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Separate Peace that you may not know about in this article on
Camille Di Maio!
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Since we have this new war in Ukraine to occupy our attention, I have been thinking of books I’ve read that speak to man’s need to kill each other, that aggressive, violent trait, and I recalled reading A Separate Peace in high school, as most people did in the USA in the sixties, as required school reading, in part because it was a coming-of-age book. There was a growing recognition in the mid- to late-sixties (the Student Revolution on college campuses was part of this movement) that books that spoke directly to adolescents might increase reading fluency and engagement, and there were few of these books to offer young people in those early days of YAL. This novel was published in 1959 and is a kind of a coming-of-age gem.
John Knowles was a 1945 graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious East coast boys’ prep school, so he wrote a novel and called Exeter Devon in part based on his experiences there, including his own broken leg from a fall from a tree. I call this a war novel now because, though it takes place in a sheltered and privileged location it takes place as many young men (and so many others) were dying in WWII.
As happens in the US, the great geographical distance from Europe, Korea, Viet Nam, and so on make it difficult for homelanders to fully understand the nature of the day-to-day experience young people (i.e., soldiers) have of war. Also, it can take young people a long time to feel as if they are part of the global community, of course; as Gene says,
“I felt that I was not, never had been and never would be a living part of this overpoweringly solid and deeply meaningful world around me.”
The key moment in the book happens in a tree; a place of macho challenges: Who will climb it and jump into the river? Only the bravest, of course. This moment–and it does just take a moment or so–happens between best friends Phineas and Gene, but invites some questions: Did Finny fall (and break his leg) or was he the victim of a moment of aggression by Gene? The shy intellectual Gene adores the confident, athletic Finny, and there are some strong homo-erotic indications in narrator Gene’s descriptions of him, though these tendencies are never named as homosexual (in part, I take it, because it was a 1959 publication; I am sure we never discussed in class the possibility of the boys being gay). Some (possible) desires, some frictions, and some ambivalence drive their relationship. Do all of these roiling emotions lead to a so-small and yet so-large moment of violence?
Gene says, about his desire to be Finny: “I lost part of myself to him then, and a soaring sense of freedom revealed that this must have been my purpose from the first: to become a part of Phineas.”
Much of the novel tries to unravel the mystery of that moment even as older boys head out to Europe to fight the Fuhrer, encouraged by patriotic fervor and naivete and patriotism. No one anticipates what happens to sweet and simple naturalist student Lepellier (also known as Leper), who is discharged from the army after a nervous breakdown from what he has seen in combat–amputated limbs, bloody massacres. When Gene goes to visit Leper, in recovery at home, Gene can’t process what Leper is going through; he yells at Leper and tells him to shut up, to stop telling him what he has experienced:
“I don’t care what happened to you! It has nothing to do with me!”
“Fear seized my stomach like a cramp. I didn’t care what I said to him now; it was myself I was worried about. For if Leper was psycho it was the army which had done it to him, and I and all of us were on the brink of the army.”
Leper asks a key question no patriotic citizen who had not served in the military would have or could have asked at the time:
“Am I crazy? Or is the army crazy? I couldn’t sleep at night and could only sleep when I wasn’t in my bed; everything was mixed up, turned upside down.”
Still, all these other boys who have not yet enlisted, all these boys still in school at Devon, who are cut off from the reality of war, are not cut off from the darker aspects of their human natures-anger, jealousy, love–as they interact with each other, and grow from boys into men in their privileged–”high IQs and expensive shoes”–Devon private boys school.
“. . . there was always something deadly lurking in anything I wanted, anything I loved.”
“It seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.”
“I did not know everything there was to know about myself, and knew that I did not know it.”
“. . . it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.”