Barbara Cantalupo, ed., Emma Wolf’s Short Stories in the Smart Set (Brooklyn: AMS Press, 2010). 247 pp. $87.50.
The mother of American Jewish fiction, Emma Wolf (1865–1932) published four other novels in addition to her popular and pioneering Other Things Being Equal, but she also wrote a decade’s worth of short stories for the Smart Set, the irreverent and glossy “magazine of cleverness” that is customarily described as the New Yorker of its day. Wolf finished her run before H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan took over as the magazine’s most famous editors, and a century later the Wolf scholar Barbara Cantalupo has redeemed the stories from serial oblivion and packaged them for the first time in a single volume.
“Curiously,” she writes in the Introduction, “none of these stories takes into account Jewish culture, as did . . . Other Things Being Equal. . . .” Equally curious is their lack of “cleverness.” Cantalupo quotes the historian of the Smart Set on the term’s connotation at the time of the magazine’s founding:
But not for Wolf. In one story, for example, she condemns the “dogma of hereditary instinct,” au courant in her day, which was associated with “the iconoclastic ooze of Ibsen, Shaw and Company.” Over against it she affirms “the religion of parenthood” and the dogma of indissoluble marriage. Again and again, her stories give the nod to parental responsibility and the purity of unbroken conjugal promises.
I can enter into the reactionary spirit of her middle-class affirmations as easily as any conservative who is happily marriage with four kids. What troubles me about the case of Emma Wolf, however, is the way in which the defense of marriage and parenthood has been unmoored from anything that might transform them into something more than Bourne’s “low level of accomplishment.”
Judaism might have provided Wolf with such moorings, but by her mid-thirties, when she began to publish regularly in the Smart Set, Wolf had drifted away from Jewish tradition. An unexpected image of what was left to her of it occurs in “The Knot,” the longest story in the collection. In the midst of the fire after the San Francisco earthquake of April 18, 1906, Lucy Heath watches as a “scorched scrap of paper” floats down and settles “like a dove” upon her shoulder. She plucks it off and reads two lines:
ukhvod YHVH alayikh varah.
Barbara Cantalupo’s well-edited volume of Wolf’s stories is a valuable addition to our knowledge of public middle-class ideology in the first years of the twentieth century, and of how a certain type of American Jew felt safe in abandoning Judaism for it.