American Literature Winnifred Eaton
by
Mary Chapman, Sydney Lines, Heidi Rennert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0009

Introduction

Winnifred Eaton Babcock Reeve (b. 1875–d. 1954) was a Chinese North American author best known for fiction published under the faux-Japanese penname “Onoto Watanna.” In her forty-year career, Eaton published nineteen novels, many of which were critically acclaimed and translated into many languages. Eaton also published hundreds of stories, poems, and articles in US, Canadian, Jamaican, and English magazines and newspapers. She was born in Montreal to a white British father and a Chinese mother who married in China and, after brief stays in England and the United States, emigrated to Canada. Whereas Winnifred pretended to be Japanese, Eaton’s older sister Edith wrote sympathetically about diasporic Chinese using the pen name “Sui Sin Far”; with her sister Sara, Winnifred co-wrote Chinese-Japanese Cook Book (1914), one of the first Asian American cookbooks. Sara’s experiences also inspired Winnifred Eaton’s novel Marion (1916). In 1895, Eaton began her writing career working as a reporter in Jamaica. Soon afterward, she moved to Cincinnati, where she first assumed the identity of a half-Japanese, and then to Chicago. Writing as “Onoto Watanna,” Eaton published prolifically about Japanese life, exploring romantic encounters between Americans and Japanese and the experiences of mixed-race children and interracial kinship. Her Miss Numè of Japan (1898) is the first novel in English by a writer of Asian descent published in North America. In 1901, when she was living in New York, Eaton married journalist Bertrand Babcock and published her novel A Japanese Nightingale, which skyrocketed her to fame, inspiring a play, a film, and an opera. After reviewers expressed doubts about her Japanese identity, however, Eaton tried to leave Japanese subjects behind her. She submitted Diary of Delia (1907) to publishers under another pseudonym, published Me (1915) and Marion (1916) anonymously, and published one final Japanese-themed text, Sunny-San, in 1922. In 1917, after divorcing Babcock, Eaton married American businessman Francis Reeve, moved to Alberta, and rebranded herself as “Winnifred Reeve,” rancher’s wife and Canadian literary nationalist. There, Eaton wrote Cattle, a powerful naturalist novel about a girl raped by her employer, and His Royal Nibs, a romance between an English aristocrat and a young Alberta woman, and tried her hand at writing screenplays. Eaton received her first film credit in 1921 on Universal’s “False Kisses.” When the Reeves’ ranch failed, Eaton joined the East Coast scenario department of Universal, a then-minor film producer, and soon afterward was made its Hollywood editor-in-chief and literary advisor. Eaton collaborated on dozens of screenplays and adaptations, translating her experience writing Japanese romances into scripts featuring exotic locales and peoples, as well as commissioned scripts during Universal’s transition from “silents” to “talkies”. She also ghostwrote scripts for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Eaton left Hollywood and returned to Alberta in 1931 after a brief estrangement from Reeve. At her death, most of Eaton’s works were out of print. Yet she remains significant to North American literary history as the first Asian American novelist and screenwriter and as an early Canadian author and woman journalist.

General Overviews

Eaton disappeared from critical view after her death until the late 1970s when scholars who were engaged in recovering the works of her sister Edith Eaton (Sui Sin Far) began to examine Winnifred’s oeuvre as well. Initially, scholars valorized Edith for accurate portrayals of diasporic Chinese communities while vilifying Winnifred for race betrayal. Since 1990, scholarly interest in Winnifred’s work has ballooned and, since 1999, scholars have begun to complicate this oversimplification. Eaton is the subject of over twenty dissertations and scores of recent articles and book chapters. While early criticism focused only on her Japanese writings which were mostly published between 1896 and 1915, two book-length studies, Cole 2002 and Ferens 2002, provide more comprehensive overviews of Eaton’s complex and sustained career from her 1890s poetry and journalism to her 1920s and 1930s Hollywood film work. The Winnifred Eaton Archive is an excellent entry point for those seeking the most current information about Eaton’s oeuvre, biography, and critical reception.

  • Cole, Jean Lee. The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002.

    Drawing on extensive archives, Cole explores Eaton’s career in its entirety: her Japanese phase, domestic fiction, autobiographical writing, Alberta novels, and screenplays. Pays special attention to Eaton’s ventriloquism of diverse voices—Irish, Scottish, Chinese, Indigenous, androgynous, etc. Considers Eaton in the context of Cather, Austin, and other early-20th-century feminist Western authors.

  • Ferens, Dominika. Edith and Winnifred Eaton: Chinatown Missions and Japanese Romances. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

    The only full-length comparative study of the Eaton sisters. With special attention to their time as journalists in Jamaica, reads their fiction as ethnography, as orientalism with a difference. Problematizes the binary that views Edith’s work as “authentic” and that of Winnifred as “opportunistic” by highlighting both Winnifred’s subtle antiracism and Edith’s strategic construction of her own persona.

  • The Winnifred Eaton Archive.

    A growing research and teaching tool organized around five stages of Eaton’s career: “Early Experiments (Montreal and Jamaica)”; “Playing Japanese”; “New York Years”; “Alberta”; and “In Hollywood.” Provides facsimiles and searchable transcriptions for over 200 published and unpublished works by Eaton, plus a biographical timeline, family photographs, a bibliography, a secondary bibliography, headnotes, and information about periodicals in which Eaton published.

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