Edith Eaton, Uncovered: Mary Chapman’s Literary Detective Work

By Jane Greenway Carr
January 2014

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Dr. Mary Chapman, Associate Professor of English at the University of British Columbia, teaches American literature and transnational American studies. She is particularly recognized as a leading scholar of literary and cultural histories of suffrage movements; she is the editor (with Angela Mills) of Treacherous Texts: US Suffrage Literature 1846-1946 (Rutgers UP, 2011), which won the Susan Koppelman Prize for best anthology, multi-authored, or edited book in feminist studies in popular culture. As the title of her 2007 article in American Periodicals, “Digging in the Archive, Harvesting on the Web,” indicates, her teaching and scholarship embrace archival practice and capitalize on the new avenues for literary detective work that digitized resources offer.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Archive Journal spoke to Chapman about her current research endeavor: recovering the oeuvre of Asian-North American writer Edith Eaton (1865-1914), who wrote under the pen name Sui Sin Far. Literary historians since the 1980s have celebrated Eaton as a founding voice in Asian-North American literature, but Chapman’s work seeks to complicate this image with evidence of Eaton’s role as a truly transnational figure. With the help of research assistants, Chapman’s literary sleuthing has uncovered almost 100 uncollected works, including journalism, correspondence, magazine and syndicated fiction, children’s literature, and more. Chapman’s forthcoming edited volume of her findings, “Sui Sin Far” in Canada: The Uncollected Canadian Writings of Edith Eaton, will more than quadruple the existing Eaton corpus and expand scholarly awareness of her Canadian and American publications.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 AJ: What sparked your interest in Edith Eaton/Sui Sin Far?

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Since I trained as an Americanist, I had read a few of the stories in Mrs. Spring Fragrance and appreciated them, but it wasn’t until I stumbled on “The Alaska Widow”—a story that departed from her usual Chinatown themes to address American imperialism in Alaska and the Philippines, which I found in a digitized issue of The Bohemian that I found online in a late-night moment of idle Google searching—that I got very curious about her. I wondered “what else did she write that was not collected in her 1912 book [Mrs. Spring Fragrance] or in Mrs. Spring Fragrance and Other Writings (1995) edited by Annette White-Parks and Amy Ling?

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6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 AJ: Your book, “Sui Sin Far” in Canada: The Uncollected Canadian Writings of Edith Eaton, will be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. What has been the biggest challenge of working on the book? Do you have any other publication or digitization projects planned for your work on Eaton?

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Originally, I had wanted to publish one book that would bring together all of Eaton’s uncollected works and could showcase the transnationalism of her career as a writer in Canada, the United States, and even Jamaica. But practically speaking, there are too many uncollected works to fit in one volume! So “Sui Sin Far” in Canada will bring together all the works by Eaton that were published or set in Canada. Most of these were written before 1900: unsigned Chinatown journalism for the Montreal Star and Montreal Witness; a column by “Firefly” for a Jamaican newspaper; some anonymous journalism written in Thunder Bay, Ontario; and short fiction, poetry, and sketches signed “Edith Eaton.” A few are signed “Sui Sin Far” or are pseudonymously published travel writings from a cross-continental train ride in 1903. Though I have not yet approached publishers about it, I envision a second book that will bring together all the other uncollected works, most of which are published or set in the United States.

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9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 AJ: Has the literary sleuthing you’ve done on Eaton prompted you to develop new methods for working with archives?

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The biggest change in my research methods in the past five years has been prompted by digitization. I have had to learn how to search databases effectively, using intuition to temper the false sense of certainty one can have after a search. I always approach a question or search from multiple angles. A search for “Sui Sin Far,” for example, in The Youth’s Companion doesn’t find results because her pen name was displayed on the page not in typeface but in orientalist calligraphy that is not recognized by a word search. In digitized newspapers, the words “Sui Sin Far” are very difficult for character-recognition software to recognize because they are not familiar English words. That said, much of the research that located these uncollected texts by Eaton/Sui Sin Far was far less glamorous and far less nuanced; my research assistants and I have simply looked through the table of contents of many bound volumes of periodicals Sui Sin Far mentions in the “Acknowledgements” page of her Mrs. Spring Fragrance, found stories—some of which had detailed introductions that gave us further information—and followed our “leads.”

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 AJ: Speaking of research assistants, a recent article in The Globe and Mail mentions that you have worked with a network of student researchers in several cities. Since our recent issue of Archive Journal revolved around “Undergraduates in the Archive,” could you elaborate?

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Over the years, I have hired both undergraduates and graduate students to help with my research. To find good candidates, I posted job descriptions on listservs at UBC and interviewed students to get a sense of their research skills. Often, I hired students I had already taught because they had a sense of my project and I had a sense of their skills. To hire student researchers in Washington, DC, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York, I contacted colleagues at nearby universities and asked for their recommendations. Also, I have worked with lots of undergrads over the years through a program called the Arts Undergraduate Research Assistantship program at UBC (AURA) and they have done research, editing, proofreading, indexing, photocopying, scanning, translating, and other work for Treacherous Texts and my forthcoming book Making Noise, Making News: Suffrage Print Culture and US Modernism.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 For the Eaton project specifically, two summers ago I hired an undergraduate research assistant named Genie Macleod, and she found a few stories in The Traveler, which we were looking for in response to a mention Eaton made about The Traveler in the Acknowledgments in Mrs. Spring Fragrance. The stories she found, “Gambling Cash Tiger” and “The Three Souls of Ho Kiang,” both appeared in 1899. It was a tricky bit of detective work because we didn’t know which Traveler Eaton was referring to—there was one magazine with that name in Boston and another in San Francisco. As it turns out, Eaton was referring to the one in San Francisco.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 AJ: Several news articles about your work have teased the existence of a book Eaton was working on at the end of her life. Do you have any leads that might hint at its fate?

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 In a letter to Charles Lummis, who edited one of the periodicals to which she contributed, Eaton mentions that she is writing a second book; apparently, she already has a manuscript and a publisher has told her it is too long and she mentions revising. I suspect the book was less concerned with Chinatown themes than much of her other published writing—she mentions in an early letter how she gets tired of people telling her to mine that theme—but otherwise, I have no leads!

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 AJ: As a literary detective, though, it sounds like you’re still on the case. We look forward to hearing what you uncover next!

Edith Eaton, Uncovered: Mary Chapman’s Literary Detective Work

Jane Greenway Carr

Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow – NYU

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