- “A Grave Experiment”: Emma Wolf’s Marriage Plots and the Deghettoization of American Jewish Fiction
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 middle-class 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 [End Page 5] 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associated with such lowly literary representations of the ghetto Jew, with his broken English, unrefined manners, and outdated traditions.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 exaggerat[ing] 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 . . . [End Page 6] [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...