A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Lecture by Jennifer Gilmore, author of SOMETHING RED and GOLDEN COUNTRY
Has anyone here NOT read A Separate Peace? If so a warning; there may be spoilers. It’s loosely: the story of two boys—Gene and Phineas, from different backgrounds, at a New Hampshire prep school. The year is 1942 and outside of the bubble of boarding school, a war is on. But it’s making its way inside the school as well, and this is reflected in the fraught friendship between these two young men, who become engaged in a conflict that, like the world outside of their relationship, turns tragic.
The publication history of the book bears mentioning because it was rejected by American publishers—over 30 the rumor goes—and published by Secker and Wahlberg in the UK. It was published here in 1960 a year later, when John Knowles was 34 years old, to wonderful reviews and many accolades. Jonathan Yardley wrote in the New Republic: a very nearly perfect piece of work; a tight cohesive account of the corruption of innocence that is not merely the finest “prep school novel” but a genuine work of art.” It won the William Faulkner foundation award for best first novel and the Rosenthal award of the national institute of arts and letters. It was also nominated for the national book award.
A Separate Peace is said to be based on Knowles' experiences at Phillips Exeter. Finny (Phineas) was the best friend of the main character, Gene. Knowles has stated that he modeled Finny on David Hackett, whom he met when both attended a summer session at Phillips Exeter. Hackett was a friend of Robert Kennedy's, under whom he later served in the Justice Department. My English teacher, who taught this book to us at school outside of DC, told our class she had taught Phineas’s son, and I remember being amazed that a person like him really existed in the world. Like most people in that class, boys and girls alike, we were all either in love with Finny or wanted to be Finny, sometimes both.
But it doesn’t matter what and who the story, its setting and the characters are based on. The fact remains, A Separate Peace, which, because it’s told from the point of view of someone returning to school, an “older” person (when I read it the first time I imagined someone very gray, perhaps losing his hair, his overcoat open, flapping in the wind, maybe even a man with a cane, not someone who was merely fifteen years post-finishing high school) has been loved by readers for decades. It promises nostalgia and sadness from the first few lines.
The voice that looks back, gives the reader the story of youth, but built into that frame is also voice that reflects. We are getting an adult’s perspective on what happened fifteen years previously, and built into that notion is an ache for the past, however scary or tragic that time was.
Well, no one loves nostalgia and sadness like a writer, so when I realized I’d be up here all alone, I decided to ask other writers their thoughts on the book. It was interesting—the responses were divided by those who had not read the book since high school, and it had retained a very distinct stamp in their literary and emotional imagination, and those who, like me, had re-read the book.
Here’s what Amanda Stern, who wrote The Long Haul, had to say: I loved this book. I remember reading it and being deeply affected by it, and now, whenever I see it in a bookstore, I feel like I'm seeing someone who used to understand me. I haven't re-read it, but I've always wanted to. What it activated in me was the realization that there was a way to articulate that deep, seemingly inaccessible, sad landscape that lived within me. You could tell a sad story
and navigate every painful layer. I don't think I'd ever felt my own
emotions being stirred by any other book (except perhaps, Tuck Everlasting,
which did a similar thing to me)…this book did, and does, mean a lot to me. It's an important part of my literary history, and also, my childhood.
The Bookmaven, Bethanne Patrick: I didn't read the book at all until college, when a friend expressed disbelief that I'd never experienced the wonders of John Knowles's prep-school universe. Having attended a large public high school and not knowing many people who prepped, after reading the novel I was convinced that American prep schools were even worse than British boarding schools: Full of the same inchoate sexual longings but without the (to me) romantic Fall of the Empire atmosphere. If I wanted New England repression, all I had to do was visit my paternal grandmother, after all.
All of which is to say, I was unimpressed.
Over a decade later, I re-read A SEPARATE PEACE. At that point, I was quite impressed with Knowles as a writer. I thought much more of his restraint and willingness to enter the adolescent mind. It was a much sadder book to read as an adult, especially since (this is so simple, but you don't realize it until you ARE an adult) you know those characters will never completely get past their pasts.
What I realized was the book had a profound affect on our imaginations, as “kids” and later, when as adults either the memory of the book or the actual book takes on new texture, new complexity.
