Printer Friendly

The queer newspaperwoman in Edith Eaton's "The Success of a Mistake".

When is a mistake not a mistake? Edith Eaton/Sui Sin Far's "The Success of a Mistake" promises, in its very title, to reward error with triumph--a paradox that will not surprise scholars familiar with Eaton's fondness for irony and her flair for upending cultural assumptions. The protagonist, Miss Lund, is a white Seattle newspaperwoman who mixes up her facts while reporting on a Chinese betrothal and unexpectedly finds herself in the role of matchmaker. (1) The story hinges, then, on the circulation of misinformation, and it begins with a mistake about sex: Miss Lund's article announces that a Chinese mother has gone to San Francisco to find a husband for her daughter, when in fact the mother has gone to find a wife for her son. At least two people, it turns out, are grateful that the reporter got the story wrong, since her misreporting derails the daughter's already-arranged marriage and paves the way for her to marry the man she loves instead. The story casts the newspaperwoman as an assimilationist Cupid who helps to Americanize her Chinese subjects even as she profits from their cultural differences by reporting on them. But it is in the emotional register of Eaton's reporter-heroine that I think this story might push us to see Eaton's work, and perhaps the larger journalistic tradition to which it contributes, in a new way. In this essay I call attention to one dimension of that emotionality: the queer subtext of the plot, which depends upon the reporter-heroine's sympathetic identification with her source and her charged relationship with a female missionary friend. By staging debates between the reporter and the missionary over the nature and source of the reporter's mistakes, Eaton contests the very definition of a thing incorrectly done or thought. As one misconception follows another in this lighthearted tale, she creates a network of relations that function best when they are misunderstood. It is easy to wonder, then, whether the same holds true for the bond between the reporter and her same-sex friend.

Adding "The Success of a Mistake"--originally published in the Seattle promotional monthly the Westerner and recently rediscovered by Mary Chap-man--to Eaton's known oeuvre reminds us of the importance and complexity of the author's journalistic background. (2) As an authorial figure, the fictional Miss Lund signals the influence and relevance of Eaton's experiences as a professional journalist. She also reminds us that Eaton belonged to the group of realist and modernist writers who launched their literary careers as reporters. In 1908, the year this story was published, Eaton listed her occupation as "journalist" in the Seattle census (Solberg 36n1). She had been contributing articles to newspapers on a regular basis since the 1890s, including at least one from which "The Success of a Mistake" draws directly, a piece on "Betrothals in Chinatown" published in 1903 in the Los Angeles Express. The reporter-heroine's misreported betrothal story echoes, in both structure and content, Eaton's Los Angeles Express article. (3)

More broadly, "The Success of a Mistake" calls attention to a vibrant counter-tradition of women's reporting, one that was not necessarily progressive but which was almost always--in one way or another--queer. By associating Progressive Era newspaperwomen with queerness, I do not mean to suggest that they would have identified as or understood themselves to be lesbians (or inverts, a term more common at the time). While some, like Eaton herself, remained single, and some lived with other women in long-term relationships, it is not the manifestation of their specific sexual desires or their self-identified sexual orientation that concerns me here. Rather, it is their participation in a public phenomenon, the newspaperwoman's emergence as a cultural icon in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century North America, that can itself be understood as queer in its confounding of sex and gender norms. Between 1880 and 1900, women reporters became a highly visible minority in otherwise male-dominated city newsrooms, and fictional newspaperwomen became common enough to inspire a backlash from critics who grumbled that the portrayals glamorized a brutal profession. By the early twentieth century, the metropolitan newspaperwoman was one of the most recognizable images of the woman writer. (4) To be sure, mainstream newspaperwomen wrote, overwhelmingly, from a heterosexual perspective. But their professional roles blurred gender distinctions as least as frequently as they upheld them. Although their female identity often acted as the very foundation of the so-called woman's angle they were charged to provide, that identity itself was far from fixed. Their status as workers in a male-dominated profession that cultivated a broad public audience was inevitably fraught; even when women were cast as preservers of domestic values, as they often were, their public roles restyled gender norms. (5)

Daring reporters like the real-life Nellie Bly (who once printed a letter from a fan demanding to know if she were a man or a woman) and Bly's many lesser-known colleagues inspired public fascination with so-called bachelor girls, a popular term for unmarried working women who lived independently, often with other women. (6) As historian Alice Fahs has observed, "Even in a day when periodicals worried over the 'masculine' or 'mannish' New Woman, newspaper discussions of bachelor girls who lived together rarely veered off into alarm over women's close friendships; instead, the hundreds of articles about bachelor women were notable for their primarily celebratory tone" (152). (7) The likelihood of "alarm over women's close friendships" had intensified in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century as newly professionalized sexologists and psychologists transformed homosexuality into a specific pathology and category of identity. While historians differ on the particulars of the invention of the homosexual, most agree that it occurred in the late nineteenth century. (8) It is this history, in part, that led Amy Ling to speculate cautiously, in her groundbreaking recovery work on Eaton, that Eaton may have repressed her own lesbian identity: "Perhaps part of her empathy and melancholy had roots in a deep sense of guilt over what she may have perceived as her own sexual deviance," Ling writes. "It is pure speculation on my part, but 'Heart's Desire' and 'The Chinese Lily' are suggestive of a lesbian sensibility, which the author herself would not have approved and would have striven to repress" (48). I do not think it is possible or even desirable to resolve questions about Eaton's sexuality. Reading "The Success of a Mistake" in the context of the queer newspaperwoman, however, provides a new dimension to our evolving understanding of sexuality in Eaton's work. The story is not about coming out of the closet; it is more about hiding in plain sight. Beginning with Foucault, scholars in queer studies have asked us to reconsider what we think we know when we know about sex. They have also suggested that for sexual minorities, being misrecognized has its benefits. (90)

As the first self-identified Chinese American writer, Eaton has been read as a witty ethnographer, a champion of Chinese immigrants in a time of virulent racism, and an author of domestic fictions that engage national and transnational politics. (10) Her subtle, often surprising representations of gender and sexuality figure prominently in many critical studies of her work. As Ling acknowledged more than two decades ago, the imaginative world of the collected stories of Mrs. Spring Fragrance, Eaton's only published book, features border zones of gender as well as those of race, ethnicity, and class. Her gender-bending stories invite multiple readings and feature irresolvable ambiguities. Building on Ling's tentative suggestion of "a lesbian sensibility" in Eaton's work, scholars have argued that the author dramatizes the instability of heterosexual identity, depicts homoerotic desire, creates transgender cultural formations, and illustrates the complex racial dimensions of masculinity and femininity in early-twentieth-century America. (11) A boy passes as a girl in "A Chinese Boy-Girl." Women pass as men in "The Smuggling of Tie Co" and "Tian Shan's Kindred Spirit." A lonely princess chooses a girl instead of a prince as a lifetime companion in "The Heart's Desire." A troubled woman, inspired by the performance of male actors playing female roles, longs to be a man in "The Story of Tin-A." And in "The Chinese Lily," a fire forces a loving brother to choose between saving his disabled, disfigured sister or Sin Far, the beautiful female neighbor who has befriended the sister--and with whom the brother has fallen in love. When Sin Far insists that the brother save his sister, it's clear, as Kate McCullough writes, that "Sin Far sacrifices herself out of love, but love for whom?" (269).

In her reading of sexual desire in Eaton's known work, McCullough outlines a narrative strategy that can be extended to "The Success of a Mistake": The "cloaking of homosocial desire in overtly heterosexual plots serves as another form of protective passing, passing that here allows for the possibility of the voicing of Othered, marginalized desires" (274). (12) The narrative trajectory of "The Success of a Mistake." which celebrates the happy heterosexual union of Anna Wong and Wah Lee, is made possible by Miss Lund's collusion with her missionary friend, Miss Hastings. Although Miss Hastings chides Miss Lund for promoting misconceptions to encourage the two lovers to profess their love for each other, it is hard to take her criticism any more seriously than Miss Lund does. She is, after all, the one who feeds Miss Lund the information about Anna and Wah Lee's feelings. In the two white women's banter about their Chinese subjects, Eaton embeds a sexually transgressive subtext in the story's most imperialist moments. Even as Miss Lund and Miss Hastings install themselves as culturally superior moral arbiters, infantilize their Chinese friends, and doubt the authenticity of Wah Lee's conversion to Christianity, they dramatize the ways that sexual desire unsettles the boundaries upon which their presumption to superiority relies. To track that unsettling, in this essay I compare "The Success of a Mistake" to Eaton's other known story about a newspaper reporter, "'Its Wavering Image," consider the role of emotionality in the alternative tradition of women's reporting, and analyze displacements of desire and same-sex intimacies in the text.


Given its depiction of a reporter, "The Success of a Mistake" merits attention as an obvious precursor to "'Its Wavering Image" Eaton's well-known indictment of a white newspaperman whose professional ambitions lead him to betray his budding romantic relationship with a young biracial woman in Chinatown. "'Its Wavering Image'" has been called "the most self-referential piece of writing in Sui Sin Far's mature fiction" and is often read as a dramatization of the author's own dilemma as a biracial outsider who built her career on gaining access to Chinatown's secrets (White-Parks, Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton 228-29). (13) "The Success of a Mistake" is equally self-referential but far less explicit in its critique of exploitative journalism. If the negative portrayal of the white male journalist in "'Its Wavering Image'" emphasizes the damage caused by irresponsible reporting, then the more sympathetic portrayal of the white female journalist in "The Success of a Mistake" appears to do just the opposite: It emphasizes the happy consequences of carelessness with facts. It casts the newspaperwoman not as an objective observer but rather as a flawed but feeling participant in her own stories. Eaton's self-referential vision of authorship in "The Success of a Mistake" invites us to consider the possibility of a queer counter-tradition in which emotionally engaged reporter-heroines make up their own stories, not just about Chinese immigrants, but also about themselves. Instead of the newsman's mantra of facts, facts, facts, Eaton gives us the newswoman's mantra of feel, feel, feel. (14) In the sentimental tradition of sympathetic identification, the woman writer is expected to feel more intently than her male counterparts, a condition that narrows, sometimes to the point of collapse, the distance between the newspaperwoman and the story she is telling. In "The Success of a Mistake," Eaton imagines a world in which the reporter-heroine's desires circumvent social norms, inspire misrecognitions, and rearrange the order of things.

