Edith Maude Eaton (1865–1914)
From Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing
A little over eight years ago, Library of America launched Story of the Week. This week, for our 400th selection, we present—with a newly researched and expanded introduction—a story that initially appeared during the feature’s first month.
That selection is “Mrs. Spring Fragrance,” the title story from a collection published in 1912 by Edith Maude Eaton, the first writer of Chinese descent to publish fiction in North America. Born in England and raised in Canada, Eaton spent most of her adult life in the United States, traveling widely and living in San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Boston. From the 1890s until her death in 1914, she published fiction, sketches, journalism, and essays under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far (“water lily” in Cantonese). In recent decades her writings have been rediscovered, reevaluated, and reprinted—and, since she published in dozens of magazines and newspapers, often under other pseudonyms, academics have been hunting for (and finding) many other “forgotten” works written by Eaton.
Incredibly, as discussed in the introduction, the second writer of Chinese descent to publish American fiction was Eaton’s sister, Winnifred. While Edith eked out a hardscrabble (but still respectable) existence as a writer exploring and describing Chinese American life, Winnifred published more than a hundred stories and a series of best-selling novels, all while pretending to be Onoto Watanna, a Japanese American writer. It was a decision that would ultimately haunt her forty years later, when the U.S. entered World War II.