A Separate Peace


Introduction and Background

It was Thornton Wilder, playwright, poet, novelist, and author Our House and The Bridge of San Luis Rey, who encouraged John Knowles to draw from his own life experiences for his next work of fiction. Knowles took Wilder’s advice and turned the events of his adolescence into the novel A Separate Peace, set in the fictional halls of Devon School during the final years of World War II.

Like the work of Wilder, Knowles’ Peace centers on relationships, particularly the relationship of the two main characters, Phineas and Gene. Based on his own days at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, the novel proved to be Knowles’ most significant contribution to the post-war literature of the 20th century. It has often been compared to J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye as a story of realism and coming-of-age youth in a time of social unrest.

Knowles’ time at Exeter was not met by any of the calamities described in A Separate Peace but did serve to provide him with a wealth of memories from which he could convincingly recreate the boyhood games, friendships, rivalries, fears, struggles, and wars that made Peace so beloved of readers in 1960 when it was published in the U.S. (Initially unable to secure an American publisher, Knowles had the novel published in England in 1959, just as Herman Melville had had to do with Moby Dick.) Knowles was never able to reclaim the kind of success he achieved with A Separate Peace, his first novel, but that did not keep him from having a long career in which he consistently sought out new themes and subjects to explore.

The major theme of his first and most popular novel is, of course, the inner war that all must fight within themselves as they make their way toward maturity. With a kind of kinship with Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Knowles’ Gene and Finny expand and explore the conventional literary odd-couple relationship. In a way, however, Gene and Finny are more realistic than Twain’s...

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Essays About A Separate Peace