American Literature Emma Wolf
Barbara Cantalupo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 March 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0109


Author of five novels, poetry, and short fiction, Emma Wolf (b. 1865–d. 1932) was the first American Jewish writer published by the popular and important presses of her time—Henry Holt, A. C. McClurg, and Harper & Bros.—thereby earning the title “the mother of American Jewish fiction” (D. G. Myers, “Emma Wolf’s Stories, Commonplace Blog). Wolf and her work stand apart from the received notions of Jewish American fiction at the beginning of the 20th century: she was not from Eastern Europe; her family did not settle on the East Coast; she was not “a child of the ghetto.” She was a first-generation American whose father immigrated to California from France in the late 1840s and became one of the highly successful pioneer merchants who helped settle the Bay Area. Consequently, her family enjoyed the pleasures and privileges of upper-middle-class society during a time when San Francisco was rapidly emerging from a boisterous, gold rush settlement to a sophisticated city and cultural center for the arts. Wolf’s first novel, Other Things Being Equal, about interfaith marriage, was first published in 1892, went through five printings, and was revised in 1916. Her 1900 novel, Heirs of Yesterday, about a son who “passes” and returns home to face the complications of that decision, was her second novel with a Jewish setting. Wolf’s correspondence with Israel Zangwill reveals his respect for her work; in one of his letters, he called her “the most promising Jewish writer of the younger generation . . . Certainly you are the best product of American Judaism since Emma Lazarus” (Introduction, p. 31 [Cantalupo 2002, cited under Novels]). Wolf’s other three novels as well as the ten short stories she published in the New York magazine The Smart Set focus on the rapid social changes of the late 19th and early 20th centuries that brought about the “new woman” and all of the complications and decisions that emerged from that role. All of Wolf’s fiction is set in the Bay Area, mostly in San Francisco, where she lived her whole life. She was educated through normal school but never became a teacher since she was afflicted with polio; nonetheless, she was an active member of the literary community in San Francisco and was much admired and respected. Wolf spent her last sixteen years at Dante Sanitarium in San Francisco, described as a luxury hotel hospital; she’s buried in Home of Peace Cemetery in Colma, California.


Gradwohl 1896 and Cantalupo 1994 provide background on Wolf’s life and work; Cantalupo 2004 provides a look at the process of discovering the resources to write such an overview after Wolf’s death. Levi 1911 presents a pedagogical perspective on the importance of Wolf’s novels, Lambert 2009 reviews Other Things Being Equal, the Mechanics’ Institute Library Bulletin 1901 review of Wolf’s novels focuses on the two novels with Jewish settings, and the dissertation Mandel 2008 interprets Wolf’s work through the lens of the Bible and Jewish culture. The Mechanics’ Institute Library Bulletin includes Israel Zangwill’s positive regard for Wolf’s work as well as a cautionary counter to his high regard.

  • Cantalupo, Barbara. “Emma Wolf.” In Jewish American Women Writers. Edited by Ann Shapiro, 465–472. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.

    This review of Wolf’s life and her work is the first effort to place Wolf among the important Jewish American women writers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

  • Cantalupo, Barbara. “Discovering Emma Wolf—San Francisco Author.” CCAR Journal 51.1 (Winter 2004): 77–84.

    This essay provides a look at the process of discovering information on Emma Wolf’s life and also provides a summary of her two Jewish novels. Available online; requires registration.

  • Gradwohl, Rebecca. “The Jewess in San Francisco.” American Jewess 4.1 (1896): 10–12.

    This two-page article on important Jewish women of San Francisco in the 1890s includes Emma Wolf and characterizes her as one of the city’s “Jewish women of more than average literary and intellectual ability” (p. 11).

  • Lambert, Josh. “Other Things Being Equal.” In JPS Guide: American Jewish Fiction. By Josh Lambert, 15–16. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2009.

    Lambert concludes that Wolf’s novel about interfaith marriage “deserves a spot among the pioneering works of American Jewish literature” (p. 16). Unlike other novels that tackle this issue, Wolf’s novel does not “revert to endogamy” (p. 15); Lambert calls the novel “enchanting” because it “relates the salon conversations of upper-middle-class Jews of French origin in the San Francisco of the 1880s—not the typical demographic of fin de siècle American literature” (p. 16).

  • Levi, Harry. “Lesson XIV: Emma Wolf, (1865–), Heirs of Yesterday.” In Jewish Characters in Fiction: English Literature. By Harry Levi, 138–149. Philadelphia: Jewish Chautauqua Society, 1911.

    This textbook of the Jewish Chautauqua Society, an educational program for Reform men, requires students to use Wolf’s novels as a way to understand the lives of Jews who do not live in ghettos. A list of questions follows Levi’s review of Wolf’s two novels with Jewish settings, his “history” of the Wandering Jew, and his description of the Jews of California and how they differ from those on the East Coast.

  • Mandel, Dena. A World of Difference: Emma Wolf; a Jewish American Writer on the American Frontier. PhD diss., University of Fairbanks, 2008.

    This dissertation provides readings of Wolf’s two novels with Jewish settings. Mandel uses the Book of Ruth as a way to understand Wolf’s main character, Ruth Levice, and the overall thematic concerns of the novel. The section on Heirs of Yesterday connects Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot to the issues Wolf raises in this novel of “passing”; Mandel argues that “the indeterminacy of the novel’s conclusion suggests that Wolf’s characters could not enact the hoped for accommodation between ethnicity and nationalism” (p. 87).

  • “Miss Emma Wolf,” Mechanics’ Institute Library Bulletin. 5.9–10. (September–October 1901): 1–5.

    This tribute to Wolf includes Israel Zangwill’s praise of her work as “luminous and arrestive” (p. 1) and includes a photograph of Wolf (“specially photographed for this publication”). Despite its positive gloss of Wolf’s works, it concludes that Wolf is not “one of the world’s greatest novelists”; nonetheless, the author continues, “those who care for sincerity, dignity and human insight in literature will appreciate her work” (p. 5).

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