- Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton, and: The Literary Voices ofWinnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity
In the past decade Winnifred Eaton/Onoto Watanna (1875-1954) has increasingly drawn scholarly attention, both as one of the first and most prolific American authors of Asian descent and as a flamboyant woman who performed rare feats of will and imagination. Raised in a working-class district of Montreal, disadvantaged by her Chinese mother's origin and her English father's inability to provide for his fourteen children, Eaton became a literary celebrity and retained her position in the popular fiction marketplace for a quarter of a century before going on to write for motion pictures. Positioned as both insider and outsider in relation to the white mainstream, Eaton anticipated the changing reader and viewer expectations to produce marketable, conventional stories about unconventional subjects: white America's ethnic others.
Eaton's life is the subject of Diana Birchall's Onoto Watanna: The Story of Winnifred Eaton, a meticulously researched biography written with verve and a fine sense of irony. What makes this narrative appealing is Birchall's refusal to heroicize her protagonist. Comfortable with a degree of uncertainty or ambiguity, Birchall does not hesitate to call Eaton's bluff or cite opinions that undermine the public persona Winnifred so carefully constructed.
As Eaton's granddaughter and as a story analyst at Warner Brothers, Birchall was in a good position to write the biography. Its merit, however, lies not in the author's personal connection with Eaton but in the energy and rigor with which she pursued her research. Her informants range from John Mann, archivist of the Home and Colonial School in London, where Eaton's Chinese mother was educated, to Frederica Sagor Maas, age 100, who trained Eaton during her first days in Hollywood. More information about Eaton will, of course, continue to surface, but it is unlikely to substantially alter the trajectory Birchall traces on the basis of archival materials that include fourteen boxes of Eaton's personal papers, volumes of the Jamaican newspaper for which Eaton worked as a reporter, oral accounts, dozens of published and unpublished stories by Eaton, as well as screenplays, movies, and reviews of her work. Her portrait of Eaton is decidedly more multifaceted than that previously constructed by scholars.
Although Birchall provides synopses of Eaton's works and attempts a reassessment of her as an author, for more nuanced readings we may turn to The Literary Voices of Winnifred Eaton: Redefining Ethnicity and Authenticity by Jean Lee Cole. Numerous publications about Eaton's fiction have appeared since the mid-1990s. Critics have given Eaton credit for the subversive use of ethnic impersonation and for pursuing the theme of miscegenation, but according to Cole they have tended to focus on her Japanese novels and autobiographical fiction. Eaton is only heard when she speaks about her identity as a minority and addresses minority issues (154).
If Eaton was not the politically engaged writer scholars have wanted her to be, Cole argues, she did write subtly but persistently to alter mainstream readers' race, gender, and class expectations. Cole, in turn, writes to alter the presentist expectations of academically trained readers who blame Eaton for having failed to identify with a group or speak out more openly [End Page 102] against an oppressive dominant culture. Cole examines Eaton's work in the context of American mainstream fiction to show that she shared themes and concerns not just with Charles Chesnutt or James Weldon Johnson but also with Mary Austin, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, and Kate Chopin. Cole's reading strategy yields a series of original interpretations of Eaton's works, particularly those previously ignored.
Using a historicist approach, for example, Cole reads Eaton's fictionalized autobiography Me: A Book of Remembrance as a contribution to the debate on the "woman of genius," an oxymoronic...