John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959)
Like many other adolescents, I was assigned A Separate Peace to read when I was in my early teens. Adults seem to think that a novel about teenagers in a school must necessarily be good for teenagers to read in school. For me, however, the plan backfired — I retained almost no impression of the book other than that I found reading it an unpleasant experience, and certainly was left with no lasting sense of lessons learned. I might never have picked it up again, except that I knew it had a New Hampshire setting (based on Phillips Exeter Academy) and was curious to revisit it as part of my Reading New England Challenge.
I’m glad I did, as I found subtlety and depth that completely passed me by thirty years ago. In my own defense, I do think that a certain degree of maturity and life experience are helpful for appreciating this story of boys in their last precarious year of peace before they’re sucked into the maw of World War II. Some readers may have that maturity at thirteen, but I did not. I couldn’t relate to Gene or Phineas or their convoluted relationship or their conflicted feelings over the war. It was all too remote from my own experience, and I couldn’t or wouldn’t bridge that gap.
This time, though I didn’t find either Gene or Phineas very congenial company — the latter in particular annoyed me terribly, at least at first — I could sympathize more with their plight and see how it reflects basic human struggles. We all hurt one another in ways large and small; a tiny misunderstanding can be as devastating in our personal lives as a global war. I could also appreciate the elegaic beauty of the writing, and appreciate the perspective it gave me on both a particular time in history and a special place.
It’s notable that we gain almost no insight into the family lives or backgrounds of the boys; it’s as if they have sprung into being only for these few years that they attended the Devon School. This may be meant as symptomatic of the almost pathological dissociation caused by the impending war, but for me it still gave the reading experience a curiously remote quality. I do wonder what kind of adolescent will find something to connect or relate to in this book; to me it seems much more a book for adults, who have a certain amount of distance from the age portrayed already.
I’m counting this book for the Banned or Censored category of the Back to the Classics Challenge, since it has been challenged in several different school districts, mostly for strong language, but once as a “filthy, trashy sex novel.” I find this baffling — did the challengers read the same book I did? I noticed almost no swear words (the letter F appears once with some dashes after it) and zero sex. In fact, there is a downright monastic lack of sex considering this is a book about seventeen-year-old males. Some readers have detected homoerotic undercurrents to the text but the author insists he did not put them there, and I agree that they are of the sort one could read into almost anything.
Be that as it may, there are many reasons to read A Separate Peace: for its language, its history, its insights, its achingly sad story of youth passing too soon. If, like me, you’ve read it once and rejected it as not for you, I hope you might also give it another chance.