Laura Z. Hobson’s Gentleman’s Agreement shook readers who had just come through World War II and considered themselves unprejudiced.
Journalist Phil Green decides to pose as a Jew to get the inside angle on anti-Semitism. Initially, only his mother, his girlfriend, and his editor know his Jewishness is only a pose.
Green becomes increasingly sensitized to prejudice. First he notices disparaging language, and then feels the slights and rejections. But it’s the reaction of those closest to him—his sister, his girlfriend, his son—that hit Green hardest.
Hobson tries to make her characters a mixture of good and bad, but they never quite ring true. Greene displays a naiveté that borders on stupidity. It never occurs to Green, for example, that his 8-year-old son is going to have questions about the charade.
Although anti-Semitism, racism, and other forms of prejudice are probably as strong in America today as when Hobson was writing Gentleman’s Agreement, the novel wouldn’t have much impact on contemporary readers. Since 1947, we’ve seen too many stories about someone who goes undercover to get the scoop on being a minority.
The plot that confronted readers in 1947 is a cliché today.
Gentleman’s Agreement has become the victim of its own success.
Laura Z. Hobson
Simon and Schuster, 1947
#3 bestselling novel in 1947
My Grade: C+