Published in 1860, Cosella Wayne: Or, Will and Destiny is the very first Jewish American novel. The fact that the book was essentially forgotten until its rediscovery by Jonathan D. Sarna at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies in 2016 would not have surprised its author. Sarna’s introduction is extensive, fascinating, and a must-read. For much of her life, Cora Wilburn, born Henrietta Pulfermacher, worked to shed light on what she considered injustice — including those instigated by fellow Jews. She wrote about slavery, the exploitation of low-class workers, women’s rights, and the imposition of dogma on religion; likewise, she was outspoken about her peers’ hypocrisy. This did not make her very popular in certain circles, and because she practiced what she preached — regarding the necessary avoidance of marriage — when Wilburn died she had no close relations to protect her legacy.
Cosella Wayne: Or, Will and Destiny is both autofiction and soap opera, with fictionalized versions of Wilburn’s abuse by her father, her childhood of worldwide travel, her stint as an impoverished seamstress, her experimentation with different faiths, her devotion to a life of the Ideal and the Truth. It ran as a serial for the Banner of Light: A Weekly Journal of Romance Literature and General Intelligence during the spring and summer of 1860. Every chapter ends with a dramatic cliffhanger, much bursting into tears and falling to knees — surely intended to bring the reader back for next week’s segment. The ornate language and vivid description fit a style of writing as seen in earlier times — adjectives line up in longer rows than we tend to see in contemporary writing. This provides a curated glimpse of a sliver of what life might have looked like 160 years ago.
Wilburn covers intermarriage and the attractiveness of Christianity — taboo topics which, as a brief Catholic and Spiritualist, she brings her own personal experience to. And while heroes of modern fiction tend to be less explicit about their purity of heart, Cosella’s purity can look downright rigid, judgmental, and wholly attached to her sense of superiority. It is that purity that will propel her on her quest to find her real father, the kindly and Christian Percival Wayne, from whom she was stolen at birth.
Toward the end of her life, Wilburn was optimistic about the evolution of women’s place in society. It has taken a while to get to this moment in which we’re working hard to give the multitude of forgotten or erased female and minority scientists and artists their due. Sarna’s efforts will set Wilburn in her rightful place, not merely among the canon of Jewish American novelists but at its lead.
Anna Katz is a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and editor. She is the author of Swimming Holes of Washington, Easy Weekend Getaways from Seattle, and the forthcoming The Art of Ramona Quimby.