Monthly Archives: May 2019

Illustration from Marion by Winnifred Eaton

An absorbing novel by an early Chinese-American writer

It’s been five months since the end of my year in 1918, but I still haven’t fully readjusted. A few weeks ago I was reading one of the recent novels I had looked forward to during my sojourn. There’s a child in the book who is so brilliant and sweet that I said, “Uh-oh, he’s too good to live.”

He dies!

Take me back to 1918, I said, and put the book down.

Since it’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month,* I decided to read a book by an Asian-American writer of that era. Or, rather, the Asian-American** writer of that era, Winnifred Eaton, author of, among many other books, Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model.

Winnifred Eaton AKA Onoto Watanna

Winnifred Eaton (The Bookman, January 1903)

Winnifred Eaton was the younger sister of Edith Maude Eaton, who wrote about the Chinese community in Seattle and San Francisco under the pseudonym Sui Sin Far. I read Mrs. Spring Fragrance, a collection of Sui Sin Far’s stories, last year, but she died before 1918 so I didn’t write about her beyond a brief write-up on the Book List.*** It was when I was looking into Edith’s life (okay, reading her Wikipedia entry) that I learned about Winnifred.

Edith Maude Eaton aka Sui Sin Far.

Edith Maude Eaton

Edith and Winnifred were two of the fourteen children of a British merchant named Edward Eaton and his wife Grace, who had been a Chinese slave, performing in the circus as the target in a knife-throwing act, before being rescued and adopted by British missionaries. (UPDATE 6/9/2019: I thought the knife-throwing story seemed kind of bogus, but it was in Edith’s Wikipedia entry with a footnote so I decided to include it–we’re not exactly the New Yorker here at MYI1918 when it comes to fact-checking. I’ve since looked this up in biographies of Edith and Winifred. Both say that their mother’s origins are hazy and there is no evidence of the circus story beyond family legend.) Edith was born in England in 1865, shortly before the family moved to Canada. They moved back to England and then back to Canada, where Winnifred was born in 1875. Their father struggled to support his large family, working first as a clerk, then as an artist, then turning to smuggling Chinese people into the United States from Canada.**** Both Edith and Winnifred began writing for magazines as teenagers.

Cover of Chinese Japanese Cook Book by Sara Bosse and Onoto Watanna.

Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model was published in 1916. By this time, Eaton had written a number of best-selling romance novels under the fake Japanese name Onoto Watanna.***** She and her sister Sarah, whose married name was Bosse, had also published The Chinese-Japanese Cook Book, which reassured readers that “when it is known how simple and clean are the ingredients used to make up these oriental dishes, the Westerner will cease to feel that natural repugnance which assails one when about to taste a strange dish of a new and strange land.”

Marion wasn’t published under the pseudo-Japanese pseudonym; Eaton was identified on the title page only as “Herself and the author of ‘Me.’” Me: A Book of Remembrance was a semi-autobiographical novel published in 1915. It’s the story of Nora Ascouth, who, like Winnifred, moves from Canada to Jamaica and then to the United States.

Not having read Me, I assumed as I read Marion that it was autobiographical. It turns out, however, to be the story of Winnifred’s older sister (and cookbook co-author) Sarah. The Eaton family is clearly identifiable: there’s the struggling artist father (she leaves out the smuggling part); the foreign mother; killjoy older brother Charles (Edward Charles in real life), who complains about Marion looking at the naked Jesuses in the Catholic store; responsible older sister Ada (Edith), who’s always pestering Marion to send money home; and Nora again. The siblings’ Chinese heritage is never explicitly mentioned, but we do learn that they’re foreign-looking and that a neighbor calls them “heathenish.”

Marion is the flibbertigibbet of the family, and those around her predict that she’ll come to a bad end, but she’s a talented actress and artist. Also, as people constantly tell her, beautiful. She’s about to launch an acting career when she meets and falls in love with the Hon. Reginald Bertie (pronounced Bartie). He’s just her type, blond and handsome. Reggie convinces Marion to give up acting, they get engaged, and he strings her along for several years, afraid to tell his family about her. It’s because I’m poor, Marion tells herself, although her foreign origins probably aren’t helping.

When Reggie asks her to “be my wife in all but the silly ceremony,” Marion flees to Boston, where she gets work as an artist’s assistant and model. My first question, naturally, was, “Does she pose naked?” She does, but only once, when she’s practically starving, and it doesn’t go well. “The model is crying,” a student in the class she’s posing for observes. She yells at the class, calling them devils and beasts, and leaves.