We can read Eaton's story as a representative of a hybrid trajectory: an alternative, woman-centered journalistic tradition that opposed the more detached model of gritty realism generated in male-dominated newsrooms. That detached model, practiced by journalists like the deservedly maligned Mark Carson from "'Its Wavering Image," required writers to hold themselves above and apart from their subjects. After Carson reports on Chinatown using the information obtained with the help of his Chinese American love interest, he seeks not to join the community but to extract her from it. He tells her, "You are a white woman--white" (66). His distance from his subjects ensures him both professional success and romantic disappointment. In "The Success of a Mistake," that distance simply is not there. Rather, Eaton imagines a newspaperwoman who misreports the details of an arranged marriage and derails an engagement, blames her Chinese source for misleading her, belatedly realizes that she is, in fact, responsible for the mistake, then decides to play matchmaker for her own source. In the messy business of misreporting, our heroine is many things: nosy, remorseful, indignant, titillated, judgmental, opinionated, even a little riotous. She is not, however, objective. She refuses to hold herself apart from her subjects; rather, she eagerly inserts herself into the story about which she is writing. This does not mean that she treats her Chinese subjects as fully equal, however. Her emotional investment in her sources does not, after all, go that far. After she slips away from Mrs. Wong--without confessing her authorship of the "wicked lying story"--she acknowledges to herself that if she had been writing a betrothal story about an American family, she would have checked her facts with the mother before submitting the report (000; citations are to this volume). Like "'Its Wavering Image,'" "The Success of a Mistake" imagines a world in which white journalists exploit the ethnic Others of Chinatown. But unlike Mark Carson, Miss Lund is allowed to redeem herself; "The Success of a Mistake" is primarily a narrative of Miss Lund's matchmaking triumph, not a chronicle of her missteps. (15) By rewarding her mistake, the story celebrates the elevation of feeling over fact. At the same time, Eaton stops short of suggesting that feelings exist independently of cultural hierarchies; in this world, expressions of emotion are not pure.


Like many other Eaton stories, "The Success of a Mistake," which is set in and around a Chinese mission school, owes a debt to nineteenth-century sentimentalism, with its emphasis on right feeling and a Christian ethos. Mrs. Wong may hit the starkest sentimental note in the story when she tells Miss Lund, "The Chinese people have same feelings as the American people, only the American people they not seem to understand that" (273). But the feelings Eaton represents here do not necessarily anchor virtue or secure an understanding of common humanity across difference, and her narrative ironies often make light of deeply felt moments. Everything that happens seems on the verge of being interpreted as a joke, and the many laughs that Miss Lund and Miss Hastings share signal both their intimacy with each other and their discomfort with some of the feelings that surface as the plot unfolds. (16)

The most passionate outburst in the narrative belongs to Mrs. Wong, who expresses her feelings about the mistaken betrothal report to Miss Lund without knowing that Miss Lund caused the incident. In yet another gender mixup, Mrs. Wong assumes that the article's author is male: "I say to my husband this morning, 'Find me the man that wrote that most wicked lie and I pluck his heart out'" (273). Without correcting Mrs. Wong's mistaken assumption, Miss Lund departs, heart intact but "much perturbed" (273). She feels remorse and guilt, but she keeps her composure until she gets to the Mission and sees Miss Hastings. At this point, the narrator tells us, "she could scarcely repress an hysterical giggle when in answer to her rap at the Mission door, the Missionary, Miss Hastings, appeared" (274). Miss Lund's expressive giggle in front of Miss Hastings stands in stark contrast to the control she exercises over the expression of her feelings in front of Mrs. Wong. When the distressed mother pauses for breath in her fierce denunciation of the inaccurate betrothal story, Miss Lund ducks responsibility with a noncommittal expression of sympathy: "Miss Lund, feeling like a criminal, faintly murmured. 'Well, well!" (273). She voices none of the consternation she feels and preserves a careful distance from the wronged Chinese mother. Later, when she stands before Miss Hastings, the "hysterical giggle"--which erupts in spite of her efforts to repress it--conveys the story's fundamental tension between taking things seriously and, well, not. At the Mission, when Miss Lund explains what has happened and the consequences for Anna Wong's impending marriage, Miss Hastings immediately "looked serious" (274). She assumes, as does her friend, that Wah Lee has shared the wrong information on purpose. But as Miss Hastings goes on to tell Miss Lund that Anna is happy about the end of her arranged marriage, the mistake becomes funny yet again. "'The cute little thing. I am so glad. My conscience is quite relieved.' Miss Lund laughed heartily. Miss Hastings laughed too, then tried to be serious. 'I don't approve of anything like deception,' said she" (275). Miss Hastings's advocacy of honesty is hard to swallow, not just for Miss Lund, but for Eaton's readers as well. The narrative dramatizes the irony of the proclamation, since misrepresentation saves the day. Miss Hastings's moral high ground looks more and more queer.


Eaton's earlier article "Betrothals in Chinatown" stresses the strangeness of arranged marriages. (17) In it, Eaton observes, "The Chinese firmly believe that heaven decides who are to be husband and wife, which is one reason why the parties most concerned have little, if anything to say, concerning the event, and why it is left so much in the hands of the fortune tellers and go-betweens" (201). This statement, given the context, comes across as a report on a curiously persistent and old-fashioned belief, not as a neutral detail. "The Success of a Mistake" is even more explicit in its cultural condescension. The narrator cheerfully recounts Miss Lund's welcome meddling in the Chinese practice of arranged marriage. The story ends with an exchange between Miss Lund and Miss Hastings in which Miss Lund defends her decision to let Anna believe that Wah Lee lied on purpose to derail the engagement her parents had arranged for her:

"You don't mean to say that you allowed Anna to believe that and encouraged her to reveal her love for the man before he had spoken himself."

"I acknowledge my transgression. My sin is ever before me."

"You wicked girl!"

"I only wish it were true that Wah had manufactured the tale to gain his ends.

It would have been so much more romantic."

"I don't care for romance; I like a man I can trust." ...

"I'm afraid you allow your good nature to override your principles."

"So would you in my place. Now, own up that All's well that ends well? and be glad over the success of my mistake."

