The Precursor to “Gentleman’s Agreement”
by Rachel Gordan
By 1948 it would seem like only one writer had successfully pulled off a popular novel about anti-Semitism. Laura Z. Hobson’s novel, Gentleman’s Agreement, had moved from serialized story in Cosmopolitan magazine in the fall of 1946 to bestselling novel in 1947 to Academy Award-winning film starring Gregory Peck in 1948. Considered trailblazing in its denunciation of “genteel anti-Semitism,” the novel and subsequent film were hailed by reviewers and civic and religious leaders.
But 70 years ago—as Laura Z. Hobson was just sitting down to write the fictional story of Phil Green, a non-Jewish reporter who goes undercover as a Jew to investigate anti-Semitism—another writer from a very different background was earning rave reviews for her version of the anti-anti-Semitism-themed novel. In 1944, Earth and High Heaven, the story of the love affair between Protestant Montrealer Erica Drake and Jewish lawyer Mark Reiser from small town of Ontario, by the non-Jewish writer Gwethalyn Graham, became the first Canadian novel to reach number one on The New York Times bestseller list.
What did Graham, a Toronto daughter of privilege, have to say about the anti-Semitism of her native Canada, and why was she so fearless in writing about it? Forty years later, the playwright and novelist Arthur Miller would recall the early 1940s, when he too was working on his anti-Semitism themed novel, Focus, as a period when the topic seemed taboo: “As far as I knew at the time, anti-Semitism was a closed if not forbidden topic for fiction—certainly no novel had taken it as a main theme.” Yet Graham was undeterred in tackling anti-Semitism. It helped that she wrote about her adopted city of Montreal—a place she had loved since her first visit as a teenager, but one which was so distinctively drawn in Graham’s novel that readers likely felt a lesser prick of condemnation as they reassured themselves that Graham’s novel was treating a “Montreal problem.”
But to Graham, the specter of anti-Semitism loomed much larger than Montreal. For over a decade, Graham’s mother, a former suffragette with a degree in classics from the University of Toronto, had worked on behalf of European refugees, welcoming European immigrants, including Jews, into her home. For a family with their social standing in the wealthy Toronto neighborhood of Rosedale, that was a rarity. In 1934, when the 21-year-old Graham sought a new life for herself and her young son after her divorce, she chose Montreal, the city she had fallen in love with as a teenager. With one novel already published to wide acclaim, Graham moved confidently in Montreal’s artistic and intellectual circles, befriending many Jews and continuing her mother’s efforts on behalf of European refugees. Graham’s writing during the mid-1930s largely took the form of socio-political articles. In her 1936 article, “Women, Are They Human?” in The Canadian Forum, Graham’s lament would sound a familiar note to contemporary readers as she observed the obstacles women faced in building careers and decried that “the position of women has begun to slip back and that women in general… have lost a good many of the advantages which took more than a hundred years to obtain.”
During these years, one of Graham’s serious romantic relationships was with a Jewish lawyer from Ontario. He would eventually break off the relationship, but as would be the case for the Jewish writer Laura Z. Hobson, the interfaith romance provided Graham with important insight into anti-Semitism. That personal love story, which became the center of Earth and High Heaven, made Graham’s novel more accessible to a wider audience, including Samuel Goldwyn, who, drawn to the realistic love story, bought the movie rights to Graham’s novel.
Ironically, Graham delved deeper into her male protagonist’s Jewishness than Hobson did in her novel. While Hobson likely never attended a religious service at a synagogue (her Yiddishist parents were secular Jews and most of Hobson’s novels touched on the difficulty of being an atheist in America), Graham attended Yom Kippur services as part of the research for her novel. The Yom Kippur mincha service moved Graham deeply, and it become the pivotal scene in the happy resolution of the relationship between the Jewish lawyer Marc Reiser and Protestant Erica Drake.
Translated into 18 languages, Earth and High Heaven earned its author the Governor General’s Award and put Graham’s photograph on the cover of The Saturday Review of Literature when she won that magazine’s Anisfield-Wolf Award for the best book on racial relations—a prize that Graham shared with Gunnar Myrdal, the author of An America Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. Within the same year, Variety Magazine reported the remarkable news that Samuel Goldwyn of MGM Studios had purchased the film rights for $100,000.
The movie was never made, and despite excellent reviews in North America and the United Kingdom, Earth and High Heaven and its Canadian author are all but forgotten today. What happened?
The 1940s were a decade when several novelists tackled the topic of anti-Semitism. Saul Bellow’s The Victim (1947) and Arthur Miller’s Focus (1945) are among the more highly regarded of these novels today, in large part due to their authors’ status in the pantheon of American Jewish writers. Yet middlebrow novels, including Graham’s and Laura Z. Hobson’s, had greater impact on readers. Magazine serialization, bestseller status, and news of their purchase by Hollywood studios contributed to their popularity in the 1940s.
