Posts in this series were written by undergraduate students in the spring 2020 Museums & Society class Scribbling Women: Gender, Writing, and the Archive. We used rare books, archival materials, and digital primary sources in the Sheridan Libraries’ collections to prompt and guide inquiries into the creation, reception, preservation, and legacy of texts from the 1820s through the 1930s—speeches, private writings, and published poetry, fiction, and journalism—by North American women who brought attention to race-, gender-, and class-based inequities. Through their short essays, bibliographies, and analyses of digital sources, students are providing to a broad audience accurate information about and appreciation for the “scribbling women” they studied. For more about our series title, please see the first post. For more about our public-facing work, please see our gallery of final projects and blog.
Today’s post is by Julia Costacurta, Class of 2020, a Biomedical Engineering major.
Photograph of Edith Eaton, from the private collection of Diana Birchall. Image from Canada’s Early Women Writers, SFU Library Digital Collections, Simon Fraser University. CC by Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International.
Edith Maude Eaton, who chose the pen-name Sui Sin Far, was one of the first known half-Chinese, half-white authors to publish in the United States. She used her unique racial position to document the lives of Chinese Americans: “Because she was half Chinese, she could develop relationships within Chinese communities and observe daily life. Because she was half white, she could publish her ideas in notable newspapers and magazines, and easily immigrate to the United States and cross the border many times, a privilege denied most Chinese people in this era” (“Life Story”).
With this context in mind, it’s important to see how Eaton’s racial identity was represented by publishers. Aside from the text itself, publishers provide readers with particular ideas about an author’s work through its editing, illustration, and design. How did the first edition of Eaton’s only book, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, published by A. C. McClurg of Chicago in 1912, reach readers? What form did this important collection of Eaton’s stories take, some of which had previously been published in newspapers? To carry out this analysis, we could examine a physical hard copy of the book; we are lucky enough to have one in the Sheridan Libraries. But we can also do so using a good digital surrogate—a full-text scan of the printed book.
For the rest of this post, I’ll refer to a particular digital surrogate of Mrs. Spring Fragrance, available at the Internet Archive, from an original located at the Fisher Library at University of Toronto. I selected this surrogate out of the few available on Internet Archive and HathiTrust because I think the scan is the closest to the original and easiest to read.
The first and possibly most striking thing to notice about this book is the cover—saturated red (see the Cornell scan for an even brighter depiction) and detailed with a gold foil scene of dragonflies and water lilies. The title is written in a font that would be seen as orientalist today, and Eaton’s name is represented in Chinese characters. The surrogate allows us to zoom in to examine these design features up close. Together, the red and gold colors, typically associated with China, the characters of the title and author’s name, and the decorative elements (dragonflies and water lilies) ensure that a reader will see this book as stereotypically Chinese and “exotic.” In particular, by providing Eaton’s name in Chinese characters only, which were probably not legible to the majority of her American readers, the publisher makes the author somewhat anonymous and mysterious; “Sui Sin Far” in the Latin alphabet first appears on the book’s title page. Seeing this cover makes me wonder how the spine looks—is Eaton’s name still in Chinese there, or is it in English? However, this particular surrogate does not include a scan of the spine.
Title page of Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far, Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1912. From the University of Toronto Libraries via Internet Archive / public domain.
Upon “opening” the surrogate, which is accomplished with a task bar or by simply clicking the pages, I was immediately taken by the large watermark design of birds and blossoms that lies behind the text on the page. This pattern is present on every single page of the book, to a point that is almost distracting. Eaton’s name appears in Chinese characters at the bottom right corner of every spread, never letting the reader forget that they’re reading something by a Chinese author— another way the publisher chose to capitalize on and distort Eaton’s half-Chinese ancestry. One reason I selected this particular scan is that the background pattern seems to balance well with the text—in others, it’s either too light to pick up or is so dark that the text is illegible. I think the fact that this pattern is present shows the power of this digital surrogate—it would likely not appear in an e-text or modern edition. However, it also shows some limitations of the digital surrogate through the wide array of scan qualities. It’s impossible to know exactly how these watermarks appear in the original printed book.
The Internet Archive interface allows users to search for specific phrases within the scan, something incredibly useful and unavailable in physical books. There’s also a full description of the item and links to download the scan in a wide range of formats, including a text-only format useful for accessibility. However, for all of these convenient features, the digital surrogate can’t capture everything about its original object. For instance, while I was curious about the spine and watermark pattern, I was also left wondering about the physical footprint of the book—exactly how bright red is it, how large, how does it look beside other books? Are there any unusual physical details (paper quality, materials) that are not coming through in the scan?
Overall, I think this digital surrogate allows us as twenty-first century readers an important look at a book that doesn’t receive much popular attention. In contrast to Zora Neale Hurston and Zitkála-Šá, other women of color authors we’ve read in this class, who were republished starting in the 1970s, renewed interest in Eaton’s work has only seemed to pick up in the past few years. As of now, there hasn’t been a sleek Penguin Classics edition of Mrs. Spring Fragrance, and so for many people this digital surrogate is likely the closest they’ll get to a print edition of Eaton’s work. So, while the surrogate has a handful of shortcomings, it’s a powerful and accessible way to view the work of an often overlooked author.
Far, Sui Sin [Edith Maude Eaton]. Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1921.
“Life Story: Edith Maude Eaton.” Women & the American Story, New York Historical Society, wams.nyhistory.org/modernizing-america/xenophobia-and-racism/edith-maude-eaton/.