Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 652

John Knowles's A Separate Peace, a critical success from its first printing, has evolved into one of the most frequently read novels in American high schools today. In fact, in the words of its author, it has captured a "destiny apart" from his own. Although Knowles has published many other novels, essays, and works of nonfiction, none has received the critical attention or praise of A Separate Peace. While that novel no longer commands the massive scholarly attention that it did throughout the 1960s, according to Hallman Bell Bryant, it has gone through at least seventy printings and earns Knowles somewhere between $30,000 and $40,000 a year in royalties.

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Right from the start, A Separate Peace received extremely favorable notices. Since it was first published by Seeker and Warburg in London, England, the British reviewers were the first to write what they liked about the book. The most significant of these pieces appeared in the Times Literary Supplement section on 1 May 1959. This review congratulated Knowles for having written a "novel of altogether exceptional power and distinction." Other English critics praised A Separate Peace, many of them saying it was the best American novel since J D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, which had been published in 1953. In her Manchester Guardian review, Ann Duchene enjoyed the "tenderness and restraint" that Knowles expressed for his two major characters, Gene and Finny.

After the favorable English reception, the publishing firm of Macmillan bought the rights to the novel and issued the first American edition in February, 1960. Among the earliest reviews, Edmund Fuller wrote in the New York Times that Knowles was a writer "already skilled in craft and discerning in his perceptions." He went on to say the World War II background was more central to the action of the novel than the Devon School setting, which he realized was based on Exeter. Although Fuller found several incidents in the book to be unconvincing, he thought the novel's "major truths" more than compensated for this shortcoming. Among the few negative reviews of A Separate Peace, a Commonweal critic shrugged it off as "one more foray into the territory of guilt earned in adolescence."

While most other American critics found the book a compelling achievement, several reserved criticism for the trial scene in which several Devon students attempt to ascertain the extent of Gene Forrester's involvement in Finny's accident. Fifteen years later, after A Separate Peace had been made into a movie of the same name, Linda Hemz of Literature Film Quarterly wrote that she found the mock tribunal in both the book and the movie unconvincing.

Despite A Separate Peace's immediate critical acclaim, it did not become a best-seller, nor did any book clubs immediately select it for inclusion. However, its sales picked up considerably after it won the William Faulkner Foundation Award, as well as the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award. John K. Crabbe, writing for the English Journal in 1963, recommended high school teachers of American literature consider Knowles's novel as an alternative to J. D. Salinger's popular Catcher in the Rye. Many teachers were relieved to do so, having had some apprehensions about the profanity in Catcher. James Ellis, also writing for the English Journal, called William Golding' s Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace major finds for the high school classroom. By the middle 1960s, many English teachers had made A Separate Peace a part of their curriculum.

By the early 1970s, the barrage of articles analyzing the novel had subsided. However, even in the late 1970s—almost twenty years after the book had been published—some critique and analysis persisted. For example, in George-Michael Sarotte's book Like a Brother, Like a Lover, published in 1978, the author speculates that Gene may have homoerotic feelings for Finny. As late as 1992, the English Journal was still extolling the virtues of A Separate Peace in the article "Still Good Reading: Adolescent Novels Written Before 1967."

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