Gwethalyn Graham

Gwethalyn Graham, novelist (b at Toronto, 18 Jan 1913; d at Montréal, 26 Nov 1965). Born Gwethalyn Graham Erichsen-Brown, Gwethalyn Graham was raised in TORONTO. She attended private school in Toronto and finishing school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and in 1931 moved to Northampton, Massachusetts to attend Smith College. While there, she met John McNaught and left her studies the following year to marry. They had a son, but divorced before he was a year old. Graham and her son left Massachusetts for MONTRÉAL in 1934, the year she began writing her first novel, Swiss Sonata. It was published in 1938 to wide critical acclaim, winning the GOVERNOR GENERAL'S AWARD for Fiction (1938). Graham followed this in 1944 with Earth and High Heaven. Like Swiss Sonata, Earth and High Heaven was critically lauded, also winning the Governor General's Award for Fiction (1944) and the Anisfield-Wolf Award (1945), which honours written works that contribute to the understanding of RACISM and the diversity of human culture.

Graham quickly found fame in Canada and abroad. Earth and High Heaven was the first Canadian novel to reach number one on the New York Times Best Seller List, and it stayed on the list for 37 weeks, selling over 1 million copies. The movie rights to the novel were purchased by Samuel Goldwyn, but the film was never made as difficulties over the screen adaptation persisted. Despite all these achievements, Graham was concerned that any future work would not live up to the success of her first two works; though she continued to write, she published no other novels. She remarried in 1947 and moved to Virginia in 1950, where she taught philosophy at the University of Virginia and remained until 1958. Graham and her husband divorced in 1958, and she and her son moved back to Montréal, where she worked as a script writer for the CBC. In 1963 she published Dear Enemies, which explores FRENCH-ENGLISH RELATIONS in Canada through a series of letter exchanges. Gwethalyn Graham died of an undiagnosed brain tumour at the age of 52. At the time of her death she was working on her first novel in over twenty years.

Gwethalyn Graham's passion for racial and social equality is evident in her writing. Swiss Sonata (1938) reflects on the racial and ethnic conflicts in Europe during the lead-up to WORLD WAR II. Similar themes can be found in her second novel Earth and High Heaven (1944). Set against the backdrop of World War II, Earth and High Heaven follows two lovers, one PROTESTANT and one JEWISH, as they fight against the racial intolerance that divides their families and threatens to keep them apart. The novel boldly examines ANTI-SEMITISM in Canada during World War II, showing that racial PREJUDICE existed at home as much as it did abroad. Critics have compared Graham's attention to the social conditions facing social and racial minorities to the work of fellow Canadian writers Hugh MACLENNAN, Frederick Philip GROVE and Gabrielle ROY.

There has been a recent effort by scholars to revive Gwethalyn Graham's work, as the themes addressed in Graham's novels remain relevant to contemporary Canadian culture. Earth and High Heaven was re-released in 2003, and Barbara Meadowcroft's 2008 biography of Graham seeks to pull her out of obscurity and back into the mainstream of Canadian literature and culture.