The Secret of A Separate Peace
Turning 50, the classic still has something to tell us.
Slate's Fred Kaplan had just published his superb book on the year 1959 when I ran into him this fall, and asked him if he'd considered mentioning A Separate Peace, alongside Lolita and The 400 Blows and Advertisements for Myself and Kind of Blue, as one of the cultural productions that made '59 a "Year That Changed Everything." He only chuckled, and shook his head. Once required reading–it has sold north of 8 million copies– A Separate Peace is now little more than a harmless keepsake from that part of 1959 that stayed 1959, a time when one could still be adolescent, white, privileged, and gay and not know it.
The novel, by John Knowles, tells the story of World War II breaking into and destroying the prep school idyll of two adolescent boys, Gene and Phineas. Theirs is a world of marble staircases, Latin masters, and the closet, that place into which the mutual longings of Gene and Finny are sent to hide out, perhaps even from the awareness of their own author. It's not exactly Truffaut or Nabokov, but A Separate Peace deserves memorializing on its 50th anniversary, for the very reason it is drifting, slowly but surely, into literary oblivion.
Rereading A Separate Peace for the first time in 30 years, I was surprised to discover its setting is the least anachronistic thing about it. A Separate Peace takes place at a New Hampshire prep school modeled not at all loosely on Exeter, where Knowles had been a student in the '40s. Movies like Dead Poets Society, about boys knuckling under to a rheumatic American upper class and its to-the-hounds! institutions, derive from a lazy reading of A Separate Peace. A Separate Peace derives, for better and worse, from the thing itself.
Knowles was aware that a boarding school in America is a mongrel institution, a burlesque of English ancestors on the one hand, a mix of Puritan austerity and new money ostentation on the other. Knowles' Devon is a cluster of Colonial and Georgian buildings meant to convey primeval grandeur, though much of this infrastructure is courtesy of recent bequests by industrial tycoons. The "separate peace" of the title refers, in part, to a magical summer session in which the school's "attitude of floating, chronic disapproval" dissipates with the awareness that soon enough Devon boys will be asked to fight, and die, for their country.
Gene, the narrator, is the school's star student, Phineas its star athlete, and the two are roommates and best friends. When Phineas entices Gene to jump from a tree whose branches overhang the school's river, Gene's knees bend, he jounces the limb, and Finny falls. The accident leaves him crippled. Thus launcheth a thousand drowsy English class discussions: Did Gene intentionally maim his friend, to visit upon him every imperfection he seems to lack–clumsiness, inhibition, envy, anger, hatred?
And here we come across, not so much the original sin of mankind, but the abiding flaw of an intriguing and at points beautiful novel: We do not love Phineas as Gene does. His charm for Gene exceeds his charm for us. The less we are seduced by Phineas, the more we experience him not as an Apollonian boy-god lacking the normal ratio of ill-character but as a love object for Gene, and Gene alone. To be clear, it is not that the book is too gay but that it is not gay enough. Unable to draw the sexuality of its characters anywhere near the surface of its narrative, a novel that might have been an elegy to forbidden romance instead becomes an exercise in near-camp. The book is impossible to read as intended: straight.
Nonetheless, A Separate Peace is filled with fine writing, about the smothering powers of a New Hampshire winter ("… sick of victory and enfeebled by the absence of challenge, it begins itself to withdraw from the ruined countryside. The drains alone are active, and on these Saturdays their noises sound a dull recessional to winter").To posterity it offers up a minor curiosity: its portrait of Brinker Hadley, a cunning verbal torturer based on Knowles' Exeter schoolmate Gore Vidal. (Vidal has publicly admired the novel.) Hadley is a campus cynic-dandy of a style Exeter specializes in developing. Taking the type broadly, James Agee, Dwight MacDonald, Gore Vidal, and George Trow all attended Exeter, all experienced the splendor of its reproving coldness, and each, in a way, spent a lifetime writing his way out from under it. Here I should add, without including myself (trust me) in anyone's company, I attended Exeter, was a campus cynic-dandy, and, three weeks shy of graduation, was asked by the school administration, in no uncertain terms, to leave.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.