When Reggie writes and says he’s coming for her (still no mention of a wedding), she takes off for New York. After turning down a job as a chorus girl, she settles in Greenwich Village and falls in with a group of artists, including one named Paul, who, if the book’s illustrations are to be trusted, looks exactly like Reggie. (That’s him at the upper left below.) Unlike the hacks who surround him, he has high artistic principles (which he expresses in vapid terms—art theory isn’t Eaton’s strength******). I won’t reveal the ending because I want you to read this book, but no prizes for guessing what happens.

Winnifred Eaton is no Jean Rhys or Edna Ferber as a stylist, but I loved reading about the large, bohemian Montreal family, the Boston art scene, and the struggling New York artists with their dingy boarding houses, cheap table d’hôte dinners, and unsanitary habits. (“Some of the artists in the building were pretty dirty,” Marion tells us, italics hers). There are wonderful period details, like when Marion is part of a “living pictures” show (symbolizing things like Youth and Rock of Ages) that takes Providence by storm. She gives us a wonderful sense of how a beautiful and educated but poor woman gets by in life, the compromises she makes, and the ones she refuses to make.

Eaton was evasive about her Chinese heritage even when writing under a pseudonym. She took her pretense of being Japanese beyond the made-up name, claiming to have born in Nagasaki, the descendant of noblemen. But she’s a vivid and honest chronicler of a fascinating milieu.

I can’t wait to read Me.

*But we are not, you will notice, “celebrating” APAHM. If you look to the right, you’ll see that I’ve fallen into a naming rut—my recent posts are a veritable fiesta.  If you’re reading this in the future (which I realized as I proofread this that you definitely will be, since this post will push the last celebration off the list), here’s what I’m talking about:

Screenshot of Recent Posts, most starting with Celebrating

**Well, Asian-Canadian-American.

***I highly recommend this collection, especially the first two stories.

****There’s a story on this topic in Mrs. Spring Fragrance.

*****That is, it’s not only not her real name, it’s also not a real Japanese name.

******Eaton does do a good job, though, of depicting social gradations among artists—the ones who paint on plates and cloth, the ones who knock off old masters, the society artists, and the art for art’s sake ones like Paul. Then there are the different levels of models—the ones like Marion who won’t take their clothes off so don’t make much money; the nude models at the art schools who drop their drapes when the teacher shouts, “Pose,” and at the lowest end, Marion’s friend Lil, who prances around in her birthday suit in the studio where Marion works.

Illustration from Marion, artist and nude model in drape

Celebrating the mothers of 1919 with carnations, songs, and guilt

Mother’s Day 1919 was dedicated to the mothers whose sons fought for freedom. President Wilson decreed that flags be flown at all government buildings (wasn’t this done normally back then?) and requested that people fly the flag at their homes “as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of the country.”  The carnation was the flower of the day, the New York Times said–“white carnations for a mother dead, and pink ones for those who are still the center of the home.”

New York Times headline, To Honor Mothers Today - President Orders Flag Flown...

New York Times, May 11, 1919

President Wilson called on America’s soldiers to write to their mothers. The order made its way down the line in messages from Secretary of War Newton Baker

1919 telegram instructing soldiers to write to their mothers on Mother's Day

and up-and-coming Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt.

Telegram from Acting Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt about Mother's Day 1919

National Archives (Identifier 6283187)

If penning a few sentences to Mom was just too hard, maybe because you were busy saying good-bye to your little French mother,*

Norman Rockwell drawing of soldier saying goodbye to French family, Life magazine, 1919

Norman Rockwell, Life magazine, March 13, 1919

or because you didn’t know how to read and write,** you could just copy off of this handy-dandy flyer. I wonder how many mothers scratched their heads and asked, “Who’s Timmy?”

Flier from Red Cross et all. with suggested language for soldiers' Mother's Day postcards.

Red Cross et al., 1919

I was going to suggest that we celebrate the mothers of 1919 with this song,

but luckily I listened to the words first. It starts out as you’d expect: the singer misses Mammy down south, is feeling blue, kisses her picture every night, etc. Then comes this spoken verse:

When I was bad and started crying
Remember how you laid me across your lap?
Mammy, ain’t no use denying
You sure swung a wicked strap.

The song ends with the singer saying that she’s been too busy to write, and that

There’s only just one thing keeping me
From being with you all down there.

If you’re anxious to see your honey-lamb, Mammy,
Send me up my fare.

