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.
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.
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