Gentleman's Agreement, by Laura Z. Hobson
Americans Without Distinction
by Laura. Z. Hobson.
New York, Simon & Schuster, 1947. 275 pp. $2.75.
It is interesting that Mrs. Hobson’s novel about anti-Semitism should be published, and evidently very happily, by the same house that a few years ago voluntarily suppressed a book by Jerome Weidman on the ground that its unattractive Jewish characters would increase anti-Jewish feeling in this country. In the course of Mrs. Hobson’s story, as a matter of fact, the Weidman kind of thing is spoken of; we are given to understand that Mrs. Hobson too disapproves of calling attention to unpleasant Jewish examples. The hero of Gentleman’s Agreement has been assigned to do a series of articles on anti-Semitism for a magazine of mass circulation; in search of a fresh “angle” for the series—for an angle, and a fresh one, the subject of course demands—he browses through his library and comes across three books each of which has a “dishonest, scheming, or repulsive” Jew as its main character. “Did it never occur to one of them,” Phil Green thinks angrily of their authors, “to write about a fine guy who was Jewish? Did each one feel some savage necessity to pick a Jew who was a swine in the wholesale business, a Jew who was a swine in the movies, a Jew who was a swine in bed?”
Well, there are no swinish Jews in Gentleman’s Agreement. Indeed there are scarcely any Jews at all, just two supporting characters—a scientist and a fine, personable veteran—and three or four minor figures who appear in its pages only long enough to demonstrate that although noisy Jews are no noisier than noisy Irish they are noticed more, or that Jews themselves are often ashamed of their birth. In Mrs. Hobson’s novel about the Jews their cause is both explained and fought for them by Gentiles—especially by the hero, who spends eight weeks masquerading as a Jew in order to learn what it feels like to be discriminated against: this is Phil Green’s angle—and Mrs. Hobson’s—and it not only leads him to a condition of acute sensitivity bordering on paranoia but also nearly costs him his girl Kathy, who only in the last chapters learns a tolerance as intransigent as Phil’s own. Here, we gather, is a way of writing about Jews that Simon and Schuster can be comfortable with.
But if Mrs. Hobson in some part shares responsibility with her publishers for a “strategy” which refuses to grant Jews their human right to be unattractive, she is at least innocent of the error that is usually a corollary of this attitude. She does not think that the Jewish minority should slink off into a respectable corner, call no attention to itself, and ask no better than that no attention be called to it.
If it is nothing else, her novel is a strong appeal for Gentiles to bring the Jewish issue full into the light and fight it. Even the easy identification Mrs. Hobson makes between Jew and Gentile cannot fairly be interpreted as an evasion. For instance, although she allows her Gentile hero to pass as a Jew, she does not permit Jews to pass as Gentiles—a double standard which may not be easy to argue but which surely rests on a sound moral distinction. If Gentleman’s Agreement regards Jew and Gentile as but two profiles of the same face, it is because Mrs. Hobson recognizes no valid differences between them except the differences created, on the Gentile side, by a state of mind ignorantly and usually only half-consciously perpetuated from person to person and generation to generation, and, on the Jewish side, by the awareness of being discriminated against.
And indeed, in the world Mrs. Hobson examines, there are no other differences. There are certainly no religious Jews in her section of American society, and there are no Jews to whom historical or cultural criteria have any meaning. Dave Goldman, the Jewish veteran and Phil Green’s childhood friend, is as little Jewish as Phil himself, except that, because of an accident of birth, Dave has been called a Jew all his life whereas Phil is called a Jew for only eight weeks and then by his own choice. And Professor Lieberman has only his Semitic features to set him apart from his Gentile fellow-scientists. Similarly, there are no religious Gentiles. The Gentiles in Gentleman’s Agreement who, like Phil and his editor, are without anti-Jewish emotions, are not thereby the more Christian; they are simply the more decent.