What???

Sheet music cover for Mammy o' Mine

A little research confirmed that, in its original version, “Mammy o’ Mine” doesn’t devolve into a joke. It’s just about missing Mammy. The song was written by 20-year-old African-American composer Maceo Pinkard, and it was his first big hit.*** Many more were to come, including “Sweet Georgia Brown.” Pincard later helped Duke Ellington break into show business, introducing him to important Tin Pan Alley figures (including his future manager), and arranging his first recording session.

Pincard and his song deserves a more respectful rendition. So do the moms of 1919, and the moms of today. Let’s celebrate them, instead, with this version by Harry Yerkes, an early proponent of jazz and blues.

Happy Mother’s Day!

*Here’s another Rockwell mom cover, from April. It doesn’t have a title as far as I know, so I’m calling it “Back off, Mom!” (Update 6/10/2019: It’s called “Boy Musician.” I like my title better.)

Norman Rockwell American magazine cover, May 1919, boy playing flute, pained mother behind

More about little French mothers here.

**Which is quite possible. There were a number of tests to judge soldiers’ literacy, such as the Devens Literacy Test, which asked Dada-esque questions like “Is a guitar a kind of disease?” and “Do vagrants commonly possess immaculate cravats?” You can take it yourself here.

***The melody, that is. The words were written by prolific Tin Pan Alley lyricist William Tracey, who would go on to collaborate with Pincard on a number of other songs.

Celebrating Children’s Book Week—and a pioneering librarian

Happy Children’s Book Week! This year marks its 100th anniversary.

This week doesn’t mark its anniversary, though—the 1919 Children’s Book week was held in November, as were all subsequent ones until 2008, when new management took over and the celebrations were moved to May. So I can’t tell you (yet) about the new children’s books the New York Times recommended in connection with the 1919 celebration.

Anne Carroll Moore at New York Public Library, ca. 1906.

Anne Carroll Moore in her office at the New York Public Library, ca. 1906

I can tell you, though, about Anne Carroll Moore, who was one of the founders of Children’s Book Week, and of children’s libraries as we know them. If you have fond memories of going to the library as a child—and if you don’t, you’re probably not a reader of this blog—then you have Anne Carroll Moore to thank.

I first came across Moore as the innovative critic for the Bookman who, facing a pile of children’s books to review for a December 1918 Christmas roundup, invited an actual child, Edouard, to look them  over. Edouard didn’t pull any punches. “I think my teacher would like that book because it seems like a geography trying to be a story,” he said of Mary H. Wade’s Twin Travellers in South America. I checked it out, and he was right.

Twin Travellers in South America, Mary H. Wade.

Frontispiece, Twin Travellers in South America, by Mary H. Wade

Moore was born in 1871, the eighth child and only surviving daughter of a Maine lawyer and his wife.* She dreamed of following in her father’s footsteps, and is the only person I’ve ever heard of to have been home-schooled in law. Her legal ambitions came to an end, though, when both of her parents died of influenza when she was twenty. She spent a few years helping to raise her brother Henry’s children after his wife died in childbirth. At his suggestion, she decided to become a librarian, and she studied at the Pratt Institute in New York. After graduating, she was given the job of setting up a children’s room at the institute’s library.

Children’s rooms in libraries are such a fact of now life that I never thought about anyone inventing them. It turns out, though, that until the early 20th century children were discouraged from using libraries, most of which, until Andrew Carnegie came along, were private. Often, you had to be 14 to use a library. Sometimes, you had to be a boy. When children’s rooms existed, they were generally little more than holding pens to ensure peace and quiet in the rest of the library.

Children reading in library, ca. 1910, William Davis Hassler.

Children reading in the reading room of an unidentified branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, ca. 1910 (William Davis Hassler)

Moore changed all that. At Pratt, and later in the New York public library system, where she served as the head children’s librarian for 35 years, she reinvented the children’s room. She installed open stacks, child-sized furniture, plants, and seasonal exhibits and scheduled story hours, puppet shows, and readings for children by famous writers (including W.B. Yeats). Moore was particularly passionate about making African-American children and children of immigrants feel welcome in libraries. In an era of “Americanization,” she insisted on stocking books in the foreign languages that many of New York’s children spoke at home. Dissatisfied with the quality of children’s literature, she championed talented writers. She was the first regular columnist on children’s books, writing first in The Bookman and later in the New York Herald Tribune and Horn Book.

