I was preparing to teach the 1947 novel Gentleman’s Agreement to my students at the University of Florida, where I hold a chair in American Jewish culture. In the midst of writing a book about that novel-turned-Academy-Award-winning film, I read Jill Kargman’s essay about her son’s experience with anti-Semitism.
Having spent so much of the summer thinking about the 1930s and 1940s experiences that led novelist Laura Z. Hobson to write Gentleman’s Agreement, I was stunned (although “stunned” might be too strong so soon after the one-year anniversary of Charlottesville) by how much of Kargman’s experience resonates with the 1940s, fast-talking, cigarette-smoking world of Gentleman’s Agreement that—serendipity—also just so happened to be Tablet film reviewer Alexander Aciman’s film pick for last week.
In the story, Phil Green, a non-Jewish reporter played by Gregory Peck in the film, pretends to be Jewish in order to write a magazine article about anti-Semitism in America. His young son, Tommy, is in on the ruse, and when he tells a classmate at his New York City school that he is Jewish, he suffers the consequences: Tommy is called a “dirty Jew” and a “little kike.” Phil is outraged by what his son has suffered, and the episode forces him to confront—as it did Kargman—the ugliness of anti-Semitism. Through his reporting, Phil has already experienced a good deal of prejudice toward Jews from the upper crust and supposedly liberal of Manhattan and Darien, Connecticut. But nothing gets to him quite like seeing his son in tears after being called a “dirty Jew.”
Laura Z. Hobson, the daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants (her father helped to found the Jewish Daily Forward; her mother wrote a women’s column for another Yiddish paper, Der Tog), was in her mid-40s when she began to consider writing a novel about anti-Semitism. She had already done some brave things in her life: after her divorce, adopting a son on her own, in 1937, and giving birth to a second son, after an unexpected pregnancy, in her early 40s. She had had a successful career at Time Inc., where she had negotiated with Henry Luce for a higher salary. She had published her first novel about wartime refugees from Europe, and her publisher, “Essandess,” (Simon & Schuster) was anticipating her second. Still, as she considered writing about anti-Semitism, Hobson grappled with the kinds of important questions that Kargman posed: “When is ratting someone out actually whistleblowing?” and, “Why was I so anxious to not make trouble?”
In the summer and fall of 1944, Hobson mulled over her idea. Her novel would be about anti-Semitism not among the “lunatic fringe,” as Laura called them, but among the well-mannered, Social Register Manhattanites who had been guests at her Upper East Side dinner table. That summer of 1944, Hobson wrote letters to her friends (she was living in California, temporarily, while she wrote for Hollywood–the only time in her life that she lived outside of New York) to get their feedback on her outline for a novel about anti-Semitism.
Hobson’s good friend Carroll Whedon (grandmother of screenwriter Joss Whedon) was all for it. Whedon loved the idea of Hobson writing about middle-class Americans who thought of themselves as liberal New Yorkers, even as they harbored anti-Semitic feelings. “It is we, the vast and easy-going majority you should write about,” Whedon urged Hobson, “not the Nazi-bitten lunatic fringe. … It is we who have brought this about, because we have let the Rankins and the Fishes–and the guys we play golf with—get away with it.”
Another of Hobson’s good friends–and her publisher–Richard Simon, of Simon & Schuster, tried to dissuade her. “A lot of us have felt we should do something about the growth of anti-Semitism, and we feel so helpless,” the assimilated Jewish publisher commiserated with Hobson. But Simon still didn’t want her to write the novel. His desire not to rock the boat only spurred Laura to action.
“How does one fight such things?” Hobson responded to Richard Simon. “Each in his own way—and any serious author who attempts the fight, might just be lucky enough to chip off a bit here and there from this growth.”
For decades to come, Hobson kept up the fight, writing about other social problems that needed attention. Her 1975 novel, Consenting Adult, about a mother and her gay son, was inspired by Hobson’s own experience with a gay son. A reviewer for The Washington Post observed, in 1976: “I wish that Laura Z. Hobson’s novel, Consenting Adult, were an outdated melodrama. Instead, I see it as one of the most important books yet published on the subject of homosexuality.”
I wish that Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement were an outdated melodrama. Stories like Kargman’s remind us that it remains relevant, and why writers—each in her own way—must continue to attempt the fight.
Rachel Gordan is an assistant professor in the Department of Religion and the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida.