Emma Wolf's Short Stories in the Smart Set

By Cutler, Edward S. | Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Emma Wolf's Short Stories in the Smart Set


Cutler, Edward S., Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers


Emma Wolf's Short Stories in The Smart Set. Edited by Barbara Cantalupo. Brooklyn: AMS Press, 2010. xviii + 247 pp. $87.50 cloth.

Reviewed by Edward S. Cutler, Brigham Young University

With the 1892 publication of Other Things Being Equal, a popular novel plotted around the marriage of a Jewish woman and a Christian man, Emma Wolf became, perhaps, the earliest Jewish American novelist openly to treat her Jewish ethnicity in an American novel. Published the same year as William Hurrell Mallack's once obscure A Human Document--a novel restored to public consciousness only through avant-garde artist Tom Phillips's ongoing, experimental rewriting--Wolf's pioneering novel insists upon the same ideal: Love between two people ought to supersede any inhibiting tradition or social more.

A world, of course, depends upon this "ought to," and in Wolf's most successful novel, as in her later periodical fiction, the world does little to further individual happiness. Barbara Cantalupo's collection of Wolf's forgotten periodical fiction reveals an artist ten years removed from Other Things Being Equal and no longer invested--at least topically--in navigating her Jewish American identity. At the height of her powers as a writer, Wolf offers a fatal index of worldly limitation in her stories, one in which liberalism and modernity afford the human heart no greater consolations than conservatism and tradition. Her characters' hunger for intimacy goes unrealized. Believing in love but clear-eyed about the psychic and material displacements it would require, they acquiesce to diminished life with a stoic resignation suggestive of later modernist writing.

In these works, the ideal and the real rarely coincide. For example, in love with a man other than her husband, the protagonist of "A Still Small Voice" holds a dialogue with herself, bargaining over her desire for a divorce:

  "You menace the sanctity of the home."
  "Cant, truism. Sanctity? What sanctity can attach itself to a lie?"
  "The semblance of sanctity."
  "But hell for me."
  "You? Who are you?"
  "I am a woman--most unhappy."

  "You are nothing--in the scheme for the whole."
  "Then God is a monster; I renounce Him--hate Him." (12)

Despite starkly rejecting every truism attached to marriage and women's roles, she continues in hers. She does not renounce her love for another, only the displacement and damage its realization would require. Similarly, the main character of "The Knot" returns to her husband, John, even after divorcing him to be with the man she loves. Yet in returning, she candidly tells her husband, when pressed, that she can offer him only "a sort of love," something he can "trust" because it is based in acute self-honesty (23o). Her divorce was only "a correct social procedure," she explains; "It had nothing to do with the individual--with me" (229-30). She states this rationale "unequivocally," in a voice "robbed of all emotion" (230): "The years had married me--indissolubly--to you, John" (229). With equal pragmatism, she observes that despite the legal sanction of divorce and her love for another, "such a thing was impossible without--killing--something within my very roots" (230).

Cantalupo's concise, informative introduction argues that the protagonists of Wolf's short fiction carry only the surface confidence of the liberated New Woman or the vagabond bohemian artist (xiii). Beneath these performances, she contends, lurk the more existential dangers of isolation and self-liquidation disclosed in the denouement of most of the stories. …

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