John Knowles was born on September 16, 1926, in Fairmont, West Virginia. He lived there until he enrolled at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1941, where he was on the swimming team. He entered Yale University in 1945, continuing to compete as a swimmer in addition to editing the Yale Daily News and contributing short fiction to the Yale magazine Lit. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English in 1949, and he worked briefly as a reporter for the Hartford Courant before joining the Curtis Publishing Company. At Curtis, he eventually became the associate editor of Holiday magazine. He spent much of his free time traveling extensively in Europe, the Near East, and the islands of the Aegean. During this time, he contributed many essays to travel journals and began to publish his short stories in popular national magazines. In 1960 A Separate Peace, his first novel, was published. It met with widespread critical acclaim and enthusiastic public response. More than nine million copies have been sold since its publication. The book won the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the William Faulkner Foundation Award (the forerunner of the prestigious PEN/Faulkner Award), and it enabled Knowles to declare himself a “full-time writer.” He lived primarily on the French Riviera for the next eight years (although he undertook stints as a writer-in-residence at Princeton University and at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) and proceeded to publish Morning in Antibes (1962), Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad (1964), Indian Summer (1966), and The Paragon (1972).
A Separate Peace was recognized immediately as an extremely sensitive account of a young man’s self-discovery through the process of maturation, and the passage of time has not lessened its universal appeal. John Knowles identifies and examines some of the crucial questions a young man might ask about himself and the world during his later teen-age years. Knowles’s evocation of the moods of developing manhood is deeply felt, precisely rendered, and exceptionally incisive. The novel captures a period of life in which everything seems intense and important, in which decisions must be made that may affect one’s entire life, in which action is seen with rare moral clarity, and in which an almost desperate sense of potential loss (of innocence, of uniqueness, of importance) underlies every act.
The values that John Knowles emphasizes in A Separate Peace reveal his belief that an appreciation of nature’s wonders is fundamental to a life of moral integrity and spiritual satisfaction. Consequently, the novel is set in the beautiful countryside of New England, not far from the Atlantic coastline at a New Hampshire prep school called Devon. The year is 1942, and the United States is increasing its involvement in World War II. The early reverses the Allies suffer seem to imperil the very values of Western civilization. The war is presented first as a distant source of uneasiness, but its presence gradually grows into an emblem of the encroachment of the adult world’s most mundane elements onto an unspoiled realm of youth and beauty.
The opening pages of A Separate Peace serve as a prologue in the “present” when the book is being written, fifteen years after 1942, the critical year in the life of the novel’s narrator, Gene Forrester. A mood of philosophical reflection develops as the narrator describes a visit back to his prep school. His memory soon takes him back to the days of his seventeenth year, at the convergence of youth and manhood in a timeless moment when “feeling was stronger than thought.” This return enables Knowles to place the action within an introspective frame so that both “feeling” and “thought” are employed in the service of understanding. In addition to the perspective provided by the passage of time, another kind of framework emerges as Gene, the central subject of his own narrative, also becomes the narrator of a hero’s life, the poetic story of the extraordinary Phineas.
None of the books John Knowles has written since A Separate Peace has achieved nearly the critical or popular success of his first novel. The reason is not that Knowles has exhausted his knowledge of the world but that A Separate Peace has a rare unity of subject and style. Knowles is a graceful and lucid writer, but his ability to use language most effectively seems to require a specific focus to prevent style from becoming merely decorative, an end in itself. His task in A Separate Peace, to establish the authenticity of Gene’s sensibility-that is, his heightened sensitivity to the beauty of the natural world and his capacity for intense feeling about human nature-required the creation of a lyric voice to register the range of emotional response with poetic precision. Knowles’s vivid descriptions of the countryside through four seasons enable him to echo the psychic landscape of his narrator in powerful imagery, and the clarity of his descriptions of certain key locations-a marble staircase, the testing tree, the pure river-offers an anchor and a context for the novel’s most important events. Because Gene’s voice throughout the narrative is generally sober and reflective, when Knowles shifts into a different rhythm the effect is often striking by contrast.
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.
1. How do the boys at Devon feel about the adults they know?
2. Why and how is the school and its setting important for Gene and the other boys at Devon?
1. What is the “separate peace” that Gene feels he has achieved? How has it affected the rest of his life?
In 1972 A Separate Peace was filmed by Paramount. The studio was unable to find a writer or director with the requisite cinematic genius to find images to correspond to the moods of Knowles’s writing. Aside from the title and some scenes taken directly from the book, the film bears little resemblance to the novel and has been deservedly forgotten.