Author Emma Wolf's novel "Heirs of Yesterday" is in print once more with a new edition.
Author Emma Wolf's novel "Heirs of Yesterday" is in print once more with a new edition.

Early S.F. author Emma Wolf, ‘mother of American Jewish fiction,’ gets a new reprint 120 years later

Books coverage is supported by a generous grant from The Milton and Sophie Meyer Fund.

Early San Francisco writer Emma Wolf published five novels along with many short stories and poems, and dared to tackle tricky topics such as antisemitism, individualism vs. religious norms and assimilation — issues not typically explored by her peers at the turn of the 20th century.

Wolf sits on a short list of popular Jewish American women writers of her time, and literary historian D.G. Myers described her as “the mother of American Jewish fiction” in a review of a 2010 republication of Wolf’s short stories.

Yet in 1992, when literary scholar Barbara Cantalupo began her research on Wolf, “there really was nothing on her except for two lines in the encyclopedia,” she said.

That marked the start of decades of digging, recently culminating with an edited publication of Wolf’s fourth novel, “Heirs of Yesterday,” a love story about two cultured, middle-class San Franciscans originally published in 1900.

The new version of the book includes an extensive introduction unveiling details about Wolf’s life as well as old photos. Edited by Cantalupo, a professor emerita at Penn State University, and Lori Harrison-Kahan, a literature professor at Boston College, the book places Wolf in the context of late-1800s San Francisco and Jewish life.

Cantalupo and Harrison-Kahan will discuss “Heirs of Yesterday” during a free, virtual talk from 2-3 p.m. March 7 in a program presented by the Jewish Community Library and Mechanics’ Institute in San Francisco.

Cantalupo found one of her first significant clues at the former Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, in an article on Simon Wolf, Emma’s father. “It listed all of his children — that was the first lead that I had,” said Cantalupo, who lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Emma was one of 11 children and grew up comfortably in the Pacific Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. Her family, early members of Temple Emanu-El, practiced Reform Judaism.

Eventually, Cantalupo located and spoke with some of Wolf’s relatives, who proved “most helpful”  in unlocking her life, she said. Cantalupo eventually found Wolf’s gravesite at Colma’s Home of Peace cemetery in 2015 — a feat in itself since the marker was not near her parents’ graves but by her sister’s, Isabel Goldman.

Unearthing as much information as possible about Wolf “was really a long haul,” said Cantalupo. “It’s been over 25 years.”

What particularly intrigued her about Wolf, who lived from 1865 to 1932: “She doesn’t fall into an ideological straightjacket. She values family and yet she created strong female characters. She embraced ‘the new woman’ on one level, but she also valued family, caring and loyalty.”

Wolf’s books and poems were published by reputable houses and literary magazines. “She was very well read,” Cantalupo said. “Her first novel had seven reprintings, and she was reviewed all over the country.”

But the Jewish Publication Society never embraced her. “She was Reform and JPS was not,” Cantalupo said. “They found her work literary, but they didn’t like her way of presenting Judaism. They wanted to promote a particular kind of practice and she didn’t fit in.”

Rather, JPS tended to favor the East Coast immigrant Jewish story.

“Heirs of Yesterday” is centered around physician Philip May and pianist Jean Willard, and the love-story plot raises issues of faith and assimilation — evidenced most overtly by May’s rejection of Judaism, and then his return.

Judaism “was very important” to Wolf, said Cantalupo, who edited a 2002 reissue of Wolf’s first novel, “Other Things Being Equal.”

Harrison-Kahan, who is working on a book about Western U.S. Jewish women writers of Wolf’s era, said she was intrigued by “how different” Wolf’s fiction was from other Jewish American novels of the era.

“The novels I had studied were largely set in the New York ghetto and featured Yiddish-speaking, working-class, immigrant characters,” she said. “Here was a novelist writing about middle-class Jewish life in San Francisco in the 1890s. I wanted to know why so few people had heard of Emma Wolf, especially when I learned how well known and successful she was in her time.”

Wolf’s “Other Things Being Equal” was about interfaith marriage, an unusual topic for the times. First published in 1892, it went through five printings and was revised in 1916.

Harrison-Kahan described “Heirs of Yesterday” as “a beautiful, elegant novel that raises fascinating theological questions.” She added, “Fiction was one of the few ways that 19th-century women could participate in the public discourse about religion” and Wolf “took full advantage of that.”

Emma Wolf lived with a sister and never married. She died at the age of 67 due to complications from minor surgery.

“Heirs of Yesterday” by Emma Wolf, edited with an introduction by Barbara Cantalupo and Lori Harrison-Kahan (280 pages, Wayne State University Press)

“Old San Francisco in Jewish American Fiction”

Virtual book launch featuring both co-editors. 2 p.m. March 7. Free, with registration. Link includes details on how to order the book.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.