Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Asian Object Lessons: Orientalist Decoration in Realist Aesthetics from William Dean Howells to Sui Sin Far

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Asian Object Lessons: Orientalist Decoration in Realist Aesthetics from William Dean Howells to Sui Sin Far

Article excerpt

It has been well established that despite differences in American realists' and naturalists' political philosophies, these writers nonetheless shared aesthetic principles that were informed by their interest in representing the nation's democratic masses. In particular, both movements aspired to a simplicity in style and a transparent treatment of their subject matter. Thus William Dean Howells, champion of the United States' middle class, was also one of the few writers of his day to defend striking immigrant laborers in Chicago's 1886 Haymarket tragedy. In his December 1887 "Editor's Study" column for Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Howells joined his sympathies for America's working and middle classes to his aesthetic values when he asserts that "hitherto the mass of common men have been afraid to apply their own simplicity, naturalness, and honesty to the appreciation of the beautiful." (1) Elitist Frank Norris also advocated a straightforward style, but he did so to apply Social Darwinism's scientific principles of objectivity to the working and lower-middle classes. Writing in November 1901 for the Boston Evening Transcript on "Novelists of the Future: The Training They Need," Norris called for a prose form that goes "straight into a World of Working Men, crude of speech, swift of action, strong of passion, straight to the heart of a new life, on the borders of a new time...." (2)

But even among the democratic masses, all groups were hardly treated equally: progressive-era zeal tended to fall short when it dealt with nonwhite immigrant laborers, especially if they were found to be competing with the "native" workforce for jobs. Examining representations of one such group, Asian-American immigrants, this essay traces the entanglement of Orientalism with realist and naturalist aims in fiction from the fin-de-siecle period, entanglements that resulted in the subordination of ethnic interests to those of class. (3) In particular, I explores the stories of one contemporary writer, Sui Sin Far, who recognized the peculiar character of this bias and raised the question of whether Orientalist representations weakened the force of realism's aesthetic claims as well.

Unlike the well-established Howells and Norris, the relatively unknown Edith Maude Eaton (1865-1914), whose pen-name was Sui Sin Far, wrote short fiction about the lives of Chinese immigrants in West Coast Chinatowns between the 1880s and the early decades of the twentieth century. Born the eldest daughter to a Chinese mother and an English silk merchant who emigrated to New York, Montreal, and then Quebec, the peripatetic Eaton--whom I will refer to by her professional name hereafter--patched together a living as a stenographer and a journalist for regional magazines and newspapers in Canada, the western and eastern United States, and Jamaica to help support her thirteen siblings when her father had trouble finding work after they left England. As a writer who could pass as white and whose status was positioned on the margins of both middle-class white America and the Chinese-American working class communities on which she reports, Sui Sin Far was especially sensitive to how Chinese immigrants were commodified and to the racial prejudices and stereotypes resulting during a period of growing hostility towards these workers. (4)

Although most scholars therefore understandably analyze Sui Sin Far's work for her representations of Chinese individuals, rare during a period which tended to view immigrants in the abstract or as a group if at all, her representations of Chinese material culture also served to identify and distinguish an Americanized version of Orientalism that emerged in contemporary realist and naturalist literature. Recent scholarship has begun to explore Orientalism's presence in the United States and not just in western Europe. In general, these studies have concentrated less on distinctions and more on continuities with and refinements to Edward W. …

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