The Dilettante

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.

My feelings for Exeter, and my feelings about the fact that its roman a clef classic was once required reading for students who would never see the oak-lined interiors of a private school, are, to put it mildly, mixed. I remember fighting a daily losing battle with my homework and the boreal cold, both of whose powers of atmospheric contraction were so great, you believed organ failure a distinct possibility. I remember too the giant birdlike rectitudinous old men, Latin teachers who audibly aspirated the H in while and whom, who looked down at you from tottering heights, and performed their most sacred function: They made you feel small. The mind of an adolescent is an inherently unstable thing, shifting between imperial expansion and shrinkage down to a vanishing point. How strangely stabilizing, to be given shape and proportion, however small, by a glance! I alternated reading A Separate Peace with watching the scandalously entertaining reality show Jersey Shore. You’ll pardon me for giving in to the obvious contrast. These are a generation of American children (so sayeth the unkillable Puritan in me) who have never been made to feel small and, terrified by the possibility that they might be made to feel small, are insecure to the point of physical violence, the aura of which attends nearly everything they do. 

I know, how very undemocratic of me. And, yet, which sets the higher watermark for American democracy? 2009, or 1959? To put it another way: Which is more democratic?  The so-called “Young Adult” genre–starting with S.E. Hinton’s classic The Outsiders but devolving quickly into generic “problem” novels about suicide or drug abuse, niche marketed by ethnicity and gender–that swept aside A Separate Peace, making it feel hopelessly antique? Or the most and admirable and distinctive feature of A Separate Peace, which is its voice?

“I went back to the Devon School the other day,” the novel opens, “and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.” That “I” is Gene, of course, but it’s also something more. It is the voice, to borrow Trilling’s famous praise of Orwell, of simple, direct, undeceived intelligence; and for a period of roughly 50 years, it was the voice of midcentury fiction. It originates with Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, and in a back-of-the-napkin inventory, I’d say it can be heard in writers as diverse as Bellow in The Adventures of Augie Marchand Styron in Sophie’s Choice, and in such unexpected quarters as Fowles’ The Magus (“I was born in 1927, the only child of middle class parents”) or the first, dizzyingly perfect chapters of Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs. It is still present in “The first time I saw Brenda she asked me to hold her glasses,” which opens Goodbye, Columbus (1959), but is all but banished by “my father reading the morning paper with a suppository up his ass,” on Page 5 of Portnoy’s Complaint (1969).

We experience this voice now through the streamlines of identity politics–it is white, male, mostly gentile–and are convinced that to have moved beyond it is an act of collective liberation. But if the history of the novel is an interior history of the middle class, this voice deserves its moment of respect, having been easily elbowed aside by unreliable narrators and advertisements for oneself, by cynic-dandies and the fissile leftovers of high modernism. Where we now hear hegemony, its contemporaries heard the Tennessee Valley Authority, NATO, New Criticism—a voice consonant with midcentury projects whose stated goal was universal democracy.

It is the fallback literary voice of 1959, when the middle class stood at its apex, a voice in which habits of blind deference—to anything, including Phillips Exeter Academy—have been lost, and so for which an appropriately calibrated deference—to anything, even Phillips Exeter Academy—is still possible. It is the voice of simple self-respect. We now triumph in its blindness, and cast aside, a little heedlessly, its insights. Gene fights the war, but as he says, “I never killed anybody, and I never developed an intense level of hatred for the enemy. Because my war ended before I ever put on a uniform; I was on active duty all my time at school; I killed my enemy here.” Thus launcheth a thousand bad English classes: By enemy he means … his gay longing, right?  Well, no. He means the inability to restrain the impulse to murder innocent things. In expecting of Gene a facile recitation, as to the nature of his sexuality, of his social class, gender, and race, we take the measure of our smallness, not his.

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