Laura Hobson's novel, Gentleman's Agreement, enjoyed much fame following its release, and held the number one spot on the bestseller list for nine consecutive weeks. Published in 1947, the book was praised by reviewers for dealing with a very important social issue of the time, anti-Semitism in America. The book takes place in post-war America, and focuses on the treatment of Jews and the hypocrisy and passiveness of Americans who claimed to support the equal rights of all people. This book was an instant bestseller because it connected with controversies of the day. It came at a time when people were proud of America and all that we had fought for during World War II, and its popularity largely rested on the fact that people responded to a book that questioned and in part gave the lie to the glorified picture of American values. The marketing of this book was able to rely on these ideas, and emphasize Hobson's desire to write about anti-Semitism, while at the same time questioning whether Americans would be receptive to reading about it. A movie based on Hobson's book was also released during the same year, helping to begin the Post-War trend in Hollywood of dealing with weighty social issues. Its success helped to sell more books as well. The fact that Hobson was a Jew warranted her writing on such a subject, but while the message is clear that anti-Semitism is wrong, the question remains as to whether Gentleman's Agreement is in the end effective in displaying this message. Critics of the book attack it as too propagandized and preachy. Does the book and the subsequent movie's treatment of anti-Semitism help the cause, or trivialize it?
A March 1, 1947 review of Gentleman's Agreement contains the hope that "a lot of people read her book and ponder it deeply" (Brown 423). "It should make America think," Burt says (423).
What did Americans need to think about? At the time Hobson's book was published, World War II had only been over for two years. The book itself takes place during the first post-war Christmas season. Americans were hopeful for lasting peace. There was a new nationalist agenda which President Roosevelt had preached during the war. "Roosevelt took the lead in proclaiming America's mission as the Bearer of Democracy" (Hertzberg 301). Equality for everyone was promised.
This equality had some conditions attached to it. It was described as "a bargain between majority and minority- if only the children of minorities would behave like Americans" (Hertzberg 301). In essence, the idea of equality was assimilationist. If Jews and others acted like the majority and "adopted the manners and culture of Protestant Christians,"(Hertzberg 303) than they would be accepted. If they assimilated themselves into this white, Christian society, than they would be treated well, or at least not bothered.
Jews in America had a history of being "bothered." There had always been anti-Semitism amongst the majority. In an article in Fortune in 1936, Jews were attacked for "inviting prejudice because of their notorious tendency to agglomerate not just in cities but in self-constituted communities within cities? The article ends wondering whether Jewish clanishness would give way to a willingness to be absorbed in American culture" (Blum 173). Articles like these helped to spread these stereotypes of Jews to the general public. In 1946, 60 percent of Americans agreed that anti-Semitism was increasing in the United States. Jews were discriminated against in the areas of education, employment, housing, public accommodations, and immigration. Poll takers found that "Gentiles thought Jews had too much power in this country, that they ought to be excluded from certain towns, and that, after the Germans and the Japanese, they constituted the greatest menace to American society" (Curtis 303). More evidence can be seen in newspapers of the time. After the war "30 percent of the want ads for employment placed in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune expressed a preference for Protestants or Catholics" (Blum 174).
In Blum's book about the time during and after World War II, Gentleman's Agreement is cited as a bestseller of the early post-war period (175), and it tells of how Hobson's novel criticizes certain suburbs of Connecticut, namely Darien and New Canaan, for their "restrictive residential covenants" (175) to not allow Jews into their white upper-class towns. "It's a sort of gentleman's agreement when you buy" (Hobson 186).
Hobson shows this example and many others of how Jews were being treated after the war through the vehicle of fiction. The main character in Gentleman's Agreement, Phil Green, is the news reporter who experiences these displays of discrimination first-hand. Although a Gentile, he poses as a Jew to get his "angle" for the series of articles that he is assigned to write about anti-Semitism. Gradually, he becomes immersed in his role, and begins to see how Jews are treated.
For example, after making reservations at a lodge for he and his fiancée's honeymoon, he realizes that the establishment is unofficially "restricted" from Jews. In another example, his fiancée's family has a summer home in Darien, Connecticut, and it is there that his future sister-in-law wants to throw them an engagement party. But when she learns that Phil won't give up the façade that he is a Jew just for the party, she conveniently weeds out all of the important guests with whom she doesn't want to leave a bad impression.