Caroline Leavitt, whose book, Pictures of You, you will want to read when it comes out in January:
The funny thing is we had to read it in 9th grade and I hated it. I didn't see what the fuss was all about, but in rereading it in college, it suddenly clicked. I began to see that the subtle could be much more powerful than the over-the-top drama I loved as a kid (I was a Bronte aficionado) and the book knocked me out. It made me realize that so often, books we are taught in school are taught at the wrong time, or maybe in the wrong way. (I had this happen with The Great Gatsby, too. Hated it in High School, taught it to high school students after college because I was so passionate about how perfect a novel it really is.)
Nina Revoyr: There's so much I love about A Separate Peace, starting with the spell Knowles casts with language, how sad and elegiac and serious it is from the very beginning. His language is so precise, and his characters so distinct and specifically drawn. I feel like I can see all of them, Leper and Brinker and the teachers as well as Phineas and Gene, and I love the little society that Knowles creates. Often stories of teens focus on how mean they are to each other, but what's striking about this group is how accepting they are, how they take in even the oddballs among them.
But what I admire most is how Knowles handles Gene. Gene is jealous and tortured, worshipful and envious, and yet somehow--even as he causes the injury and eventual death of Phineas--he remains (to me) sympathetic. Much of what he's dealing with in the novel is his own culpability, and somehow we stay with him as he has to understand, face up to, and incorporate what he's done and what it means. To me, the whole set-up of a person having to come to terms with his own evil makes this a very adult book--and even though I know this is a popular high school reading assignment, I really didn't fully connect with the book until I read it as an adult. Only as an adult can you really understand not just the messiness inside yourself as an adolescent, but the larger context in which those struggles are taking place.
I wanted to speak about this book tonight because I had recently started writing about teenagers and I remembered A SEPARATE PEACE as being so distinct about that time in our lives when our parents are fading into the backgrounds, but we are only just beginning to assert our identities. Gene, the narrator, is from the south, and he comes to this school in the northeast as an outsider, which creates some of the tension in the story. Every book I ever loved as a kid has an outsider narrator—Jane Eyre, the Wolves of Willoughby Chase, The Summer of the Swans, Ann of Green Gables—and I trusted Gene implicitly as my guide through that world. Gene and Phineas’s friendship develops in summer session. Due to Finny’s lack of attention to authority, which is almost prescient in the way it speaks to what so many teenagers became in the sixties, they skip classes, spend the night at the beach, invent sports, and jump from the majestic tree and into the river.
I didn’t understand Gene’s reticence in participating in all these activities of Finny’s invention. As their relationship takes on a more sinister cast, and as the academic Gene becomes fiercely skeptical of Phineas’s intentions, and then quite competitive with him, I was able to relate to both characters. But I only believed in Phineas. He was the person I cared about in the book.
When I read this as a teenager, I believed I was reading about boys in prep school. Prep school: even the sound of it was magical. It was like reading about girls in New York apartments. Totally foreign and totally other-worldly. For me the book was that bubble of Devon. It was about a time and a place—much like camp, where friendships were formed and bound. Finny and Gene’s friendship was a glimpse into the inner life of boys. But I came out of my mother’s womb a sentimental and nostalgic person, and even then I responded the haze that Knowles lays over the narrative. That reflective voice that sees the school as a moment that is past, a voice that was not immediate, but could put reason to the story now—instantly drew me in to an alternative universe. Also? There were no parents!
Eventually, as you all know, an accident happens on that tree and Phineas is crippled, unable to live as he had been, unable to run wild, unable to really be himself. Gene had been there for the accident, he had stood on the branch of the tree about to jump with Finny, and much of the second half of the book pivots on whether the accident was his fault. Whether he intentionally harmed his friend.
I wrote a paper about whether or not Gene jounced that limb that tumbled Phineas. I couldn’t find it for tonight, but I remember writing the phrase jounce the limb like sixteen times. Did Gene intentionally jounce the limb? Was Finny too pure for an impure world outside of Devon prep school where he jounced the limb? These were the questions that obsessed me in this paper, and in my reading. Was Gene culpable? If he was, what did that make him? And if he wasn’t what did that make him?
