The McCann Time Capsule: Edward Lewis Wallant and ‘The Pawnbroker’
The intense, high-profile 1964 movie “The Pawnbroker” broke new ground on several fronts considered shocking to audiences at the time. It was the first U.S. film to deal with the horrors of the Holocaust as experienced by a survivor of the death camps. And the movie—which featured Rod Steiger’s breakout performance in the lead (and incidentally included Morgan Freeman’s first movie part, in an uncredited role)—was also the first film to receive approval from the Motion Picture Production Code to show nudity.
The movie was an adaptation of a highly regarded 1961 novel of the same name, one of the first to depict the Holocaust and its aftermath on survivors. It was written by Edwin Lewis Wallant, who wrote it while working at McCann New York as an art director.
Wallant, born in 1926, first began writing professionally in the mid-1950s while working in advertising. In 1957 he joined McCann New York as an art director, reportedly on the agency’s Bulova watch and Oreos cookies accounts. Working on his fiction at night, he published his first novel, “The Human Season,” in 1960, which won the National Jewish Book Award in 1961. He followed that in 1961 with “The Pawnbroker,” which sold 500,000 copies and was a 1962 National Book Award finalist along with the likes of Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey,” and other fiction by Hortense Calisher, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Barnard Malamud.
In 1961, following his literary breakthrough, Wallant left McCann, but, sadly, died the next year at age 36 from an aneurysm. Two of his other novels were published posthumously: “The Tenants of Moonbloom” in 1963, and “The Children at the Gate” in 1964.
When a new edition of “The Tenants of Moonbloom” was published in 2003, the novelist Dave Eggers wrote the foreword and also assessed Wallant’s short-lived but exceptional fiction career in an article in 2004 in The Guardian.
“He began writing seriously at 30, after serving in the second world war, attending art school and spending many years as an advertising art director in New York. In the short time he was writing - about three years wherein he considered himself and was considered a serious writer - he was counted as part of a brilliant group of postwar Jewish American writers - Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth among them. That Wallant died so young, unable to travel on with these writers, is criminal, especially given how prolific he was. But the novels he finished in his short life are all miniature masterpieces.”
Wallant’s name hasn’t been lost in the literary world though. After his death, the Edward Lewis Wallant Award was established and has been presented annually by the University of Hartford to an American writer whose fiction is considered to have significance for American Jews. In 2015, "The Pawnbroker" novel itself was newly republished with a foreword by the novelist Dara Horn, herself a winner of several awards, including the Edward Lewis Wallant Award in 2002 for her first novel, “In The Image.”
Of Wallant’s book, Horn says in her foreword, “Yes, you are about to read a masterpiece.”