Even as she said this, Wah Lee and Mai Gwi Far were telling one another that their coming together had surely been ordained by Heaven. (278-79)

The story ends with the narrator winking at her readers, inviting us to smile, if not laugh, at the Chinese couple who are so backward as to believe in fate when we know that it was Miss Lund, not heaven, who made this marriage. The foreignness of the bride and groom is accentuated by the use of Anna's Chinese name, Mai Gwi Far, which the narrator has not used previously. (18) Miss Lund does more than simply urge Anna to tell Wah Lee how she feels; she also reassures her that Wah Lee's status as a slave in China is irrelevant, since Anna never wants to return to China anyway. The story portrays its Chinese characters with compassion, but its emphasis is on the reporter-heroine's intervention, which liberates Wah Lee from the injustice of slavery and ushers Anna into the individualist pleasures of choosing one's mate. In many ways, the story fits nicely into the dynamic Yu-Fang Cho describes in her discussion of the "imperial dimensions" of sentimental benevolence in late-nineteenth-century magazine fiction (117). (19)

The illustration that accompanied "The Success of a Mistake" in the Westerner serves as an interpretive index by giving us insight into what the story's first readers sought and found in the text. (20) Most obviously, the image highlights the power of the white newspaperwoman over her (literal and figurative) Chinese subjects.

She dominates the page with her dour expression and New Woman pose: Formally dressed in long gloves, a high-necked shirtwaist with mutton-chop sleeves, and a floor-length skirt, her hair piled high Gibson Girl--style and topped with a large hat, the reporter towers over the Chinese figure. One gloved hand grasps a pen, poised to write in the open notebook she holds with the other hand. Her gaze is directed downward and toward a figure about half her size with Asian features and dress, who gazes toward her with one hand extended, almost in supplication. The boxed quotation that accompanies the image reads, "How is it he does'nt get married?' asked the reporter" (see fig. 1). This quotation--from the exchange in which Miss Lund explains to Miss Hastings that Wah Lee is not considered a good marriage prospect because he was enslaved in China and would be returned to slavery if he returned there--puts the Chinese man's sexual identity under the newspaperwoman's surveillance. Since she looks poised to write down the answer to her question, the illustration suggests, inaccurately, that Miss Lund treats Wah Lee's personal situation as potential material for a news story. The American newspaperwoman appears as both an en forcer of gender norms and an icon of American empire, wielding moral authority along with her reporter's notebook.


The illustration is also unmistakably queer in its ambiguously gendered rendering of the Asian figure. Given the context provided by Miss Lund's question about Wah Lee's marital status, we might assume that the figure is male; the long braid is consistent with the queue worn by Chinese men during the Qing dynasty. Given the conventional Western association of long hair with girls and women, however, it is easy to imagine readers assuming that the figure is female, particularly given the small stature and the way the figure is dressed, in a flowing patterned robe that looks more like a Japanese kimono than the tunics and pants worn by many of the era's Chinese American men. "The Success of a Mistake," like many other Eaton stories, counters the dominant culture's feminization of Chinese men with a sympathetic portrayal of a heterosexual Chinese man whose masculinity appears secure. But the illustration reminds us that Eaton's stories existed in tension with larger patterns of discrimination.

Yet the story's heteronormative, assimilationist moral is undermined, or at least complicated, by the manner in which that moral is delivered. Although the narrator reports a conversation between the Chinese lovers in the story's final lines, Eaton never has them speak directly to each other. Instead, they talk to Miss Lund and her missionary friend, Miss Hastings. And the exchanges between Miss Lund and Miss Hastings, in which most of the exposition critical to the plot unfolds, are decidedly queer. In the exchange quoted above, when Miss Hastings calls Miss Lund "you wicked girl!" the effect is less censorious than flirtatious, particularly given that Miss Lund had just owned up to her manipulative behavior with a mock confession. Her arch remark employs a Christian rhetoric of repentance to express its opposite: an absolute lack of remorse. The extravagance of Miss Hastings's criticism ("you wicked girl!") is matched by the extravagance of Miss Lund's confession ("My sin is ever before me"). Taken together, they read as signs of displaced desire. And Miss Lund's allusion to All's Well That Ends Well, a Shakespearean comedy that features elaborate deceptions in the service of female desire, places her in a tradition that celebrates misrecognition as a means to wish fulfillment.

To be sure, the only explicit sexual desires noted in the story are those of the Chinese lovers. But the structure of Eaton's story makes those desires an ongoing preoccupation for Miss Lund and, by association, for Miss Hastings as well. At the turn of the century, Chinese bachelor sexuality was often represented as deviant, due to racist stereotypes about Chinese sexuality, as well as immigration policies that enforced separations between Chinese workmen and their wives and made Chinese men more likely to be found in nonfamilial living arrangements. (21) These conditions make Miss Lund's prying question about Wah Lee--"How is it he doesn't get married?"--highly charged (274). This intrusive inquiry leads Miss Lund and Miss Hastings into an extended discussion of Wah Lee's situation. When Miss Hastings is led to believe that Wah Lee has lied to Miss Lund on purpose to serve his own romantic interests, she expresses distress about the authenticity of his Christian conversion:
  "I did think that he had embraced Christianity in all sincerity; but
  if he could do what you say he has done I have been mistaken," sighed
  Miss Hastings.
  "Would the embracing of Christianity interfere with a Chinaman's
  other actions?"
  "You heathen!"
  "There's one I do feel sorry for. That is the girl who was so nearly
  betrothed," said Miss Lund, ignoring the epithet bestowed upon her.

With dizzying speed, Miss Hastings goes from lamenting Wah Lee's unchristian behavior to calling Miss Lund a heathen. The cause of her outburst, it seems, is Miss Lund's question about how "the embracing of Christianity" might "interfere with a Chinaman's other actions." In the context of this exchange, Wah Lee's "other actions" must be the things he has done in pursuit of Anna, the object of his desire.

What exactly is so outrageous about Miss Lund's question? Is it that she mentions Christian conversion and sexual desire in the same sentence? Or is it that she is acknowledging a Chinese man's sexual desires so directly? At the very moment Miss Lund references Wah Lee's status as a person with sexual desires, Miss Hastings calls her a "heathen." Eaton's choice to have Miss Hastings use that epithet is striking, especially in the context of a missionary enterprise that cast the Chinese as the "deserving heathen" and sought to convert and Americanize immigrants simultaneously (Ferens, "The Deserving Heathen" 186). In this exchange, the "heathen" is not Wah Lee, the Chinese slave-turned-laundryman, but rather the white reporter, who represents the dominant culture that so often figured the Chinese as irremediably foreign. Miss Lund, we are told, ignores the insult entirely. Indeed, in the context Eaton has built for the remark, it is not an insult at all. It is more of a comically exaggerated expression of Christian judgment, shared between friends who talk a lot about other people's love lives. In one sense, since Miss Lund cannot possibly be considered a heathen, by calling her one Miss Hastings reinforces her difference from the Chinese men and women in whose lives she has been meddling. Still, the epithet performs a transfer of sorts by associating Miss Lund with the transgressive sexual desire she has assigned to Wah Lee.


An even more critical transfer of desire occurs in the story's opening passage, when Wah Lee describes Anna's physical attributes in rapturous detail during a conversation with Miss Lund, who is using him as a Chinatown informant. Since this exchange inspires the erroneous betrothal article that sets the plot in motion, it warrants special attention--particularly since "The Success of a Mistake," which is told in third-person limited narration and focalized through Miss Lund, offers no explanation for Miss Lund's mistake. Although Miss Lund immediately apologizes to Wah Lee when she realizes it was her fault, Eaton includes no introspective passages in which Miss Lund ponders the cause of her error. When we return to this exchange, we can see why: it is apparent that Miss Lund makes the mistake because of her identification with Wah Lee's desire for Anna. Wah Lee starts out by giving Miss Lund background about the Wong family, but he loses his sense of purpose as he talks:
  "The name of the eldest boy it is Charlie, and the name of her eldest
  girl it is Anna. They have Chinese name, too. All the children of the
  Wong family they born in this country. The eldest daughter she very
  pretty girl, her skin it smooth and white as rice, her face shaped
  like a melon seed, her mouth same as red leaf of vine, her nose fine
  carved piece of jade stone, her eye long and black, and her hair most
  plenty and shiny and dressed in the first Chinese style. See!"
  "Yes, I see, Wah."
  The Chinaman, who seemed to have lost himself in his description of
  his young countrywoman, became suddenly embarrassed.
  "That's all right, Wah," encouraged the reporter, removing him from
  the scrutiny of her eyes. "I like to hear you. It is the first time I
  have heard a Chinaman acknowledge that he paid any attention to
  things feminine." (270-70)

Desire and vision circle each other in this passage. Miss Lund's reply to Wah Lee's imperative "See!"--"Yes, I see, Wah," she says--can be read as a wry acknowledgment of the way he has unwittingly exposed his own desire (she sees him). But it can also be read as an indication of her appreciation for the appealing image he has conjured (she sees her). The passage then calls attention to Miss Lund's gaze itself, as she looks away from the discomfited Wah Lee, who realizes that he has revealed more than he intended. Like any good newspaperwoman, Miss Lund protects her source. By looking away and shifting the conversation toward her general impression of Chinese men's lack of interest in "things feminine," Miss Lund "encourage[s]" Wah Lee to continue talking. Her strategy works. The narrative almost immediately presents the results of their interview through an interpolated quotation of Miss Lund's betrothal article, which announces Mrs. Wong's intention to seek a husband for the "very pretty" Anna (271).

Only later, when we realize just how wrong the article is, do we become aware of how deeply Wah Lee's desire for Anna has sunk into Miss Lund's consciousness. As the narrative unfolds, we learn that Mrs. Wong was seeking a wife for Charlie, not a husband for Anna, and that is exactly what Miss Lund wrote down in her notebook. (She reads aloud from her notebook later: "Mrs. Wong has gone to San Francisco to find a wife for her son, Charlie--" [275].) What happened to the news item about Charlie? Apparently it never made it out of Miss Lund's notebook. Wah Lee did such a good job of describing Anna's charms that Miss Lund forgot all about Anna's brother, even after writing his name down. When Miss Lund wrote up her report, she made Anna, not Charlie, the center of the story. Assessed for its factual accuracy, Miss Lund's "A Chinese Betrothal" fails. Assessed for its emotional accuracy, Miss Lund's story succeeds. By misrepresenting the facts, she gets something else precisely right: Anna's status as object of desire, not just for Wah Lee, but for Miss Lund as well. Charlie never had a chance.

The transfer of desire from Wah Lee to Miss Lund is evident in Miss Lund's interactions with Anna, which are less sophisticated than her winking exchanges with Miss Hastings but at least as charged with desire. Since Miss Lund expresses her wish for contact with Anna--"I would like to meet this little Anna," she tells Miss Hastings--it is not surprising that she is pleased when Anna approaches her on the street to thank her for her article (275). Miss Lund is so pleased, in fact, that she proposes that Anna accompany her across town to Leschi Park, a popular recreation spot overlooking Lake Washington in Seattle. A bucolic interlude ensues: "[A] passing car was hailed and the two were soon out in the open, the blue sky above them, the mountains in the distance, the still lake before them, and peace and pleasantness around" (277). As the two women discuss Wah Lee in this date-like atmosphere, Anna turns to Miss Lund for reassurance about her marriage prospects: "'They say no Chinaman will want me now. But I think one will don't you?' This question was put most anxiously. 'I know one who will answered Miss Lund, contemplating the red vine leaf mouth, the long black eyes and the pretty form Wah Lee had so admirably described" (277). As Miss Lund looks at Anna through Wah Lee's eyes, Eaton's narrative transfers Wah Lee's words of desire into Miss Lund's consciousness. Miss Lund, acting as Wah Lee's proxy, manifests her own desire for Anna, even as she urges Anna to profess her love for Wah Lee and encourages Anna's mistaken assumption that Wah Lee has spread misinformation to ruin Anna's engagement. After a narrative break indicated by a row of asterisks, Eaton concludes with the final "You wicked girl!" scene between Miss Lund and Miss Hastings. The narrative shifts directly from one scene of displaced desire to another. We do not see Anna's profession of love for Wah Lee or his (presumably) ecstatic response, nor do we see the wedding itself. Instead, we see Miss Lund and Miss Hastings. Together, they stand in for the Chinese lovers.


