Sunday, May 12, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 19: Edith Maude Eaton, Mrs. Spring Fragrance (#5)

Edith Maude Eaton, "Mrs. Spring Fragrance" (1912) from Becoming Americans

References to Amy Tan's Joy Luck Club are going to be inevitable, even if I never read the book. I like to think I'm pretty good at guessing backgrounds from people's names, but I could never have guessed that "Edith Maude Eaton" was the name of an Anglo-Chinese woman who immigrated to America, where she wrote some pieces about immigrant Chinese life under the name Sui Sin Far.

In a way, this story might remind one of Zora Neale Hurston's "Story in Harlem Slang": both stories are about minority communities and their particular customs. But where Hurston wrote anthropological and story-light about a single moment, Eaton writes much more narratively.

As I said, the story has a certain Tan-ness to it, insofar as it's about Chinese-American integration and the interaction of families--husbands and wives, parents and children. The scope is domestic, with the main question being whether Mr. and Mrs. Spring Fragrance will clear up the miscommunication that has led him to believe his Americanized wife is cheating on him, while she is actually helping the next generation organize their lives by American standards of love. In that scope, the story is very affecting and reminds me of the humanity William Dean Howells shows his characters in The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885).

For instance, when Mrs. Spring Fragrance consoles a lovelorn woman, Mr. Spring Fragrance accidentally overhears some, but then moves away to the other side of the house:
Two pigeons circled around his head. He felt in his pocket, for a li-chi which he usually carried for their pecking. His fingers touched a little box. It contained a jadestone pendant, which Mrs. Spring Fragrance had particularly admired the last time she was down town. It was the fifth anniversary of Mr. and Mrs. Spring Fragrance’s wedding day.
Mr. Spring Fragrance pressed the little box down into the depths of his pocket.

So we get his circumspection (not wanting to overhear), his kindness towards animals, his attentiveness towards his wife--and then the simple action of pushing the box with the present further into his pocket. Why? Does he want to make sure it's a surprise--or does he have some doubts about giving this gift to his wife if she's not in love with him? In short order we see many of his good qualities that make us sympathize with him and the beginning of his misunderstanding, which will make that sympathy into worry for him.

Because the writing is straightforward and doesn't worry about just out-and-out telling us things, Eaton packs a fair amount into a short space. Even so, she has a delicate hand, whether she's letting some fact speak for itself--the young lovelorn woman has a Chinese name but everyone calls her by her American name--or subtly leaving out some info. For instance Mr. Spring Fragrance doesn't give the jadestone pendant to her, which we learn pages later, when we see her kind reaction to that lapse in his attentiveness.

But even in this low-stakes domestic story (no fights, no murder, no mayhem), Eaton gets in some well-aimed jabs at American-Chinese relations. While Mrs. Spring Fragrance is away in San Francisco, she attends a lecture on the topic of how America is so good to China, which she describes to her husband in a letter:

It was most exhilarating, and the effect of so much expression of benevolence leads me to beg of you to forget to remember that the barber charges you one dollar for a shave while he humbly submits to the American man a bill of fifteen cents. And murmur no more because your honored elder brother, on a visit to this country, is detained under the roof-tree of this great Government instead of under your own humble roof. Console him with the reflection that he is protected under the wing of the Eagle, the Emblem of Liberty.
It's a small jab but a deep cut. As demonstrated by a conversation between a white American neighbor and Mr. Spring Fragrance, Americans don't just need explanations about the Chinese--they need explanations about themselves.

No comments:

Post a Comment