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Winnifred (Onoto Watanna) Eaton

I had not been ruined in the sense that Chicago policemen meant, but, oh, deeper than that sort of ruin had been the damnatory effects of the blow he had dealt me! He had destroyed something precious and fine; he had crushed my beautiful faith, my ideals, me dreams, my spirit, the charming visions that had danced like fairies in my brain. Worse, he had ruthlessly destroyed Me! I was dead. There was another person who stood there in the snow staring at the waters of Lake Michigan. Where was the heroic little girl who only a little more than a year before, penniless and alone, had fearlessly stepped out into the smiling, golden world, and boldly challenged Fate?

          — Me: A Book of Remembrance, 351-352

Biography / Criticism

Winnifred Eaton was born in Montreal, Quebec, in 1875. However, she lived most of her life in New York, Hollywood, and Calgary. Winnifred's father, Edward Eaton, was a silk merchant who traveled around to major Asian trading towns, particularly Shanghai. There he met his wife, Grace "Lotus Blossom" Trefusis. She was a Chinese woman adopted and educated by English missionaries. Winnifred was the eighth of fourteen children. She became an author who published many novels, a Chinese-Japanese cookbook, short stories, newspaper articles and motion picture screenplays. At age fourteen she published her first story in a Montreal newspaper. At that young age she was already establishing a name for herself in the United States, with articles in American Youth, Ladies Home Journal, and Metropolitan Magazine.

At age seventeen, Winnifred left Montreal with ten dollars in her pocket to go to Jamaica because she had accepted a position as a stenographer for a Canadian newspaper there. A year later she moved to the United States where she settled in Chicago, working as a typist at the stockyards. There her short stories began being published in the Saturday Evening Post and other periodicals.

Eaton became one of the first known writers of Asian descent to be published in America. It was in Chicago that she published her first novel, Mrs. Nume of Japan (1899), which told the story of a romance involving two couples, one American and one Japanese, who switch partners during a series of romantic and tragic encounters. It was an immediate success. From then on she published almost a novel a year. Moving to New York she wrote her next novel, A Japanese Nightingale in 1901. It was translated into many languages and was even made into a Broadway play and film (1919). She lived in New York until 1917. During that time, she married and divorced Bertrand Babcock with whom she had four children. She had much financial and writing success. In 1910, she wrote the bestseller Tama. Her novels, written during her time in New York, were mainly set in Japan. Most of them featured romantic scenarios of a Japanese woman and American man. Her novel, Me, A Book of Remembrance, in which she created a story about a girl named Nora Ascouth, is a thinly disguised memoir. This book, through the story of Nora's life, shows Eaton's attempt at covering up her Chinese ancestry. The novel created a small scandal partly because it discussed her many romances and friendships with men and partly because everyone was trying to guess the identity of the author.

Her works were popular because they were romances, not only giving Americans a flavor of the Orient but also drawing upon the Orientalist clichés of her time. Eaton was able to explore diverse social issues and exploit Oriental fantasies. Eaton used a Japanese pen name when she wrote, even though she was of Chinese descent. She used the name Onoto Watanna because she wanted to create for herself a persona of a Japanese noblewoman. At that time in America, there was a more favorable perception of Japanese than Chinese. The name Watanna can be dissected into two parts- "wata[ru]," to cross and "na," which means, "name. " Winnifred put these two ideograms together for an intentional purpose. Her sister, the eldest girl in the family, was also a writer named Edith Maude Eaton. She wrote fiction and was a journalist. She too had a pen name which was "Sui Sin Far" or "Water Lily," which she said was a pseudonym of a prominent Americanized Chinese merchant from Los Angeles.

In 1917, Winnifred Eaton Babcock married Francis Fournier Reeve and moved to a ranch in Alberta, Canada. She wrote one more Japanese novel in addition to two novels set in Canada with no Japanese characters. In 1924, she moved back to New York and was hired to write and edit for Universal Studios. She also wrote stories and screenplays and screen adaptations for film companies like Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Fox Films, and Universal Pictures. She was one of the writers of shows such as Showboat, Shanghai Lady, Mississippi, Gambler, and Phantom of the Opera. She also made money writing short stories and articles for magazines.

In 1932, she moved back to Calgary where she founded the Little Theatre movement and served as the president of the Calgary branch of the Canadian Authors Association. Eventually, her health restricted her writing and she was able to write only a few short stories. Eaton died on April 8th, 1954, while on her way back to Calgary from a vacation in the United States. Her work prompted a donation by the Francis R. Reeve Foundation and made it possible to construct the Reeve Theatre at the University of Calgary. Also, in the Glenbow Archives in Calgary, Alberta, manuscripts of her short stories, novels, articles, screenplays, publishes works, newspaper clippings of articles and reviews of novels and screenplays are housed.

Despite the fact that Eaton wrote the "first known novel by an Asian American author" (Eaton, Mrs. Nume of Japan, XI) her work has been largely ignored. Some people criticize Winnifred for denying her Chinese heritage and claiming a Japanese one. Most critics have trouble categorizing her because she was of Chinese Anglo descent and assumed a Japanese identity to write romance novels about Eurasian and Japanese women.

Selected Bibliography

Works by the Author

Works about the Author

Related Links

"What's So Interesting About 'Romance of Color'?"
Information about other "romance" writers on VG.

Diana Birchall: Eaton's Granddaughter
A remembrance and biography.

University of Virginia Electronic Text Center on Winnifred Eaton
Note from Jean Lee Cole, Loyola College: I have recovered and edited a large number of Winnifred Eaton's short stories, non-fiction, and 2 novels--all previously unknown and/or unlocated. They have been put online at the University of Virginia Electronic Text Center, at the Winnifred Eaton Online Archive.

Report a dead link or suggest a new one by emailing voices@umn.edu.

Contributors

This page was researched and submitted by Katie Erickson.