"A grave experiment": Emma Wolf's marriage plots and the Deghettoization of American Jewish Fiction.

Author:Harrison-Kahan, Lori
Position:Critical essay
 
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Most scholars of American literary history are familiar with William Dean Howells's championing of ghetto fiction, especially the work of immigrant writer Abraham Cahan, for the way such writing exemplified the aesthetic principles of realism. For Howells, writers of "the Hebraic school" such as Cahan displayed an "instinct for reality," and the streets of New York provided them with raw material that lent itself well to being rendered in gritty detail. (1) The fiction of ghetto writers succeeds because they "persuade us that they have told the truth," explained Howells. (2) Yet scholars have paid considerably less attention to realist Jewish American writers whose work is set outside the ghetto. This essay focuses on one such writer, Emma Wolf, whose novels about middleclass Jewish life in late nineteenth-century San Francisco offer important alternatives to the ghetto genre, demonstrating not only the diversity of the Jewish experience in the United States, but also the diverse ways that Jewish writers have contributed to understandings of race, ethnicity, and religion in American culture.

Despite Howells' praise of ghetto fiction, the genre had its fair share of detractors in its day. In both the mainstream and Jewish press, critics accused Jewish writers of sacrificing truth for caricature and exoticism in their depictions of ghetto life, betraying their own people as well as the very principles of realism that Howells extolled. The debate about whether or not the ghetto was a fit subject for literary art initially came to a head over the publication of Cahan's 1896 novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto and the 1899 play Children of the Ghetto, an adaptation of the novel by British writer Israel Zangwill, whose stories of the London ghetto and subsequent drama about American immigrants, The Melting Pot (1908), profoundly influenced many Jewish American writers. (3) The dissenters were largely upper-class Jews from German and Sephardic backgrounds who wanted to distance themselves from their newly arrived, Eastern European co-religionists and who feared that they would be associated with such lowly literary representations of the ghetto Jew, with his broken English, unrefined manners, and outdated traditions. In the American Israelite, for instance, Julius Wise, a prominent Chicago physician who wrote under the pseudonym "Nickerdown," issued a scathing attack on Cahan, accusing him of "intentionally exaggerating] what is worst among his own class of people," labeling him "a scoundrel [who lies] for the sake of a few dollars," and calling for a boycott of magazines that publish his "vile lucubration." (4)

A more measured critique came from the pen of writer Annie Nathan Meyer. A Sephardic Jew who dated her family's American heritage back to the Revolution, Meyer was a public advocate of women's education and other causes, well known in philanthropic circles for her role in raising the funds to start Barnard College. While acknowledging the "genius" of Zangwill and Cahan, Meyer summarized the concerns of her affluent, professional class in this way:

They realize perfectly that the foreign-looking, strange-speaking Hebrew of the Ghetto, with Talmudic lore at the end of his tongue, and a frayed talith at the end of his shoulder, is infinitely better "copy" than the Talmudically ignorant Americanized Hebrew, who drives in his automobile or sits with his Gentile brethren on charitable boards and missions. The Americanized Hebrew is growing a little tired of this reiteration of the Ghetto type which the Gentile world find so interesting within the covers of a book. After all, when the good American used to be piqued because the cowboy filled the horizon of literary London, it was given him to point to some novels dealing with the average American banker who prefers to take his promenades without his six-shooter. But to the Americanized Hebrew is denied in toto the luxury of pointing to any literature that pretends to describe him seriously ... [T]here is implanted in the breast of the Jew, quite as well as in the breast of his Gentile brother, the ... desire to hold up his resemblances rather than his differences. The Jew is doing his best to show off his fine Oxford cloth coat of latest cut, while the public persists in looking for the gabardine. Meyer's response goes deeper than the shame voiced by Wise. The common representation of the ghetto Jew is not simply an "academic question of Art," she writes, but also "a very real social problem." Given Jews' history of exile and the antisemitism that continued to plague even upper-class Jews who found themselves "bracketed with 'dogs and other nuisances' at some select hotels and apartment houses," she asked if it was not wiser for Jewish writers to promote their similarities to, rather than their differences from, gentiles. (5)

Meyer only occasionally gave voice to what she called "the unwritten-up Jew" in her own fiction, (6) but her contemporary, California writer Emma Wolf, published two novels, Other Things Being Equal (1892) and Heirs of Yesterday (1900), which featured cultured, professional, well-off Jews who could not be differentiated from their gentile neighbors except in their religious practices and affiliations. Both are domestic novels, relying on the conventions of the marriage plot, but with a Jewish twist. In Other Things Being Equal, Wolf's first novel, the cultural taboo against intermarriage presents an obstacle for a Jewish protagonist in love with a Christian man, while the would-be lovers at the center of Heirs of Yesterday, though both Jewish by birth, find themselves divided over whether they should continue to identify as such. In its front-page review of Heirs of Yesterday, the Jewish Messenger identified Wolf as "one of the rare exceptions to the general rule" in the recent explosion of Jewish fiction. "She is to be expressly omitted from the category of Jewish novelists who exploit their religion and special class of people and call the result literature," the article stated, going on to note that Wolf's "delicacy, spirituality, [and] intellectuality are not restricted to Jewish subjects, although she has written with power and suggestiveness on certain Jewish character-studies and problems." (7) The fact that Wolf did not limit herself to Jewish subjects drew notice from other critics as well. In his review of The Joy of Life (1896), one of Wolf's novels without Jewish characters, Zangwill described "the Jewish Authoress" as much more than a "popular 'lady novelist.'" Her work "stands out luminous and arrestive amid the thousand-and-one tales of our over-productive generation," wrote Zangwill, while another review of The Joy of Life concluded with this declaration: "Emma Wolf is not only the best Jewish fiction writer of America, but the peer of the best novelists." (8)

Largely overlooked today even by scholars of American Jewish fiction, Wolf's writings, as well as her background, compel a re-evaluation of early Jewish American literary history, which has positioned Eastern European immigrant writers as its forefathers and foremothers and New York as its cultural epicenter. (9) In surveying the roots of Jewish American literature, scholars have gravitated toward writers such as Cahan and Anzia Yezierska, whose dialect-speaking characters and ghetto settings better fit the broader paradigms of ethnic studies. The work of Eastern European immigrants has more in common with texts by African American, Asian American, and Latino/a writers, who, unlike Jews, are indisputably "other." In Progressive Era San Francisco, the largest and most visible part of the Jewish population was middle class, and Jews with money rarely qualify as "ethnic." Yet Western, middle-class writers such as Wolf played a significant part in shaping some of the key concepts in ethnic studies. By focusing on an American-born woman writer based in San Francisco, this essay "deghettoizes" American Jewish fiction, expanding our understanding of fin-de-siecle Jewish literary culture in the United States in terms of gender, class, and region. In so doing, I hope to offer a more capacious interpretation of what constitutes an ethnic literary tradition.

It is not incidental that Wolf's first novel utilized an intermarriage plot. Though most closely associated with the Victorian novel in Britain and domestic and sentimental fiction in the nineteenth-century United States, the marriage plot continued to have resonance for Progressive Era writers, many of whom used it to explore gender and class politics, to mark the breakdown of separate-spheres ideology, and to agitate for matrimonial reform. (10) Intermarriage, meanwhile, has long been one of the most prevalent themes in American fiction by and about Jews, as well as one of the most hotly debated topics in American Jewish life. As Jews and Christians increasingly intermarried in the nineteenth century, (11) the topic entered the public discourse, with, on the one hand, rabbis sermonizing against it and, on the other, eugenicists fueling nativist fears by warning of the threat to Anglo-Saxon purity. Because Jewishness was viewed as an ethno-racial difference as well as a religious one, the debate over marriage between Christians and Jews was part of a larger discourse about interracial coupling and miscegenation. (12) Intermarriage, then, was a loaded trope, a means for those within and outside the Jewish community to express and explore anxieties about immigration and assimilation, intermixing and racial purity, and loss of religious faith and tradition in a modern, increasingly secular world. Fiction provided a relatively safe space in which to imagine tragic consequences, not only of intermarriage, but also of the prohibition on interethnic romance. It also provided a space in which to imagine the possibilities that intermarriage held for the betterment of Jewish lives and American culture in the...

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