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"A Jewish Girlhood in Old San Francisco": Harriet Lane Levy and the Autobiographical Tradition

Tue, December 18, 12:45 to 2:15pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Harborview 2 Ballroom


In her memoir 920 O'Farrell Street: A Jewish Girlhood in Old San Francisco (1947), completed when she was 80 years old, Harriet Lane Levy describes growing up as the daughter of religiously observant parents who simultaneously demanded that she abide by strict nineteenth-century gender conventions and encouraged her to pursue the education that led her to become an independent woman of the new century. After Levy's graduation from the University of California Berkeley, her literary aspirations took her to The Wave, where her short stories, society pieces, and dramatic criticism made her one of the San Francisco journal's most promising young writers in the early 1890s. Yet Levy's story is also one of unrealized ambition: 920 O'Farrell Street was the only book of prose she published in her lifetime. Despite Levy's obscurity and limited output, this paper argues that 920 O'Farrell Street fills a significant gap in Jewish American literary history. I consider Levy's memoir-its title referencing her family's stately home in San Francisco's affluent Jewish neighborhood-as an alternative to the established Jewish American autobiographical tradition, which (much like the canon of turn-of-the twentieth-century Jewish fiction in the US) has privileged the stories of working-class immigrants making their way from the ghetto into mainstream America. I further demonstrate that Levy's autobiography was not an anomaly. I place 920 O'Farrell Street in the context of published and unpublished memoirs by San Francisco-based Jewish women, including Rebekah Kohut, Frances Bransten Rothmann, Ruth Bransten McDougall, Annette Rosenshine, and Flora Arnstein. I also consider Levy's work in relation to writings by her close friend and O'Farrell Street neighbor Alice B. Toklas, with whom she traveled to Paris in 1906 where their lives famously intersected with another Jewish migrant from San Francisco, the writer Gertrude Stein. Although Levy was subsequently relegated to the margins by Stein (whose rivalry for Toklas's companionship led her to render Levy nameless in her 1933 bestseller The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas), I conclude that Levy's narrative of "Jewish girlhood in Old San Francisco" deserves renewed attention and serves as an important missing link between the tradition of Jewish American autobiography and the modernist movement.