In other words, Mrs. Hobson’s book is entirely logical within its own purview, which is also the purview of a large group of middle-class Americans. It undertakes to show that even supposedly non-sectarian people—people who inhabit a universe in which religion, if it is present at all, is present solely as a general code of morality and wisdom, and in which there is neither fact nor virtue in cultural pluralism—are guilty of direct or indirect anti-Semitism.
Thus, it is Kathy, Phil’s girl, who suggested the articles on anti-Semitism; but Kathy is capable of tolerating such “natural” expressions of prejudice as restricted neighborhoods and hotels. Or there are Kathy’s friends, liberals all, who, while their left hands are busy with such worthy enterprises as the Springfield Plan, with their right hands shield their eyes from their own well-bred prejudice. Or even Phil’s editor, entirely without prejudice himself, is shown to have overlooked the discrimination that operates in the personnel department of his magazine. The very people who think of themselves as the vanguard in the struggle for social decency allow anti-Semitism to exist and even help it flourish; prejudice, Mrs. Hobson is saying, is not limited only to the reactionary elements in the population, but also obtains among liberals, however successfully they may disguise the fact from themselves. The purpose of Gentleman’s Agreement is perhaps more limited than Mrs. Hobson recognizes: it is not an attack upon anti-Semitism at its deepest sources or in its widest manifestations, but merely in a single group—the so-called “liberal” group. It is an attempt to close a gap between the ideals of current liberalism and liberalism in practice.
But even this is a highly commendable purpose, and Mrs. Hobson’s book is already being saluted by the enlightened reading public, as one must hope it would be. On the other hand, as a novel it is poor—dull, non-dimensional, without atmosphere. Of course, thesis novels usually are poor; we have learned to abrogate certain standards of aesthetic judgment in reading them. And yet, even by such standards as we might apply to a book like Lillian Smith’s Strange Fruit, Gentleman’s Agreement is peculiarly empty.
We wonder what accounts for its sterility, and are forced to find the explanation in the nature of Mrs. Hobson’s liberalistic view of life. There can be no doubt of Mrs. Hobson’s deep unconscious as well as conscious commitment to the present-day progressive belief. Her criticism of liberalism is self-criticism within a faith as binding as any religion from which she might have emancipated herself. And it is the sterility of our fashionable liberal ideal that permeates Gentleman’s Agreement, deadening even such human effects as we might look for in a problem story.
There is scarcely a cliché of liberalism missing from Gentleman’s Agreement, not an opinion or attitude that does not repeat or sum up the progressive lesson of the day. PM, the whole intellectual-cultural school represented by PM, has done its work well on an apt pupil. Mrs. Hobson knows, for example, just what a conscientious citizen is expected to know about the economic motive in religious bias; she is just properly alert to the connection between anti-Semitism and anti-Negroism, jingoism and anti-unionism. She has the prescribed liberal attitude toward marriage (it is normal, and should be civilized), toward sex (it is no less normal than marriage: Kathy is piously mindful of her good mating with Phil), toward child-rearing (Phil’s child by a previous marriage is a little monster of reason and adjustment), toward literature (it is writing liberal articles for mass-circulation magazines), toward death (it must be accepted).
Were such values Mrs. Hobson’s alone, they would not be worth noting. But these identical touchstones of moral and psychological health appear in novel after novel of the liberal persuasion. Surely no totalitarian ideal has ever projected a more complete regimentation of the psychic life of a nation than our present-day liberal ideal. Does the liberal society that Mrs. Hobson envisages allow no distinctions between Jew and Gentile? For that matter, it allows no distinctions between human beings.
And just as our crude contemporary materialist view of life is moving people, by its spiritual emptiness, to look once more to religion for something that will give grandeur or quality to existence, just so Mrs. Hobson’s view of the Absolute Liberal Man or Woman moves one, if only for the sake of variety, to underscore rather than eliminate minority differences.
Cultural pluralism is a complex political business. It creates social problems perhaps faster than it creates social values—and I do not oppose it to Mrs. Hobson’s monism as a “solution.” But it has at least this virtue, that it complicates our notion of both society and the individual, and makes a place for the saving human differences which can often be even political salvation.