"The Success of a Mistake" is less complex in narration and characterization than Eaton's later matchmaker stories, such as "Mrs. Spring Fragrance" and "The Inferior Woman," but it shows Eaton experimenting with queer narrative strategies that would become critical in her later fiction. Thanks to Chapman's research, we know that at least one draft of "Success" was written before March 1904, when Eaton submitted it to Century magazine (see "Finding Edith Eaton," earlier in this volume). According to the still-tentative career timeline scholars have established for Eaton, the years between 1903 and 1908 were transitional. She was moving away from writing ethnographic fiction and was about to begin producing longer, more complex fiction and essays on race relations. Her skill with trickster characters--including the author as trickster--was blossoming, and her control of narrative ironies was growing increasingly impressive. (22) As "The Success of a Mistake" invites us to reconsider what it means to make a mistake, it also invites us to scrutinize Miss Lund, whose claim to our attention is that much stronger when we recognize her as an authorial double imagined at a key juncture of Eaton's career. The story's premise requires that Miss Lund, clumsy as she is, get off too easily. The only real consequence she faces for making a mistake is discomfort in the face of Mrs. Wong's wrath, which is never even properly directed at her. The scoldings she receives from Miss Hastings are impossible to take seriously; Miss Hastings herself seems unable to stop smiling during most of them. And from Anna, whose situation Miss Lund actively misrepresents, she receives not only gratitude, but companionship in a pastoral tete-a-tete. In fact, Eaton makes it difficult to see Miss Lund's misreporting as an error at all. Still, the sense that this newspaperwoman is getting away with something pervades the narrative. As an authorial figure, Eaton's queer newspaperwoman is a trickster who makes her living on the who, what, when, and where of other people's desires. Laughing to the end, she does not promise to get her facts straight next time.


Chapman, Mary. "A 'Revolution in Ink': Sui Sin Far and Chinese Reform Discourse." American Quarterly 60.4 (2008): 975-1001.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic, 1994.

Cho, Yu-Fang. "Domesticating the Aliens Within: Sentimental Benevolence in Late-Nineteenth-Century California Magazines." American Quarterly 61.1 (2009): 113-36.

Cutter, Martha J. "Smuggling across the Borders of Race, Gender, and Sexuality." Mixed Race Literature. Ed. Jonathan Brennan. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2002. 137-64.

--. "Sui Sin Far's Letters to Charles Lummis: Contextualizing Publication Practices for the Asian American Subject at the Turn of the Century." American Literary Realism 38.3 (2006): 259-75.

Degenhardt, Jane Hwang. "Situating the Essential Alien: Sui Sin Far's Depiction of Chinese-White Marriage and the Exclusionary Logic of Citizenship." MFS: Modern Fiction Studies 54.4 (2008): 654-88.

Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Fahs, Alice. Out on Assignment: Newspaper Women and the Making of Modern Public Space. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2011.

Ferens, Dominika."The Deserving Heathen: Missionary Ethnography of China and Its American Converts." Trans-Pacific Interactions: The United States and China, 1880-1950. Ed. Vanessa Kunnemann and Ruth Mayer. New York: Palgrave, 2009. 185-204.

--. Edith and Winnifred Eaton: Chinatown Missions and Japanese Romances. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2002.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. Vol. 1. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Vintage, 1990. 3 vols.

Gyory, Andrew. Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, anti the Chinese Exclusion Act. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1998.

Herring, Scott. Queering the Underworld: Slumming, Literature, and the Undoing of Lesbian and Gay History. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

Howard, June. "Sui Sin Par's American Words." Comparative American Studies 6.2 (2008): 144-60.

Hsu, Stephanie. "Transgender Transnationalism: Representations of Immigrant Genders and Sexualities in Twentieth-and Twenty-First-Century American Literature," Diss. New York U, 2009.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. The Invention of Heterosexuality. 1995. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

Lanser, Susan S. "Novel (Sapphic) Subjects: The Sexual History of Form." Novel 42.3 (2009): 497-503.

Lee, Rachel C. "Journalistic Representations of Asian Americans and Literary Responses, 1910-1920." An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature. Ed. King-Kok Cheung. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. 249-73.

Li, Wenxin. "Sui Sin Far and the Chinese American Canon: Toward a Post-Gender-Wars Discourse." MELUS 29.3-4 (2004): 121-31.

Ling, Amy. Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry. New York: Pergamon, 1990.

Lowe, Lisa. Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics. Durham: Duke UP, 1996.

Lutes, Jean Marie. Front-Page Girls: Women Journalists in American Literature and Culture, 1880-1930. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2006.

McCullough, Kate. Regions of Identity: The Construction of America in Women's Fiction, 1885-1914. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999.

Mott, Frank Luther. A History of American Magazines, 1885-1905. Vol. 4. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1957. 5 vols.

Pan, Arnold. "Transnationalism at the Impasse of Race: Sui Sin Far and U. S. Imperialism." Arizona Quarterly 66.1 (2010): 87-114.

Pryse, Marjorie. "Linguistic Regionalism and the Emergence of Chinese American Literature in Sui Sin Far's 'Mrs. Spring Fragrance." Legacy 27.1 (2010): 83-108.

Rupp, Leila J. A Desired Past: A Short History of Same-Sex Love in America. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1999.

Shah, Nayan. "Perversity, Contamination, and the Dangers of Queer Domesticity." Queer Studies: An Interdisciplinary Reader. Ed. Robert J. Corber and Stephen M. Valocchi, Malden: Blackwell, 2003. 121-41.

Solberg, S. E. "Sui Fin Far/Edith Eaton: First Chinese-American Fictionist." MELUS 8.1 (1981): 27-39.

Song, Min. "The Unknowable and Sui Sin Far: The Epistemological Limits of 'Oriental' Sexuality." Q&A: Queer in Asian America. Ed. David L. Eng and Alice Y. Horn. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1998. 304-22.

Song, Min Hyoung. "Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far?' Legacy 20.1/2 (2003): 134-52.

Sui Sin Far [Edith Eaton]. "Betrothals in Chinatown." Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings 200-202.

--. "A Chinese Boy-Girl." Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings 155-60.

--. "The Chinese Lily." Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings 101-04.

--. "Half-Chinese Children." Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings 187-191.

--. "The Heart's Desire." Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings 150-451.

--. "'Its Wavering Image.'" Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings 61-66.

--. Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings. Ed. Amy Ling and Annette White-Parks. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.

--. "The Smuggling of Tie Co." Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings104-09.

--. "The Story of Tin-A." Land of Sunshine 12 (1899): 101-03.

--. "The Success of a Mistake." Westerner 8.3 (1908): 18-21. Rpt. Legacy 29.2 (2012): 270-79.

--. "Tian Shian's Kindred Spirit." Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings 119-25.

White-Parks, Annette. Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton: A Literary Biography. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1995.

--. "We Wear the Mask': Sui Sin Far as One Example of Trickster Authorship." Tricksterism in Turn-of-the-Century American Literature: A Multicultural Perspective. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons and Annette White-Parks. Hanover: UP of New England, 1994. 1-20.


Special thanks are due to Mary Chapman for sharing her discovery and making it possible for me to write this essay. I am also grateful to Ashley Cross, Theresa Strouth Gaul, Heather Hicks, Elizabeth Hillman, and Megan Quigley for their generous and invaluable commentary.

(1.) Eaton's narrator does not specify Miss Lund's race. Given the heroine's status as an authorial double for the biracial Eaton, who could pass as white and chose not to, we are well served by caution in assigning her a racial identity. I read Miss Lund as white because she is identified as American in the text and because the Chinese immigrants in the story respond to her as a member of the culturally dominant racial group. The illustration that accompanied the story when it appeared in the Westerner appears to depict Miss Lund as white (see fig. 1).

(2.) Magazine historian Frank Luther Mott lists the Westerner as one of "three Seattle monthlies dedicated to promoting the Northwest while furnishing some literary fare to their readers" (108). The February 1908 issue in which "The Success of a Mistake" appeared included a feature on a Native American potlatch (a gift-giving festival), a poetic tribute to George Washington, an installment of a war story series, a history of the early fur trade, an admiring report on the engineering challenges of building power plants in the mountains, and a column on the joys of being outdoors.

(3.) As Ferens has established, several of Eaton's short stories are "extended readings of motifs and images from her newspaper reports" (Edith and Winnifred Eaton 59), and "The Success of a Mistake" fits this pattern. "Betrothals in Chinatown" opens: "Mrs. Sing of East Commercial Street has gone to San Francisco to negotiate for a husband for her eldest daughter. The Sing family is much respected in Chinatown and the daughters are attractive girls who have been carefully reared. When Mrs. Sing finds a suitable young man and negotiations between the Sing family and the family of the prospective bridegroom are completed there will be great doings in Los Angeles' Chinatown" (200). The article then provides a description of Chinese betrothal and marriage customs. In "The Success of a Mistake," the fictional Miss Lund's misreported betrothal article echoes the structure and content of Eaton's Los Angeles Express report: "'Mrs. Wong, the wife of Wong Chow, well-known Chinese merchant of Jackson street, has gone to San Francisco to find a suitable husband for her eldest daughter, Anna. Mrs. Wong is a Chinese lady of education and refinement, and is resolved to betroth her daughter to none but a man of ability and character. Miss Anna is said to be a very pretty girl, and great festivities and rejoicings will take place at her wedding.' The above, followed by a description of Chinese betrothal and marriage customs, appeared in Miss Lund's paper the evening of her interview with Wah Lee" (271). For details on Eaton's journalism, see Ferens, Edith and Winnifred Eaton, especially 49-79, and White-Parks, Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton, especially77-84, 115, 118, 120-21, and 135-36.

(4.) See Lutes, especially 1-11 and 101-06, and Fahs 17-55. Neither of these studies of women's journalism includes Eaton, who appears to be missing entirely from scholarship on American newspaperwomen.

(5.) Although I am arguing that Eaton's fictional newspaperwoman is best understood as queer, I do not mean to suggest that all of the era's newspaperwomen, real or imagined, must be read as queer. I see women's journalism as a queer phenomenon that set the stage for non-normative constructions of sex and gender, but women participated in various ways in that phenomenon. Some resisted its queer possibilities.

(6.) For a discussion of the fan's letter to Nellie Bly, see Lutes 159-60.

