A Separate Peace: Introduction
Since it was first published in 1959, John Knowles's novel A Separate Peace has gradually acquired the status of a minor classic. Set in the summer of 1942 at a boys' boarding school in New Hampshire, the novel focuses on the relationship between two roommates and best friends, Gene Forrester and Phineas. Both approaching their last year of high school and anticipating their involvement in World War II, Gene and Phineas have very different dispositions. Gene, from whose point of view A Separate Peace is told, is a somewhat athletic, shy intellectual; Phineas is a reckless non-intellectual and the best athlete at the school. As an adult looking back fifteen years, Gene recalls and comes to terms with an act he committed that left his friend physically incapacitated and ultimately contributed to his death. While daring each other to jump from a tree in a cold river, Gene jounces the limb Phineas is standing on. The latter lands on the bank of river, shattering several bones and terminating his athletic career. A Separate Peace, which evolved from Knowles's short story "Phineas," brought its author both critical and commercial success. First published in England, it received excellent reviews there. Many critics praised the novel for its rich characterizations, artful symbolism, and effective narrative. Despite its success in England, eleven publishers in the United States turned it down before Macmillan decided to publish the American edition. As in England, the novel received excellent notices in the U.S. press. Many critics noted that the novel could be read as an allegory about the causes of war. Although A Separate Peace did not become an instant best-seller—only selling seven thousand copies in its first American printing—it has gradually become a commercial success, selling more than nine million copies to date.
A Separate Peace: Author Biography
John Knowles was born on 16 September 1926, in the coal mining town of Fairmont, West Virginia. He was the third child of James Myron and Mary Beatrice Shea Knowles. At the age of fifteen, Knowles attended New Hampshire's prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy. The Devon School, where most of the action of A Separate Peace takes place, is based on Phillips Exeter, and many of Knowles' friends and acquaintances at Phillips Exeter were incorporated into the novel. In a New York Times interview, Knowles confirmed that the novel's "Super Suicide Society," in which members jumped from a tree into the river, really did exist at Exeter. Although not rendered permanently physically handicapped like Phineas, Knowles, after an unfortunate leap, spent most of the summer of 1943 on crutches. After graduation from Exeter, Knowles entered Yale University for the 1944 fall term before going into the U.S. Army Air Force. Following his discharge from the service in November 1945, he re-entered Yale. As a college student, Knowles submitted stories to the Yale Record, the college humor magazine. In 1949, he graduated with a B.A. in English; from 1950 to 1952, he worked as a drama critic and reporter for the Hartford Courant in Hartford, Connecticut. In the early 1950s, his novel Descent to Proselito was accepted for publication, but Knowles withdrew it on the advice of his mentor, the famous writer Thornton Wilder. In 1953, Story Magazine published his first story, "A Turn in the Sun." In 1956, Cosmopolitan published Knowles's short story "Phineas," which was later expanded into A Separate Peace. By the middle 1950s, Knowles had become a member of the editorial staff of Holiday and was living in Philadelphia. He was also starting work on the novel that would become his most famous work: A Separate Peace. In an Esquire article from 1985 entitled "My Separate Peace," Knowles recalled that writing the manuscript for A Separate Peace came quickly and easily for him. Working on a regular schedule, Knowles usually went to bed at midnight, awoke at seven, wrote for an...
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