Stuart Little, first edition, 1945.

Cover of Stuart Little, first edition, 1945

With many 100-years-ago personalities I come across, I end up with more or less a monopoly on them. If you Google alleged German spy/femme fatale Despina Storch, for example, you get Wikipedia, then me.** (I do, at least.) Moore, though, has been in the news quite a bit in recent years. New Yorker writer/Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote an article in 2008 about Moore’s persistent-bordering-on-stalkerish attempts to get E.B. White to finish Stuart Little, followed by her efforts to make sure the finished product, which she hated, never saw the light of day. (She failed, obviously, but managed to keep Stuart Little out of contention for the Newbery Award, which is bestowed by the American Library Association.)

Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore

Cover of Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore

Lepore and others have highlighted Moore’s eccentricities, which, to be fair, were considerable. She had a wooden puppet named Nicholas that she took everywhere and often held conversations with, including in professional meetings. (When Harper editor Virginia Kirkus stopped by Moore’s office to ask why she was ignoring Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Moore kept turning to Nicholas and saying, “Nicholas, Miss Kirkus wants to know…”) Moore also wrote two children’s books about Nicholas. The first one, Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas, was a runner-up for the 1925 Newbery Award, but this may have had more to do with Moore’s home-field advantage as a librarian than with its quality. It’s still under copyright so I couldn’t check it out myself, but here are excerpts from some Goodreads reviews (average rating: two stars):

“An oddly off-putting little book.”

“One of the worst books I’ve ever read.”

“Maybe it would be better reading at Christmas time, but I really don’t think so.”

“Very few people will live through the story unless it is an assignment.”

“Yaaaawn.”

Eventually, Nicholas was lost in a taxi, to the delight of Moore’s colleagues.

Slate book critic Laura Miller came to Moore’s defense in 2016, highlighting her efforts on behalf of underprivileged children and saying that she “changed the world of children’s books for the immeasurable better. She deserves to be remembered for that, and not just for her aversion to a certain nattily dressed mouse.”

Headline, From the Child's Holiday Books of 1918.

The controversies surrounding Moore’s later career were far in the future in 1919, though. So let’s leave Moore with her friend Edouard as they go through the pile of review copies for her December 1918 Bookman column.***

On Thornton Burgess:

“Is there a book here by Thornton Burgess?”

Without waiting for an answer he instinctively put his hand under a great pile of Boy Scout and war books and drew forth “Mother West Wind Where Stories” and clasped it to his heart.

“If I had a million dollars I would engage Thornton Burgess to write all the stories I could read.”

On Mother’s Nursery Tales, by Katharine Pyle:

Three Bears, Mother's Nursery Tales, Katharine Pyle, 1918

Illustration from Mother’s Nursery Tales, by Katharine Pyle, 1918

The picture of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is the only satisfying one I have seen. “She knows how to draw bears in a family”, was Edouard’s comment as he compared it with an illustration for the same story by another artist of which he said, “These bears are not a family, they are just colored to match the rest of the picture”.****

On Dream Boats by Dugald Stewart:

Dream Boats, Portraits and Histories of Fauns, Fairies, and Fishes, written and illustrated by Dugald Steward Walker.

Its delicate illustrations in color and in black and white made no appeal to him. Both in conception and in rendering this book seems to have been planned for an audience of somewhat sophisticated children.

On Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth:

Illustration of Captain Nemo by N.C. Wyeth

Edouard wishes to own it for the sake of having “such a good picture of Captain Nemo”. He likes it better than the ones he has seen in the movies.

For writing like that—and for the many happy hours I spent in the library as a child—I’m willing to forgive some tone-deaf literary choices and a talking puppet. Thank you, Anne Carroll Moore!

*In 1919, Moore was still known as Annie Carroll Moore. Annie was the name on her birth certificate, but she had it legally changed in her fifties because—what are the odds?—there was another woman named Annie Moore who was writing about children’s libraries at the time.

**Unfortunately, you only get my post on her death on Ellis Island at age 23 and not the earlier one about her (alleged) career as a German spy.

***Her column didn’t become a regular feature until September 1919.

****I’m pretty sure the “Three Bears” illustrations Edouard panned were Arthur Rackham’s from Flora Annie Steele’s 1918 book English Fairy Tales. It’s just like Edouard said: the bears go better with the room’s decor than with each other. (On the other hand, I like the idea of a family of bears with a Van Dyck-style painting on their wall.)

Arthur Rackham illustration, The Three Bears