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Hobson’s decision to write a novel about American anti-Semitism was more daring than it may seem today. When, in February 1944, she read an article in Time magazine about Mississippi Rep. John Rankin calling Walter Winchell a “kike,” Hobson was outraged, and even more outraged to read that nobody in the House of Representatives had protested. Hobson kept the clipping in her scrapbook, which is now housed in the Columbia University archives with the rest of her papers. She wrote about the Rankin episode in her first draft of “Gentleman’s Agreement.”
Hobson’s friend Dorothy Thompson, “the first lady of American journalism” and the first American journalist expelled from Nazi Germany, remained skeptical that writing a novel about anti-Semitism was the proper way to fight the problem. Furthermore, it seemed a shame to Thompson that Hobson was not planning to write about the actual experience of being a Jew, but instead only about someone pretending to be Jewish. After reading the synopsis that Hobson had mailed her, Thompson wrote back. Though she had known few Jews when she was growing up in a Puritan, Anglo-Saxon community, she said she could “vividly remember that my first impression of Jewish homes was that the kids had a hell of a lot better time in them than we did… I also thought that they ate marvelous and vastly more interesting food!” Might not Hobson add a little of that ethnic-religious flavoring to her novel? She demurred; that wasn’t really her thing.
Simon was less interested in a more Jewish book than he was in a book that sold. Throughout 1944, he and Hobson corresponded about the possibilities for a novel about anti-Semitism. He was not enthusiastic. Sales for Hobson’s first novel, “The Trespassers” — a story of Nazi refugees — had been less than stellar. “I do think the cards are stacked terribly against this project,” he warned Hobson.
“Dick, let’s skip it for now,” she wrote back, not quite dismissing Simon’s four-page letter that had outlined “heartbreak possibilities” for Hobson if she went forward with her novel. Why not simply return to advertising and a reliable salary and “security for my boys if I am going to give up a book merely because it might bring me heartbreak? Because I can’t see what the hell is the use of enduring the chancy insecurity of being an author unless you write stuff that you yourself find a deep satisfying rightness in.”
“Maybe this is not the book,” Hobson wrote. “Maybe it will smell ‘tract’ to high heaven.” If so, Hobson promised, she’d give it up, “because it’s no satisfaction to keep writing a lousy tracty book.” Still, she wouldn’t know “unless I try about six chapters…. Maybe those first chapters would be so different from what you expect, so fascinating and interesting, that you will yourself urge me to go on.”
In the end, what had once seemed a fantastic idea — that a gentile would pose as a Jew and fight anti-Semitism — was so convincingly told that it now seems banal.
Watching “Gentleman’s Agreement,” today, it is hard to make out what had seemed so path-breaking about Peck’s character declaring himself a Jew, as though words themselves — the names we call ourselves and the stories we tell about ourselves — have the power to create new realities. But that was the triumph of Hobson’s story: It had become part of America’s story, complete with a Hollywood ending.
Rachel Gordan is a postdoctoral fellow in American Judaism at Northwestern University.