In a cel­e­brat­ed 1889 arti­cle pub­lished in The Chau­tauquan enti­tled The Jews in the Unit­ed States,” Philip Cowen, edi­tor of the Amer­i­can Hebrew list­ed ten female Jew­ish writ­ers of this coun­try,” as part of a sur­vey of Jew­ish wor­thies. He devot­ed most of his brief account to the recent­ly deceased Emma Lazarus — the sweet singer in Israel” — who died pre­ma­ture­ly in 1887. He then pro­ceed­ed to offer an incom­plete list of liv­ing writ­ers of both verse and prose,” begin­ning with the Jew­ish com­mu­nal leader and some­time author, Min­nie Louis, and con­clud­ing with the not-yet-famous Hen­ri­et­ta Szold. All of the names on his list would today be famil­iar to schol­ars, except for one: Cora Wilburn.

I spent decades try­ing to solve the mys­tery of Cora Wilburn. I encoun­tered her poems in var­i­ous late nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish peri­od­i­cals, such as The Meno­rah; I found an intrigu­ing let­ter she wrote to a young Hen­ri­et­ta Szold extolling her efforts in behalf of our unfor­tu­nate Jew­ish brethren of Rus­sia;” I read the ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry writer and immi­gra­tion rights activist Mary Antin’s account of a vis­it she made to Wilburn — the most inter­est­ing woman I know, in many respects” — seclud­ed in her old age, who had become, accord­ing to Antin, a hater of the world and individuals.”

All of the names on his list would today be famil­iar to schol­ars, except for one: Cora Wilburn. 

A break­through occurred when I read Ann Braude’s Rad­i­cal Spir­its, a his­to­ry of Spir­i­tu­al­ism and the women’s rights move­ment in nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­ca. There I learned that Wilburn iden­ti­fied with the reli­gious move­ment known as Spir­i­tu­al­ism, and wrote exten­sive­ly for Spir­i­tu­al­ist pub­li­ca­tions, even as a Jew. Anoth­er break­through came when Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty acquired the search­able online edi­tion of the Boston Jew­ish Advo­cate. There I found an arti­cle-length bio­graph­i­cal ret­ro­spect on Wilburn’s life and career, pub­lished in Feb­ru­ary 23, 1912. From that doc­u­ment, and from the many brief obit­u­ar­ies pub­lished upon Wilburn’s death in 1906, I sensed that there must be much more to her story.

The Israel Insti­tute for Advanced Stud­ies (IIAS) in Jerusalem enabled me to con­tin­ue my search. In 2016 the IIAS invit­ed me to join a group of schol­ars led by Pro­fes­sor Moshe Ros­man that focused upon Jew­ish Women’s Cul­tur­al Cap­i­tal” across the ages. Two Bran­deis stu­dents and I scoured the inter­net in advance of my trip (Wilburn’s unusu­al name facil­i­tat­ed our search). The ques­tion became, how much could we find online con­cern­ing her life and work?

The answer aston­ished me: hun­dreds of pages of small-print prose and poet­ry by Wilburn spread over a wide range of jour­nals, most of them not Jew­ish, and extend­ing over a half-cen­tu­ry. The bulk of her arti­cles had appeared in lit­tle-remem­bered Spir­i­tu­al­ist jour­nals that, much to my good for­tune, had been uploaded to the inter­net by the Inter­na­tion­al Asso­ci­a­tion for the Preser­va­tion of Spir­i­tu­al­ist and Occult Peri­od­i­cals. I had no time to read all this mate­r­i­al pri­or to depart­ing, so I assem­bled it all in two large loose-leaf note­books and sent it to the Israel Insti­tute for Advanced Stud­ies in Jerusalem.

Begin­ning in Sep­tem­ber 2016, and for many days there­after, I sat in my office on the cam­pus of Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty and read Cora Wilburn’s writ­ings chrono­log­i­cal­ly, start­ing with her 1855 essay on Free Love,” and con­tin­u­ing through fic­tion, non-fic­tion and poet­ry. In due course, I reached her seri­al­ized nov­el, Cosel­la Wayne, which began on the front page of the March 31st, 1860 issue of, The Ban­ner of Light: A Week­ly Jour­nal of Romance Lit­er­a­ture and Gen­er­al Intelligence. 

The nov­el imme­di­ate­ly cap­tured my atten­tion as its cen­tral char­ac­ters were Jews. It soon dawned on me that noth­ing resem­bling this nov­el appears in the (mea­ger) canon of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can Jew­ish fic­tion. Indeed, Cosel­la Wayne antic­i­pates cen­tral themes of Amer­i­can Jew­ish writ­ing: inter­mar­riage, gen­er­a­tional ten­sion, fam­i­ly dys­func­tion, Jew­ish-Chris­t­ian rela­tions, immi­gra­tion, pover­ty, the place of women in Jew­ish life, the rise of roman­tic love, and the ten­sion between des­tiny and free will. The book pro­vides rich descrip­tions of Jew­ish rit­u­als as well as Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties around the world, and it intro­duces read­ers to Jew­ish texts lit­tle avail­able at that time in Eng­lish, such as the Ethics of the Fathers. The sto­ry casts light on the ear­ly decades of Spir­i­tu­al­ism — today appre­ci­at­ed for its open­ness toward women and advo­ca­cy for lib­er­al polit­i­cal caus­es, such as abo­li­tion­ism and women’s rights. Final­ly, Cosel­la Wayne dates back far­ther than any pre­vi­ous­ly known Jew­ish nov­el pub­lished in the Unit­ed States with an Amer­i­can themes.

Stan­dard accounts con­sid­er Nathan Mayer’s Civ­il War nov­el, Dif­fer­ences, pub­lished in 1867, to be the first nov­el of lit­er­ary val­ue to treat of Amer­i­can Jews seri­ous­ly, real­is­ti­cal­ly, and at length.”[1] Cosel­la Wayne, set in the 1840s and pub­lished in 1860, pre­dates Dif­fer­ences by sev­en years. The first Amer­i­can Jew­ish nov­el authored by a woman, accord­ing to most accounts, is Emma Wolfe’s nov­el of inter­mar­riage, Oth­er Things Being Equal, pub­lished in 1892. Again, Cosel­la Wayne revis­es this chronol­o­gy and demon­strates that the very first Amer­i­can Jew­ish nov­el­ist of con­se­quence was anoth­er woman, Cora Wilburn.

Ulti­mate­ly, I decid­ed to pub­lish selec­tions from the Wilburn diary along with the nov­el, in the hope that read­ers would enjoy see­ing for them­selves how a nov­el­ist trans­forms the events of her own life into fiction.

The bio­graph­i­cal arti­cle that I had found ear­li­er con­cern­ing Cora Wilburn — pub­lished in the Jew­ish Advo­cate by a Boston rab­bi named Men­achem M. Eich­ler who knew her — includ­ed quo­ta­tions from a diary that Wilburn kept. Might that diary sur­vive, I won­dered? I searched in all of the obvi­ous places as well as some obscure ones — like local his­tor­i­cal soci­eties in Mass­a­chu­setts and Rab­bi Eichler’s Tem­ple Ohab­ei Shalom in Boston — but with­out suc­cess. Then, I chanced upon a hand­writ­ten let­ter to his­to­ri­an Jacob Rad­er Mar­cus, founder of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Archives in Cincin­nati, from Sadie R. Cohen (d. 1959), wid­ow of Judge A. K. Cohen of Boston. It thanked Mar­cus for let­ting her know that the papers of the diary of Cora Wilburn have been received with the min­utes of the Beth El Syn­a­gogue.” The diaries of lit­tle-known women, in those days, were not cat­a­logued sep­a­rate­ly at the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Archives (or most oth­er archival insti­tu­tions), but archivist Kevin Prof­fitt, based on this clue, had no trou­ble locat­ing the long over­looked item. Found it!” he wrote to me in a glee­ful email, and soon sent me a scanned copy.

Thanks to this diary, which cov­ers the pre­cise time peri­od of the nov­el (184448) and was clear­ly its cen­tral source, I was able to fill in many blanks con­cern­ing Cora Wilburn, par­tic­u­lar­ly her tumul­tuous life from age twen­ty to twen­ty-four, when both of her par­ents died and she immi­grat­ed alone to Philadel­phia. Among oth­er things, it helped me to con­firm that her orig­i­nal first name was Hen­ri­et­ta. I lat­er dis­cov­ered that she immi­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca under the fam­i­ly name Jack­son,” but her orig­i­nal fam­i­ly name was Pulfer­ma­ch­er. Ulti­mate­ly, I decid­ed to pub­lish selec­tions from the Wilburn diary along with the nov­el, in the hope that read­ers would enjoy see­ing for them­selves how a nov­el­ist trans­forms the events of her own life into fiction.

My intro­duc­tion to Cosel­la Wayne con­tains a brief biog­ra­phy of Cora Wilburn. Based in part on her diary, it also uti­lizes hun­dreds of oth­er pages of her writ­ings, includ­ing auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal chap­ters and unpub­lished let­ters. But much more remains to be dis­cov­ered. My hope is that oth­ers will pick up the trail of Coral Wilburn, pub­lish­ing addi­tion­al items from her oeu­vre and learn­ing more about her life. She deserves it, for she pio­neered Jew­ish women’s writ­ing in Amer­i­ca, and, thanks to a half-cen­tu­ry of lit­er­ary pro­duc­tiv­i­ty, pro­duced more than any oth­er Amer­i­can Jew­ish woman writer of her time.


[1] Louis Harap, The Image of the Jew in Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture: From Ear­ly Repub­lic to Mass Immi­gra­tion (Philadel­phia: Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion Soci­ety, 1974), 275.

Dr. Jonathan D. Sar­na is the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry at Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty. He has writ­ten, edit­ed, or co-edit­ed more than twen­ty books and is best known for the acclaimed Amer­i­can Judaism: A His­to­ry, which received the Jew­ish Book Council’s Everett Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion Jew­ish Book of the Year Award in 2004. He lives in Massachusetts.