Miriam Michelson began her writing career as a journalist, “interviewing a murderer one week and Paderewski the next” and “writing dramatic criticism of a very fearless and truth-telling sort,” according to a 1904 biographical note in Current Literature. When she turned to fiction, her prose kept the lively immediacy, the breezy freshness, of someone capturing the present moment, and her novels became popular reading. A wry awareness of the complications faced by single working women runs throughout Michelson’s writing.
Miriam Michelson was born in the mining town of Calaveras, California, in 1870. She was the seventh of eight children of Samuel and Rosalie (Przylubska) Michelson, who immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1855. (The oldest child, physicist Albert A. Michelson, was the first United States citizen to win a Nobel Prize for science; and the youngest, journalist Charles Michelson, became a close assistant to Franklin D. Roosevelt.)
Educated in San Francisco, Michelson wrote special features and dramatic criticism for San Francisco and Philadelphia newspapers and short stories that appeared in national magazines. Her first novel, In the Bishop’s Carriage, published in 1904, is narrated by Nancy Olden, a young thief of great charm but questionable ethics. Though a painful orphanage upbringing provides a rationale for Nancy’s choice of profession and though she succeeds in reforming herself to become an actor, Nancy remains a challengingly unconventional hero. The book caused a sensation.
None of Michelson’s subsequent novels was as broad a success, but her lively style and her sense of social realities never went unpraised. She published four more novels between 1904 and 1910, including A Yellow Journalist (1905), which centers on a smart-talking, hardworking female reporter who develops a deeper sense of ethical values through conversations with a Jewish grandmother she interviews, and Anthony Overman (1906), a romance between another spunky but cynical female journalist and an astonishingly pure-minded reformer that occasioned comparisons with George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda. The Awakening of Zojas, a collection of four novellas published in 1910, earns Michelson a place among early science fiction writers.
Michelson continued as a journalist most of her life, but after 1910 the spate of novels slowed. Her last novel, Petticoat King, a story of Elizabeth I, queen of England, was published in 1929.
For her last published book, a history and reminiscence of Virginia City, Nevada, entitled The Wonderlode of Silver and Gold (1934), Michelson returned to the mining towns she knew as a child. As described in the New York Times Book Review on June 17, 1934, she wrote “with insight and understanding ... with a mocking humor ... [and a] crisp level-headedness.”
Miriam Michelson died on May 28, 1942, in San Francisco.
SELECTED WORKS BY MIRIAM MICHELSON
Anthony Overman (1906); The Awakening of Zojas (1910); “Bygones.” Smart Set 51 (March 1917): 81–92; “Curiosity of Kitty Cochrane.” Smart Set 37 (May 1912): 133–142; “Destruction of San Francisco.” Harper’s Weekly 50, no. 2576 (May 5, 1906): 623–624; The Duchess of Leeds: A Slightly Historical Drama, Careless of Chronology, Indifferent to Facts, and Frankly Fanciful in Four Acts (c. 1932). Miscellaneous Literary and Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Delaware Library, Newark; In the Bishop’s Carriage (1904). Available electronically via Project Gutenberg; The Madigans (1904); Michael Thwaite’s Wife (1909); Petticoat King (1929); The Wonderlode of Silver and Gold (1934); A Yellow Journalist (1905).
AJYB 24:182; BEOAJ; Biographies of California Authors and Indexes of California Literature. Edited by Edgar J. Hinkel. 2 vols. (1942); Bleiler, Everett F. Science Fiction: The Early Years (1990); Burke, W.J., and Will D. Howe. American Authors and Books, 1640–1940 (1943); Bzowski, Frances Diodato. American Women Playwrights, 1900–1930: A Checklist (1992); Daims, Diva, and Janet Grimes. Toward a Feminist Tradition: An Annotated Bibliography of Novels in English by Women, 1891–1920 (1982); Goodman, Joseph T. Papers (c. 1891–1917). Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley; Herzberg, Max J. Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature (1962); Kelly, Florence Finch. “The Golden Age of Virginia City.” NYTimes Book Review, June 17, 1934, 13; Library of Congress Copyright Office. Dramatic Compositions Copyrighted in the United States, 1870 to 1916 (1918); Livingston, Dorothy Michelson. The Master of Light: A Biography of Albert A. Michelson (1973); Michelson, Charles. The Ghost Talks (1944); “Miriam Michelson.” Current Literature 37 (August 1904): 129–130; “Miriam Michelson, S.F. Novelist.” San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 1942; Moss, Mary. “Notes on New Novels.” Atlantic Monthly 97 (January 1906): 47; Pollock, Channing. Harvest of My Years: An Autobiography (1943), and dramatization of In the Bishop’s Carriage, by Miriam Michelson. Harvard Theatre Collection, Cambridge, Mass.; Robinson, Doris. Women Novelists, 1891–1920: An Index to Biographical and Autobiographical Sources (1984); UJE; Wallace, W. Stewart. A Dictionary of North American Authors Deceased Before 1950 (1951); Woman’s Who’s Who of America: A Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Women of the United States and Canada 1914–1915. Edited by John William Leonard (1914); WWIAJ (1926, 1928, 1938); WWWIA 2.
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Matz, Pamela. "Miriam Michelson." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on April 6, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/michelson-miriam>.