With brief or no mention of the horrific anti-Semitism of wartime Europe, these novels were praised for holding up a mirror to bigotry at home even as North American soldiers fought more frightening instances of racial hatred abroad. To American commentators, these “social protest novels” filled a uniquely American need to feel superior to their wartime enemies when it came to questions of national morality. To wring one’s hands over the discrimination of country clubs, hotels, and playgrounds—against the backdrop of Nazi Germany—was a variation on today’s “humble brag.” The United States and Canada may have had problems when it came to anti-Semitism, but in comparison to Europe’s, it was impossible to deny that theirs was the lesser evil.
That feeling came through in a letter that Hobson wrote in reply to a reader’s suggestion that what was happening in America was not dissimilar from what had occurred in Europe in the previous decade. “At the risk of sounding over-optimistic about my country,” Hobson replied to the reader, “I would like to point out that there are certain differences in American life which make me feel that the story… need not go on to the same dreadful end here. For instance, I do not believe that in Germany in 1933 and 4 and 5 and 6 there were books like ‘Focus’ or Gentleman’s Agreement or Strange Fruit, which was a highly successful novel dealing with prejudice against Negroes.”
Hobson took the presence of such socially progressive literature as evidence of an American—and as it turns out, Canadian—desire to improve its racial and religious tensions. Even as she began writing Gentleman’s Agreement—against the advice of her Jewish publisher Richard Simon of Simon and Schuster—it was the news of Gwethalyn Graham’s success with Earth and High Heaven in 1944 that encouraged Hobson that there was a market for such fiction. “Any serious author who attempts the fight, might just be lucky enough to chip off a bit here and there from this growth, if it’s only by opening the thing to table-talk and woman’s club discussions, as I’m sure Peg Halsey’s book and Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven [sic] are bound to do,” Hobson wrote to a skeptical Richard Simon in 1944.
Feeling heartened by the success of Graham’s novel and others, Hobson went on to write Gentleman’s Agreement, which would become the most culturally momentous of 1940s novels about anti-Semitism. Hobson managed to expose American anti-Semitism without alienating American readers who were riding a postwar wave of pride-in-country.
But Graham was not quite so soothing in her message about anti-Semitism. Even before writing Earth and High Heaven, she boldly expressed her views about Canadian anti-Semitism. As a 25-year-old, she had offered this indictment of Canadian “cold-heartedness” in a 1938 essay about the plight of European refugees, in the Canadian magazine Saturday Night:
So long as thousands of helpless men, women, and children are suffering intolerable persecutions and abuse in Germany or being herded like cattle from one already crowded European country to another, while we continue to slam our door and refuse them admission, there will be little reason for anyone to think better of us. Beyond certain material contributions, Canada has done little or nothing for humanity as a whole. We merely exist, harming no one, and doing no one any good either. It is a record of mediocrity.
The Nazis jeer at us, say we make a great show of equality of race and creed, and criticize them for not wanting their Jews, while in actual fact we don’t want them either.
Graham’s Protestant protagonist in Earth and High Heaven, Erica Drake, voiced the same sentiments in the novel: “After all, we Canadians don’t really disagree fundamentally with the Nazis about the Jews—we just think they go a bit too far.” No such harsh condemnation of Americans was expressed in Gentleman’s Agreement. Graham’s white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant identity likely afforded her the privilege of speaking her mind (which she transferred to her characters). Hers was the benefit of writing about anti-Semitism from the perspective of the establishment.
In the end, although Graham’s novel had helped Hobson believe in a future for her own book, Hobson’s novel would negatively impact Graham’s. Once Twentieth Century Fox bought the film rights to Gentleman’s Agreement and producer Darryl Zanuck signed Gregory Peck as the lead, production on Earth and High Heaven came to a halt. Hollywood executives were skeptical about a market for multiple anti-Semitism themed movies. Graham would never see her book’s name on a movie marquis, while Hobson’s career was forever transformed by having written the book that became a famous movie. Gentleman’s Agreement soon eclipsed Earth and High Heaven in the genre of popular anti-Semitism themed fiction.
Hobson’s novel was later criticized for its lack of Jewish protagonists, for in Gentleman’s Agreement, non-Jews were depicted as central to the fight against anti-Semitism. But in a way, the making of Gentleman’s Agreement—so strongly influenced by Graham’s success with Earth and High Heaven—proved the truth of the novel’s message: non-Jews were essential to the fight against anti-Semitism. Hobson’s confidence had been bolstered by the message and success of Graham, a non-Jewish writer. Far from standing alone as the work of two solitary writers, these two novels, by very different women, are best understood side by side, as an example of the way diverse voices conjoin in a fight against intolerance.
Rachel Gordan received her Ph.D. in American religious history from Harvard, and teaches in American Studies at the University of Toronto.