The Secret of A Separate Peace
Turning 50, the classic still has something to tell us.
My feelings for Exeter, and my feelings about the fact that its roman a clef classic was once required reading for students who would never see the oak-lined interiors of a private school, are, to put it mildly, mixed. I remember fighting a daily losing battle with my homework and the boreal cold, both of whose powers of atmospheric contraction were so great, you believed organ failure a distinct possibility. I remember too the giant birdlike rectitudinous old men, Latin teachers who audibly aspirated the H in while and whom, who looked down at you from tottering heights, and performed their most sacred function: They made you feel small. The mind of an adolescent is an inherently unstable thing, shifting between imperial expansion and shrinkage down to a vanishing point. How strangely stabilizing, to be given shape and proportion, however small, by a glance! I alternated reading A Separate Peace with watching the scandalously entertaining reality show Jersey Shore. You'll pardon me for giving in to the obvious contrast. These are a generation of American children (so sayeth the unkillable Puritan in me) who have never been made to feel small and, terrified by the possibility that they might be made to feel small, are insecure to the point of physical violence, the aura of which attends nearly everything they do.
I know, how very undemocratic of me. And, yet, which sets the higher watermark for American democracy? 2009, or 1959? To put it another way: Which is more democratic? The so-called "Young Adult" genre–starting with S.E. Hinton's classic The Outsiders but devolving quickly into generic "problem" novels about suicide or drug abuse, niche marketed by ethnicity and gender–that swept aside A Separate Peace, making it feel hopelessly antique? Or the most and admirable and distinctive feature of A Separate Peace, which is its voice?
"I went back to the Devon School the other day," the novel opens, "and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before." That "I" is Gene, of course, but it's also something more. It is the voice, to borrow Trilling's famous praise of Orwell, of simple, direct, undeceived intelligence; and for a period of roughly 50 years, it was the voice of midcentury fiction. It originates with Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, and in a back-of-the-napkin inventory, I'd say it can be heard in writers as diverse as Bellow in The Adventures of Augie Marchand Styron in Sophie's Choice, and in such unexpected quarters as Fowles' The Magus ("I was born in 1927, the only child of middle class parents") or the first, dizzyingly perfect chapters of Ian McEwan's Black Dogs. It is still present in "The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses," which opens Goodbye, Columbus (1959), but is all but banished by "my father reading the morning paper with a suppository up his ass," on Page 5 of Portnoy's Complaint (1969).
We experience this voice now through the streamlines of identity politics–it is white, male, mostly gentile–and are convinced that to have moved beyond it is an act of collective liberation. But if the history of the novel is an interior history of the middle class, this voice deserves its moment of respect, having been easily elbowed aside by unreliable narrators and advertisements for oneself, by cynic-dandies and the fissile leftovers of high modernism. Where we now hear hegemony, its contemporaries heard the Tennessee Valley Authority, NATO, New Criticism—a voice consonant with midcentury projects whose stated goal was universal democracy.
It is the fallback literary voice of 1959, when the middle class stood at its apex, a voice in which habits of blind deference—to anything, including Phillips Exeter Academy—have been lost, and so for which an appropriately calibrated deference—to anything, even Phillips Exeter Academy—is still possible. It is the voice of simple self-respect. We now triumph in its blindness, and cast aside, a little heedlessly, its insights. Gene fights the war, but as he says, "I never killed anybody, and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy here." Thus launcheth a thousand bad English classes: By enemy he means … his gay longing, right? Well, no. He means the inability to restrain the impulse to murder innocent things. In expecting of Gene a facile recitation, as to the nature of his sexuality, of his social class, gender, and race, we take the measure of our smallness, not his.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.