Critical Assessment

“It is an old publishing custom to make smooth the path of a promising book by assembling as many advance tributes as possible, but seldom have so many been printed on the jacket of a first novel as on that of ‘A Separate Peace,’ by John Knowles. These eleven garlands of praise were written by such diverse men of letters as E. M. Forster, Truman Capote, Aubrey Menen, Angus Wilson and Peter Fleming and might conceivably antagonize more prospective readers than they allure. If they should, it would be a pity, because ‘A Separate Peace’ is just as good as its admirers say it is, which is very good indeed. For John Knowles, a Yale man and currently an editor of Holiday magazine, is beyond question one of the ablest young American novelists to appear on the literary horizon in years. . . .

“It must be enough to say that Mr. Knowles’ story is engrossing, humorous, poignant and touching. It contains none of the ancient stereotypes of prep school stories: no sensitive future artist persecuted by oafish barbarians, no false heroics over athletics, no elaborate practical jokes considered hilarious by the author but not by his readers. . . .

“‘A Separate Peace’ is written in a precise, chiseled, coolly suggestive prose, melancholy in mood, instantly authoritative in impact. John Knowles is a novelist with the artistic sensibility to choose a manner for his story exactly suited to its matter.”

Orville Prescott, “Books of The Times,” The New York Times, March 7, 1960.

First Excerpt

“This was the way the Masters tended to treat us that summer. They seemed to be modifying their usual attitude of floating, chronic disapproval. During the winter most of them regarded anything unexpected in a student with suspicion, seeming to feel that anything we said or did was potentially illegal. Now on these clear June days in New Hampshire they appeared to uncoil, they seemed to believe that we were with them about half the time, and only spent the other half trying to make fools of them. A streak of tolerance was detectable; Finny decided that they were beginning to show commendable signs of maturity.

It was partly his doing. The Devon faculty had never before experienced a student who combined a calm ignorance of the rules with a winning urge to be good, who seemed to love the school truly and deeply, and never more than when he was breaking the regulations, a model boy who was most comfortable in the truant’s corner. The faculty threw up its hands over Phineas, and so loosened its grip on all of us.

“But there was another reason. I think we reminded them of what peace was like, we boys of sixteen. We were registered with no draft board, we had taken no physical examinations. No one had ever tested us for hernia or color blindness. Trick knees and punctured eardrums were minor complaints and not yet disabilities which would separate a few from the fate of the rest.”

A_Separate_Peace_coverSecond Excerpt

“To enlist. To slam the door impulsively on the past, to shed everything down to my last bit of clothing, to break the pattern of my life – that complex design I had been weaving since birth with all its dark threads, its unexplainable symbols set against a conventional background of domestic white and schoolboy blue, all those tangled strands which required the dexterity of a virtuoso to keep flowing – I yearned to take giant military shears to it, snap! bitten off in an instant, and nothing left in my hands but spools of khaki which could weave only a plain, flat, khaki design, however twisted they might be.

“Not that it would be a good life. The war would be deadly all right. But I was used to finding something deadly in things that attracted me; there was always something deadly lurking in anything I wanted, anything I loved. And if it wasn’t there, as for example with Phineas, then I put it there myself.

“But in the war, there was no question about it at all; it was there.”