The Jewish Jane Austen Whose Novels Were Almost Forgotten

April 26, 2021 |

Emma Wolf was a witty, warm and acclaimed novelist-of-manners who wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century. She was also almost lost to history. Even after feminist scholars began in the 1970s to recover the neglected work of women writers, Wolf wasn’t reprinted and reevaluated like Anzia Yezierska or Zora Neale Hurston. As late as 1992, Barbara Cantalupo, a literary scholar of 19th-century American literature who wrote about Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville, had never even come across Wolf ’s name.

Cantalupo and her collaborator Lori Harrison-Kahan told Lilith that Wolf didn’t appeal to revisionist feminist and ethnic studies scholars in the 1970s and 1980s because her views on class and gender weren’t “radical,” “her work isn’t fervently feminist,” and because her characters aren’t Jewish in a way that fits neat Jewish Studies narratives. They’re not immigrants on the Lower East Side. Instead, they’re middle-class, highly cul- tured Californians, and they “sprinkle their speech with French phrases more often than Yiddish ones.”

While that disqualified Wolf from the earlier revision of the canon, it’s also what makes her so vital now. Wolf ’s novels contradict stereotypes about Jewish women at the dawn of the 20th century and offer insights into one of the most fascinating, progressive Jewish communities of that era.