(7.) For more details on bachelor girls, see Falls 133-61.

(8.) In volume 1 of The History of Sexuality--a book whose influence on queer studies is impossible to overestimate--Foucault cites a scientific article from 1870 as the moment when homosexuality was invented (43). On the emergence of sexual identity categories, see Katz Chauncey 99-129, Rupp 73-100, and Faderman 239-53 and 314-31.

(9.) Foucault's repression hypothesis overturns the assumption that talking about sex is inherently liberatory (17-35). For an illuminating discussion of misrecognition as a queer strategy at the turn of the twentieth century, see Herring, esp. 1-24.

(10.) See, among others, Chapman; Cutter, "Sui Sill Far's Letters"; Degenhardt; Li; Pan; and Song, "Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far."

(11.) See Cutter, "Smuggling across the Borders"; Hsu 187-222; McCullough 230 and 257-74; and Song, "The Unknowable Sui Sin Far." White-Parks argues, in contrast, that "the intimate bonding of Sui Sin Far's women ... is not sexual but essentially psychological and spiritual" (Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton 233[intersection]47).

(12.) For a related argument about how the eighteenth-century domestic novel frames heterosexual experience in homoerotic exchanges, see Lanser. Although Lanser writes about literature from an earlier era, before the binary categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality had emerged, her attention to the ways that "sapphic narration underpins the novel's domestic subject" is relevant to Eaton's work (502).

(13.) For complementary readings of "'Its Wavering Image,'" see Howard, Lee, and Pryse.

(14.) In observing the gendered nature of these approaches to reporting, I do not mean to suggest that newsmen were always detached while newswomen were always emotionally involved. In fact, both male and female journalists used emotion strategically in gathering and writing news. What is striking here is not women's emotionality or men's detachment but rather the way that emotionality was feminized and detachment masculinized. On emotionality and women's journalism, see Fahs 5-6 and 12-13 and Lutes 65-93.

(15.) It is possible that "The Success of a Mistake" was easier to publish in a magazine than "'Its Wavering Image,'" precisely because of its more conventional treatment of Chinese characters. As Howard has argued, Eaton "was more likely to be able to publish work that portrayed a conventional Chinatown and implied the developmental fantasy of civilization" (154).

(16.) Miss Hastings is amused when she begins to suspect that Miss Lund, not Wah Lee, bears responsibility for the misreported betrothal story: "(It may be, dear; said Miss Hastings with a little twinkle in her eye, 'that someone else has made a mistake--not Wah Lee" (275). After Miss Lund apologizes to Wah Lee for blaming him for her own mistake, "The young women laughed at what they took to be a joke" (276). During her concluding conversation with Miss Hastings, in which they discuss Anna and Wah Lee's wedding, Miss Lund is "laughing mischievously" (278).

(17.) So does an earlier report on marriage customs that Eaton published in 1895 in the Montreal Daily Star. See also the "Chinese Marriages" section of an article titled "Half-Chinese Children," wherein she observes, "Even in America the tedious Chinese marriage formalities, as far as possible, are observed by the Chinese" (189).

(18.) When they meet on the street, Anna introduces herself to Miss Lund by telling her both her American name and her Chinese name (276).

(19.) In stories about Chinese immigrant women, many of them written by Eaton, Cho finds evidence that benevolent reform could reinforce the politics of violent racial domination even when it seemed to explicitly oppose them. Although the stories, as she puts it, "posit romantic love and intraracial marriage as the path to racial transcendence," that transcendence is repeatedly blocked by "excessive signs of racial difference" (118). Marriage itself, as a legal arrangement, was never neutral as a plot device; it was an institution of the same white heteronormative culture that justified anti-Chinese exclusionary laws (115). Like the magazine stories that Cho analyzes, "The Success of a Mistake" elides the barriers to citizenship, government harassment, and discrimination that Chinese Americans encountered in the United States at the turn of the century.

(20.) Although more biographical work remains to be done, we cannot assume that Eaton sanctioned the illustration. She probably had little or no say in decisions about how magazine editors chose to illustrate her work. Given her need to support herself and the difficulty she experienced placing stories in magazines, it is even less likely that she would have been in a position to influence how her work was presented (White-Parks, Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton 117-18). For detailed analysis of Eaton's negotiating with publishers, see Cutter, "Sui Sin Far's Letters."

(21.) Chinese men, who far outnumbered women in turn-of-the-century Chinese immigrant communities, were often "portrayed ... as childlike, feminine, and submissive" (Gyory 18). They were also associated with sexual deviance; most had little contact with Chinese women, and strict miscegenation laws and the threat of violence discouraged relations with women outside their communities (Song, "Sentimentalism and Sui Sin Far" 141). Shah has argued that Chinatowns created spaces of queer domesticity that threatened the heterocentric domestic ideal embraced by the white middle class (121-25). On stereotypes about Chinese sexuality, see also Cho 118-20 and Lowe 11-12.

(22.) This characterization of Eaton's career is based on White-Parks's biography. White-Parks describes an apparent "hiatus" in Sui Sin Far's publications between 1905 and 1909 (Sui Sin Far/Edith Maude Eaton 144). "The Success of a Mistake," of course, fails within that time period. At the time, Parks acknowledged that the gap "may result from our not finding her stories rather than her not writing them" (145), and Chapman's discovery of "The Success of a Mistake" suggests that this was indeed the case. For an extended reading of tricksterism in Eaton's work, see White-Parks, "'We Wear the Mask.'"


Villanova University
COPYRIGHT 2012 University of Nebraska Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Lutes, Jean M.
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2012
Previous Article:The Success of a Mistake.
Next Article:Emily Clemens Pearson, 1818-1900.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |