A Separate Peace by John Knowles

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

American Feelings about War
Although first published in 1959 in England, A Separate Peace is about an earlier period, specifically the early 1940s when United States had declared its involvement in World War II. It must be remembered that World War II brought out enormous patriotism in most Americans, whether they were actually working in war-related jobs, engaged in combat, or neither. While intelligent adolescents such as Gene Forrester and Hadley Brinker in A Separate Peace might have mixed feelings about being drafted or enlisting in the war, shirking responsibility (in other words, draft dodging) was virtually unthinkable. Elwin "Leper" Lepelher, a major character in Knowles's novel, enlists in the war and does go AWOL (absent without leave). However, although he is often a sincere, sympathetic character, he does not ultimately emerge a hero.

It is also worth remembering that when A Separate Peace was first published in the United States in 1960, the Korean War had been over for about seven years, and American involvement in the War in Vietnam had not yet escalated to horrific proportions. There was little protest over compulsory enrollment in the military—the draft—or the U.S.'s role in Vietnam in the early 1960s. As U.S. involvement and troop movement escalated after 1965, however, public support for the war diminished and many young antiwar protesters responded by burning their draft notices. Thus, while numerous critics submitted scholarly articles on Knowles's novel throughout the 1960s, by the end of the decade, the book was being considered in light of the devastation that the Vietnam War had wrought.

Interestingly, left-wing and conservative critics praised A Separate Peace in different ways. The former found its antiwar sentiments appropriate and timely, particularly in light of what they perceived as the threat of atomic warfare. Yet right-wing reviewers also liked the book, often commending its treatment of original sin and redemption.

Education and Adolescence in the 1960s
Many of the young people of the 1960s grew up in a different atmosphere from the youth of today. After the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, education was beginning to be emphasized as important not only to individual success but to the success of the nation. Not only were new teaching methods and standards being put into place, but the federal government began taking a greater role in funding and setting policy for education. College enrollment soared, as young people saw higher education as providing a chance to get ahead in life. Nevertheless, there were many problems with the educational system. Segregation persisted in many areas and opportunities were limited for women.

The all-white, male prep school of A Separate Peace was still thriving in 1960. It was seen as a student's best chance to get into the best private universities, so pressure to succeed could be great.

The culture of the young also came of age in the 1960s. When the first American edition of the novel appeared in 1960, the United States had its youngest elected president, John F. Kennedy, who at the age of forty-three had defeated Vice President Richard M. Nixon by a margin of only 113,000 votes out of more than 69 million cast. The children of the "Baby Boom"—the large population surge that began after World War II—were adolescents. As the decade progressed and the Baby Boomers reached college, they became an increasingly vocal part of American politics and culture. Brought up in prosperity and peace, these children questioned the morality and authority of their parents' generation and pursued individual fulfillment. Their search for meaning and identity is reflected in Gene's narrative of his own adolescent years.

Setting

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The values that John Knowles emphasizes in A Separate Peace reveal his belief that an appreciation of nature's wonders is fundamental to a life of moral integrity and spiritual satisfaction. Consequently, the novel is set in the beautiful countryside of New...

(The entire section is 3,764 words.)