Cosel­la Wayne

Jonathan D. Sar­na,Cora Wilburn

By – September 16, 2019

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 Wash­ing­tonEasy Week­end Get­aways from Seat­tle, and the forth­com­ing The Art of Ramona Quim­by

Discussion Questions

Ques­tions cour­tesy of Jonathan Sarna

  1. What is the sig­nif­i­cance of both the title and the sub­ti­tle of this book (Cosel­la Wayne, Or Will and Des­tiny)?

  2. How does Cora Wilburn dis­tin­guish between Jews and Judaism? Between Chris­tians and Chris­tian­i­ty? What mes­sage do you think she is try­ing to convey?

  3. Name changes play a high­ly sig­nif­i­cant role in this nov­el. What are some of the most impor­tant ones, and what do they reveal?

  4. Cosel­la Wayne ini­tial­ly appeared in the Spir­i­tu­al­ist jour­nal, Ban­ner of Light. What did the Spir­i­tu­al­ists who read this nov­el learn about Judaism? Would they have viewed it pos­i­tive­ly or negatively?

  5. Why did Cosel­la Wayne not con­clude with a wed­ding, as so many oth­er nov­els of its time did. What mes­sage did Cora Wilburn seek to con­vey about love and marriage?

  6. Read Nadia Valman’s account of the Jew­ess” in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry British lit­er­ary cul­ture, quot­ed on p.xxiii. To what extent does this analy­sis apply to Cosel­la Wayne?

  7. What is the place of Spir­i­tu­al­ism in Cosel­la Wayne? How does Per­ci­val Wayne illu­mi­nate Spiritualism’s beliefs and ideals?

  8. What role does gen­der play in this nov­el? How does Cosel­la embody new ideas about women begin­ning to take root in the mid-19th century?

  9. Accord­ing to the intro­duc­tion (p.xxv) Cosel­la Wayne…lives on the seam between Judaism and Chris­tian­i­ty, attract­ed to both and uncer­tain about both.” Do you agree?

  10. Begin­ning in chap­ter 22, Cosel­la Wayne shifts scene to Amer­i­ca. In what ways does the nov­el change when Cosel­la arrives in the New World? Com­pare this novel’s depic­tion of Amer­i­ca to that of oth­er immi­grant nov­els that you may have read?

  11. Cosel­la Wayne moves from rich­es to rags in this nov­el. She los­es her for­mer place in soci­ety. How does the nov­el depict her expe­ri­ence and how does she her­self come to under­stand it?

  12. Com­pare the selec­tions from Cora Wilburn’s diary (p.277) with her nov­el. How did she build upon her diary in Cosel­la Wayne, and in what ways did she devi­ate from it? Why?