A Digital Surrogate for an Overlooked Author: Edith Maude Eaton’s Mrs. Spring Fragrance

Image of Edith Eaton, from the private collection of Diana Birchall by Msavich via Wikimedia / CC by Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International

Edith Maude Eaton, also known by 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, in a way best summarized by this biography from the New York Historical Society:

“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.”

With this context in mind, it’s important to see how Eaton’s mixed race was portrayed in her published works. To do this we turn to digital surrogates. In the case of our class, this term means full-text scans of archival materials, mainly first edition books. For a simple view of the surrogacy process, see this page from the “Display At Your Own Risk” digital exhibition.

For the rest of this post, I’ll refer to the digital surrogate of Mrs. Spring Fragrance, Eaton’s collection of short stories, available on Internet Archive, with the 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 job is the cleanest and seems the most true to life.

Front Cover of Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Edith Maude Eaton/Sui Sin Far via Internet Archive / public domain

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 likely be taken as stereotypically orientalist today, and Eaton’s name is solely represented in Chinese characters. The surrogate allows us to zoom in and out, examining the ways that Eaton’s Chinese heritage was used to market a book of Chinese-American stories as “exotic” and othered. In particular, by only depicting Eaton’s name in Chinese characters, which were likely meaningless to the majority of her American readers, the cover gives an air of anonymity and mystery to the author that is only broken upon reading the 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.

Upon “opening” the surrogate, which is accomplished either using a task bar or by simply clicking the pages, I was immediately taken in by the large watermark design of birds and blossoms that lies behind the text on the page. Fascinatingly, this pattern is present on every single page of the book, to a point that it’s 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 Eaton’s uncommon ancestry. Part of the reason I selected this particular scan is that the 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 an original copy.

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 increasing accessibility. However, for all of these convenient features, the digital surrogate can’t capture everything about its original object. For instance, while curious about the spine and watermarks, 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 impossible to convey over scan?    

Overall, I think this digital surrogate allows a unique and important look at a book that hasn’t received much recent attention. In contrast to Zora Neale Hurston and Zitkála-Šá, other women of color authors we’ve examined 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.

Works Cited:
Far, Sui Sin. Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1921. Print.
“Life Story: Edith Maude Eaton.” Women & the American Story, New York Historical Society, wams.nyhistory.org/modernizing-america/xenophobia-and-racism/edith-maude-eaton/.

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