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  • Romantic Recognition in Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven
  • Michèle Rackham (bio)

Gwethalyn graham’s novel Earth and High Heaven is one of Canada’s great literary success stories: in addition to winning the Governor General’s award in 1944, this popular romance was the first Canadian novel to top the American bestseller list, Collier’s Magazine paid $7,500 to serialize it before its publication, and Sam Goldwyn (of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer fame) bought the movie rights for $100,000. The novel’s popularity peaked with Goldwyn and Graham casting Gregory Peck and Katharine Hepburn in the major movie production as protagonists Marc Reiser, a small-town Jewish Ontarian, and Erica Drake, a wealthy socialite Gentile (Cameron 157)—two star-crossed lovers whose romance is thwarted by religious prejudice in wartime Montreal. In spite of the novel’s convenient mise-en-scène and the script-like dialogue of Graham’s characters,1 the [End Page 121] movie version of Earth and High Heaven was never made. Production was called off in part because Laura Z. Hobson’s novel Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) beat Graham’s novel to film. Released in 1948, and starring Gregory Peck, Gentleman’s Agreement was similarly based on a romantic narrative about anti-Semitism. Elspeth Cameron notes that the release of this movie sealed Earth and High Heaven’s fate; immediately after the success of Gentleman’s Agreement, “Sam Goldwyn announced that he did not wish to make another film on the same subject” (158).

Goldwyn’s decision not to proceed with the film version of Graham’s novel, however, was inspired by more than just the recent release of a similarly themed film. He was not happy with the script, which he felt focused too closely on the novel’s preaching against anti-Semitism (Cameron 157). Having little desire to make a film that condemned racial prejudice in North America, Cameron remarks that “Goldwyn was interested almost solely in the novel’s romantic plot” (157).

While Goldwyn was attracted mainly to Earth and High Heaven’s unapologetic love story, surely it is this romantic plot that has led to the novel’s “forgotten” status in the Canadian canon (Cameron 146). “Earth and High Heaven was a success for all the wrong reasons,” writes Cameron: “This banal romance … attracted droves of unsophisticated readers and obscured the remarkable literary skills and complex profile of social, political, ethnic, and feminist issues that the novel displayed” (161). For Cameron, the novel’s romantic plot veils the sociopolitical message of the text and stands in stark contrast to its literary merits. John Moss might disagree with this comment, but only in its claims of literary merit. He writes, “[w]ere it not for the ‘timeliness’ of the topic, this novel would more properly belong in the company of drug-store romances” (102). Even the more recent reviews of the novel’s 2003 edition are flippant about its romantic sentimentality. Consider, for example, Fiona Foster’s 2004 review of Earth and High Heaven in which she jokingly remarks,“[i]f Oprah had been around, she would have slapped an endorsement on its cover quicker than you could say, ‘It made me cry, it made me laugh, it made me hope’” (d14). Although Foster’s review of the novel is favourable, she is also critical of Earth and High Heaven’s popular romantic element.

More recent criticism of the novel, conversely, has turned a blind eye to its glaring romantic elements to focus exclusively on its important social critique. Patrick Coleman and Michael Greenstein both explore the ways [End Page 122] in which Graham’s novel challenges readers to question stable conceptions of racial and social identities.2 While both Coleman’s and Greenstein’s exceptional studies of Earth and High Heaven have repositioned it as more than just a dime novel, both studies also gloss over the importance of the novel’s genre to its socio-political message.

A closer reading of Earth and High Heaven reveals that it is highly self-reflexive about its status as romantic fiction; such introspection suggests the novel’s romantic elements may play a larger part in staging its social critique...


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pp. 121-140
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