Aside from some of these outward displays of anti-Semitism, there was also the issue of everyday people helping to spread anti-Semitism by not outwardly speaking against it. Phil Green had many issues with his fiancée on the subject. In thinking of his fiancée Phil says "She isn't consciously antisemitic, nor is Jane or all the pleasant, intelligent people at the party or the inns and clubs. They despise it, it's an "awful thing." But all of them?who also deplore it and protest their own innocence-they help it along and they wonder why it grows?manufacturing the silence and the acquiescence" (Hobson 192). Phil explains that this is the biggest thing that he has learned while posing as a Jew. Even though he knows that these good citizens would never "beat up" a Jew, their "enraged silence merely enforces the gentleman's agreement not to talk about "disagreeable things"(Custen 296). This is the lesson that even Phil's fiancée comes to learn by the end of the novel. She realizes that it is everyone's responsibility to take a more active stand in fighting anti-Semitism, and she is ready to talk back to the upper-class neighbors in Darien.
These issues were prevalent throughout the time of the war and after. Although it may be too strong to say that the inaction and silence of Americans helped to kill 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, these things certainly did not help the Jews in escaping Nazi Germany during the war. In the Fortune article of 1936, the author believed that not giving aid to the Jews was the best way to help them, rather than agitating the Germans into causing more of a frenzy. "The apprehensiveness of Jews contributed to anti-Semitism, whereas the admitted indifference of some 40 percent of Americans to the fate of Jews in Germany was not callous but the most effective prophylactic against the pestilence of hate" (Blum 173). This policy was supported by the president himself. Until 1944, Roosevelt did not back down from the doctrine that "the most effective means for rescuing Jews was quick and complete victory" (Blum 177). The assistant secretary of state, Breckinridge Long, who was later relieved of his position, believed that Jewish agitation was debilitating to the war effort.
Most Americans were uninformed as to what was going on in Germany, and in December of 1944 there was a poll taken that showed that Americans knew that some Jews had been killed by Hitler, but they could not believe that the Nazis had strategically killed millions.
But others, even American Jews, took a passive role in helping the Jews in Europe. In a book by Arthur Hertzberg, there is discussion of how Jews wanted to be accepted by the Gentiles, and so they did not want to confront them. They were outsiders riddled by anti-Semitism and because they were concerned for themselves here in America, they were powerless to act boldly. And even the newspapers had a relaxed attitude about the atrocities, not bringing the news to the forefront of the headlines. "On November 25, 1942, the New York Times carried an announcement on page 10 about the slaughter of two million Jews"(www.bitlink.com).
Blum gives an informative summary discussing the idea that more could have been done sooner if it weren't for a number of oppositions on the part of Americans and the government. He cites the hostility of the public and congress to change immigration policies (to undo the quotas and let Jews flee to America), the biases of the State Department (Breckinridge stopped mail about the situation with the Jews to reduce public knowledge), Roosevelt's desire for victory, and the caution towards Arabs (Palestine was closed off because the flooding in of Jews would anger the Arabs and, during wartime, we needed their help).
All of these social issues and political happenings helped to set the stage for Hobson to write Gentleman's Agreement. Clearly there was enough controversy on the subject to build a foundation for the book. Americans who bought it would be forced to read her messages, knowing all too well what she was talking about, even though her characters were fictitious.
Parallels to the times can be seen throughout the book, such as the whole reason that Phil is given the assignment. The topic was given to him because "big magazines and papers and radio chains were helping spread it (anti-Semitism) by staying off it except for bits here and there" (Hobson 16). This is reminiscent of the New York Times burying the killing of millions of Jews on page 10 of their paper.
Hobson was commended for taking such a bold stand against anti-Semitism. A full-page advertisement for the book which appeared in Book Review tells readers about the process of publishing Gentleman's Agreement. Hobson believed that the idea for her book would have limited readership because of its "unpopular" subject matter. She understood that it might not sell, but she was compelled to do it anyway. Much to Hobson's surprise, by the time it was published on February 27, 1947, it had already been bought as a serial to be published in Cosmopolitan, and as a movie that would be Darryl Zanuck's only production for the year. So by the time it was published, it was "already one of the most discussed books of the year." 30,000 copies were exhausted after three days. All this and more goes to show, the ad says, that "when a novelist with an impossible to sell theme tackles it courageously and honestly, within the framework of a story rich in dramatic surprise, the public has a way of taking hold of it and making it the nation's No. 1 Best Seller."
This idea of creating a good story to frame a serious issue was an idea cultivated by Darryl Zanuck, the leading producer at Twentieth Century Fox during the 1940s. The making of Gentleman's Agreement as a movie was an innovative endeavor for its time. It was one of the first of its genre- "social problem dramas and message pictures" (Schatz 4) which developed during the postwar era.
Zanuck had new ideas for the potential of cinema. He knew that Hobson's book could be turned into a very important on screen production, and he bought the rights for $75,000. When Zanuck decided to face the issue of anti-Semitism, he was advised not to do it. "Why rock the boat??Why bring up an unpleasant, controversial subject on the screen?"(Custen 294).
But Zanuck believed that it was time to make movies with purpose and significance. He decided that Hollywood had an obligation to start dealing with important social issues on screen. "We must play our part in the solution of the problems that torture the world. We must begin to deal realistically in film with the causes of wars and panics, with social upheavals and depression, with starvation and want and injustice and barbarism under whatever guise." Zanuck told audiences this in a speech he gave at a seminar sponsored by the Hollywood Writers' Mobilization, an organization committed to advancing the free expression of democratic ideas and to investigating the writer's role in the war. He ended the speech by telling writers "if you have something worthwhile to say, dress it in the glittering robes of entertainment. Without these raiments no propaganda film is worth a dime"(Custen 271, 275).
Gregory Peck was cast for the role of Phil Green. In 1946, at 30 years old, Peck was "by far the youngest top male star of the postwar period" (Schatz 359). He gained much fame through the making of Gentleman's Agreement. Through this movie "his screen persona as a decent and reliable hero coalesced" (Schatz 359).
The film helped to further spread the book's message. It enjoyed much success and was considered daring and progressive in its time. In Custen's book, he writes that Gentleman's Agreement has been held up as an example of Hollywood civil liberty at its 1940s best.
After examining the book and its subsequent movie in the context of history, the question remains as to whether Hobson' s message works well in its literary context to create a lasting and effective story, or whether the content is too propagandized to convey its message in a timely and relevant way.
Many reviewers received the book well. The criticism for the most part seems to be outweighed by the end product. "It is definitely a thesis novel?occasionally it is true that it falls into the pit set for thesis novels, and for a page or so becomes a tract. But on the whole Mrs. Hobson avoids skillfully that pit, and her righteous passion is such, her conviction, her ability to make human her characters as they fight prejudice or succumb to it, that you are swept along by her story" (Rothe 312).
One of the primary critical responses to the book deals with whether or not Phil Green, born a Gentile, can really understand the feelings of a Jew. Donald Adams of the New York Times thought it was impossible for anyone not a member of a minority group "to suffer the same reaction through a temporary assumption of their status." But although he thought that this was "a fundamental weakness" of the book, it did not trivialize his view of the book as an "otherwise vibrant, truthful, and needed book" (Rothe 312).
A New York Times critic said that "it leaves unturned no stone under which the disquieting variety of bigots it exposes-among us all-can hide"(Rothe 312). This comment clearly recognizes Hobson's purpose for writing the book. Hobson not only presented examples of outwardly anti-Semitic acts, but also succeeded in exposing the type of anti-Semitism that is not as explicit; that of decent Americans who choose to be indifferent rather than to speak out against hatred. As controversial as this issue was at the time of Gentleman's Agreement, the topic is still relevant. Unless Americans take an active role in combating bigotry, the problem will never go away. Creating a compelling and socially reflective novel is no small feat. Hobson was successful by writing a best-seller that garnered critical attention, inspired a movie and was recognized as an important post-war work with a message that remains just as powerful today.
Blum, John Morton. V Was For Victory. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
Brown, Dorothy. Book Review Digest Vol. 43-1947. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1948.
Curtis, Michael. Antisemitism in the Contemporary World. Boulder: Westview Press, 1986.
Custen, George F. Twentieth Century's Fox-Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood. New York: Basic Books, 1997.
Hertzberg, Arthur. The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Hobson, Laura Z. Gentleman's Agreement. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1947.
Rothe, Anna. Current Biography 1947. New York: The H.W. Wilson Company, 1948.
Schatz, Thomas. History of the American Cinema: Boom and Bust- The American Cinema in the 1940s. New York: Charles Scribner Sons, 1997.