to R. W. Johnson. 28 Mar. 1904. MS. Century Company records. Manuscripts and Archives Division. The New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.
Ferens, Dominika. Edith and Winnifred Eaton: Chinatown Missions and Japanese Romances. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002.
A Half Chinese [Edith Eaton]. "The Persecution and Oppression of Me." Independent 24 Aug. 1.911: 421-26.
Howard, June. "Introduction to 'The Son Of Chung Wo' by Sui Sin Far [Edith Maude Eaton]." Legacy 28.1 (2011): 115-25.
Stern, Madeleine B. Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. New York: Morrow, 1978.
Sui Sin Far [Edith Eaton]. "The Folding Fans': A Japanese Tale for Young Children." Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader 2 Jan. 1911: 3.
--. "The Little Embroidery Girls: Japanese Stories for the Gentlewoman." Gentlewoman Mar. 1909: 16.
--. "Little Stories of Chinese Life in and Around Seattle." Seattle Post-Intelligencer 12 Sept. 1909: 1.
--. Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Chicago: McClurg, 1912.
--. Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Ed. Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.
--. "The Story of To-to-Yo-Yo' Transcribed from the Japanese by Sui Sin Far." Chester Times [PA] 21 Jan. 1911: 9.
--. "The Stuffed Duck: A Japanese Tale for Children." Wilkes Barre Times Leader 4 Jan. 1911:10.
--. "A Word from `Sui Sin Far.'" Westerner 11.5 (1909): 34-35.
Vogel, Todd. Rewriting White: Race, Class, and Cultural Capital in Nineteenth-Century America. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2004.
White-Parks, Annette. Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.
(1.) My "'Sui Sin Far' in Canada: Edith Eaton's Canadian Prose and Poetry," an edition of uncollected works published or set in Canada, will be published by McGill-Queen's University Press in 2014; I am also preparing an edition of Eaton's uncollected US-published later works.
(2.) "Little magazines" were literary magazines that aimed to publish more experimental or avant-garde works, often written by commercially less successful authors. Typically, they had minimal advertising and attractive graphics.
(3.) Eaton quotes regularly from classical Chinese texts and Chinese expressions in her work; she mentions studying Chinese in "The Persecution and Oppression of Me" (published under the identifier "A Half Chinese"), and in "Little Stories of Chinese Life in and Around Seattle" (published under the pseudonym "Sui Sin Far") she claims to speak rudimentary Chinese with her interview subjects (1). According to Todd Vogel, Eaton wrote to Robert L. Park, the editor of Chinese World/Shi lie Ri Bao, in October 1909, offering to write stories about immigrant children taken from Chinese mothers. However, the bibliographic information Vogel provides is incomplete, so I have been unable to find this letter (131).
(4.) See "The Little Embroidery Girls: Japanese Stories for the Gentlewoman," "'The Folding Fans': A Japanese Tale for Young Children," "The Stuffed Duck: A Japanese Tale for Children," and "'The Story of To-to-Yo-Yo' Transcribed from the Japanese by Sui Sin Far."
University of British Columbia
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|Title Annotation:||FROM THE ARCHIVES|
|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2012|
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