Nostalgia is embedded in this book. As I mentioned, it’s framed by someone looking back, and because of that perspective, we get a sort of fuzzy, sentimental and reflective eye on the past. The buildings look different to Gene; they will never be the buildings he first entered. They will always be tainted by what happened inside them. The tree, the majestic tree that felled Phineas, will always loom large in Gene’s imagination. But of course, it is not as he remembers.
He is changed—utterly, just as the way this sentence is structured shows—by seeing the contrast of reality and memory.
I too was changed by my re-reading. Now, it feels like I’m reading it 100 years later. This is what’s so wonderful about books in general: like songs, they become part of your history. Reading it now is a bit like the very experience Gene is describing. It’s nearly impossible to weed out the notion of sadness and nostalgia. Reading it later, it's just even more layered with the sadness of having read it before, the strangeness of how long ago the previous reading was, and what it did for you in that particular moment in time. It is a book I read, along with a handful of others, that made me want to write.
What is clear to me from the responses I got from writers on the topic of this book is that readers cannot always separate the book from the person that inspired them to read it or the book from the moment in their lives when they read it. (The memoirist and novelist Dani Shapiro wrote this to me: my seventh grade English teacher wrote something to all his former students on Facebook today -- he and I are in sporadic touch. He's a headmaster of a school in North Carolina now. Anyway, I thought about A Separate Peace when I saw his name... he was a wonderful teacher and it's hard to separate how much he inspired me from the book itself...which I remember being very taken with at the time though now I would be curious to revisit and see why.)
What is most singular in my second reading—and what may reveal more than I intend—is that I have no recollection of A Separate Peace being a book about war. Perhaps it is reflective of teenagedom, but even the title I thought referred merely to the relationship between Gene and Finny and how intertwined they became, how they separated, and how they did or did not make peace with that cleaving. But that’s crazy! It’s 1942, and the reason there are no headmasters on hand that summer before school, the reason they are free to jump from that tree, is because everyone is focused on the war. Older boys have been drafted. Sport of any kind is encouraged because it can transform weak boys into soldiers. By the end of the book the entire school has been taken over by the military to be used to make parachutes. It does what I so love in books and what I try to do in my own work, which is show how the way the world functions, the way history moves, affects us all as individuals. World War II is in many ways, the largest character in the novel.
The war can also be an extended metaphor for getting older. It can be seen as merely the outside world. When Leper Lepellier, the kid from Vermont who just wanted to ski over hills of snow in search of a beaver dam, enlists in the war—his story, which is the story of what that experience can do to a person—can be seen as what happens when boys are forced to grow up, to live in the real world. But now, right now, with a war ON, two, actually, it’s interesting and important to see it also as the real war it was. There is talk of the atom bomb in A Separate Peace. And yet I just thought it was a book about boys’ friendships.
Finny denies there is a war—and as a kid I thought, or perhaps I was taught—that this was because he was too pure for this world. (I would go on to use this thesis as an undergraduate when describing Sylvia Plath, but anyway…) But reading it now, I think, he’s an idiot. We learn later, of course, that he wants very much to be a part of the war effort, but because he cannot fight, it can’t exist for him. I wondered while reading now, though, if Finny really cared about anything in the outside world, anything outside his dwindling circle of control, anything outside of the world of childhood.
Reading this book now it is amazing to me that I, like Finny perhaps, ignored this aspect, or was not interested, and this is why a book about a bunch of fairly privileged white kids is so relevant today. This is why it appeals to me now as a reader of history, as someone whose writing depends on history. The war informs that book; it bleeds into the magical bubble of prep school and into these boys’ carefree lives that are about to get as non carefree as we can imagine. They are all about to grow up, and fast.
It’s in the end—I see now—a book about power. Finny and Gene trade positions—the insider becomes the outsider; the person with physical strength loses that and the other gains it. It’s about the power of sports; the power class can wield. It’s a story about the power of identity, how boys create themselves, how we all mythmake, and how there is a limit to what we can assert as our identity and what our identity merely IS. It’s about the difference of the generations, that endless ongoing battle. When Brinker’s father arrives for graduation and tells him he needs to fight—it’s a chilling scene.
It’s chilling because this scene is timeless. Shockingly so. And because Brinker’s father is not wrong: your war memories will be with you forever.
And the war can be anything, anything out there outside of our youth, even if it’s simply, growing up.