Social Sensitivity

It is a testament to Knowles’s ability that a story about relatively privileged young men in the 1940s, written from the perspective of the quiet, almost humdrum days of the Eisenhower era, has not become dated at all. Knowles has written what appears to be a real “classic” of youthful ardor that so perfectly captures the poignancy of a young man’s feeling that it will continue to transcend its temporal and social bounds. The book’s portraits of youthful aspirations, fears, frustrations, and revelations remain apt decades after Knowles painted them. Gene’s progress from the protected environment of a friendly, unified school setting to his first encounters with the demands of an indifferent or hostile world has the resonance of an archetype of human behavior.

Yet, there is one aspect of the relationship between Gene and Phineas that looks a bit different now than it did thirty years ago. In the 1940s, it would be very unusual for boys of this background to discuss sex at all, and the absence of women from their thoughts is a function of the cultural reservations more than anything else, a fact still essentially operative in 1960 as well. Also, the virtual elimination of any interest in women might be regarded as Knowles’s choice to remove a factor that would not particularly contribute to the themes he is considering. Still, the absence of any sexual curiosity tends to be rather conspicuous in the 1980s, in which sexual awakening is almost a requisite theme in many young adult stories. In addition, the almost total exclusion of any women from the narrative (besides a comment on “Hazel Brewster the professional town belle”), combined with several derogatory references to unattractive women, skews the male focus a bit further. An obligatory pinup of Betty Grable appears, but it does not elicit much interest compared to the boys’ passionate responses to so many other things.

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