The First American Jewish Novel of Consequence, and the Woman Who Wrote It

January 21, 2020 | Jonathan Sarna
About the author: Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun professsor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. He has written, edited, or co-edited more than 30 books. The most recent, co-authored with Benjamin Shapell, is Lincoln and the Jews: a History.

Born in Europe in 1824 as Henrietta Pulfermacher, Cora Wilburn came to the U.S. in 1848 and established herself as a successful writer, although she has long since been forgotten. Without ever shedding her Jewish identity, she became involved in the Spiritualist movement, whose adherents sought to make contact with the souls of the dead. Recounting his search to find Wilburn’s writing and reconstruct her biography, Jonathan Sarna describes her sole novel, the semiautobiographical Cosella Wayne:

The novel immediately captured my attention as its central characters were Jews. It soon dawned on me that nothing resembling this novel appears in the (meager) canon of 19th-century American Jewish fiction. Indeed, Cosella Wayne anticipates central themes of American Jewish writing: intermarriage, generational tension, family dysfunction, Jewish-Christian relations, immigration, poverty, the place of women in Jewish life, the rise of romantic love, and the tension between destiny and free will. The book provides rich descriptions of Jewish rituals as well as Jewish communities around the world, and it introduces readers to Jewish texts little available at that time in English, such as the Ethics of the Fathers.

The story casts light on the early decades of Spiritualism—today appreciated for its openness toward women and advocacy of liberal political causes, such as abolitionism and women’s rights. Finally, Cosella Wayne dates back farther than any previously known Jewish novel published in the United States with American themes.

Standard accounts consider Nathan Mayer’s Civil War novel, Differences, published in 1867, to be “the first novel of literary value to treat of American Jews seriously, realistically, and at length.” Cosella Wayne, set in the 1840s and published in 1860, predates Differences by seven years. The first American Jewish novel authored by a woman, according to most accounts, is Emma Wolfe’s novel of intermarriage, Other Things Being Equal, published in 1892. Again, Cosella Wayne revises this chronology and demonstrates that the very first American Jewish novelsit of consequence was another woman, Cora Wilburn.

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