Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1860
The title of John Knowles’s most recent novel is taken from Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, when the camp follower and opportunist exclaims in horror when she hears that “peace has broken out” just when she has bought supplies that she intends to sell to the soldiers at enormous profit. Peace, elusive as it sometimes seems, and desirable as most people claim it is, can be a mixed blessing. At the very least, it can be a time of turmoil and conflict, a period during which individuals find it difficult to adjust to the new situation in which they suddenly are thrust. Just as war can demand difficult adjustments, so peace can be a time of trauma. This pain and confusion can be part of the lives even of people who were not directly involved in the conflict. In Peace Breaks Out, John Knowles constructs a moral tale out of the difficulties that a group of prep schoolboys encounter as they face the postwar world.
When Pete Hallam, Devon, Class of ’37, returns to his old prep school after being mustered out of the service in 1945, he is looking for peace and quiet, for a place in which he can rest and collect himself after the years of horror that he has experienced on the European battlefront. The reality that he encounters, however, is not as tranquil as he expected. The violence of individual emotions and beliefs can sometimes upset a life almost as much as the violence of physical conflict.
Knowles’s short novel illustrates better than many history books the continuum of history. Although historians and teachers may try to construct hard and fast lines around events in history, in actuality the lines are decidedly blurry. When one looks at the sequence of events that make up history, one sees that the edges run together much like the edges in a watercolor drawing. Although peace is officially declared and the troops are returning home, the line cannot so easily be drawn cutting off the passions of the war from the concerns of the peacetime populace. This is especially true of the young people whose intellectual awareness ripened during the conflict. They cannot help but see the world in terms of sharp, contradictory definitions, and they are uncomfortable if anyone tells them that definitions might actually be ambiguous, that shades of gray do indeed exist.
Pete Hallam, after surviving the horrors of war, with minor physical and mental wounds, is grateful to return to a place such as Devon, which he regards as a paradise, a world untouched by the cruelty and violence that he has endured for so many years. Emotionally and morally exhausted, he is eager to find a place to rest. As he says to himself, he is tired of G.I. talk, tired of ruined villages, tired of destroyed human lives, tired of the residue of war. Soon, however, he sees that Devon and its students are not untouched by the war. Perhaps they were too young to have actually been enlisted in the Army, but they were mature enough to observe and to feel the violence that was consuming much of the rest of the world. As Roscoe Latch, Pete’s former Latin techer, points out, these boys are “aware.” It is too late to protect them from the realities of the world. They know that life on earth is not innocent.
The postwar concern with right and wrong, the intense fear of new enemies, already is visible at Devon School, as Pete Hallam undertakes his duties as teacher and coach. The incipient paranoia that eventually culminated in the Joseph McCarthy era, is budding even in this small New England prep school. The boys are intelligent enough and aware enough to be influenced by the concerns that are floating through the rest of the country. The father of one of the boys is in President Truman’s cabinet; other parents are successful businessmen, industrialists, movers and shakers, individuals who either are involved in determining public opinion or who react violently to it.
Several of the students, including Wexford, the editor of the school paper, are concerned with the moral position of the United States, now that the long war is over. After all, the very fact that brings joy to Pete Hallam may be a source of guilt to others. America was not physically touched by the war. True, many United States citizens suffered and died in the course of the war; the country at large made sacrifices, endured rationing and other hardships of varying intensity. No American city was bombed, however. Nazi troops did not march down American streets. While other countries may have achieved some kind of catharsis through the violence of the war, the United States—Wexford feels—remains corrupt and decadent, unpurified. The rich became richer—he has only to look at his own father to confirm this—and the country is, by and large, no worse off than it was before. In fact, it may be better off. The paradox is deeply troubling to him.
John Knowles always has been essentially a moral writer. His novels, beginning with A Separate Peace (1960), have embraced moral questions. Although using the backdrop of the larger world, he has focused intently on the microcosm to represent the larger, fundamental issues that confront men and women. Relentlessly, he shows how there can be no escape from the basic moral questions. No one can hide—as Pete Hallam cannot hide—from the concerns that haunt the rest of the human race. Pete Hallam must confront—in the actions of these boys he finds himself trying to influence—the continuing human struggle to find a moral meaning to existence on earth. The irony is that one man’s moral truth is another man’s heresy. Perhaps, Hallam thinks, the only answer—and that by default—is the brute strength that eventually determines the victor or the defeated. America was stronger; does that necessarily mean that America was the more virtuous? He believes very much that the cause of the Allies was honorable, but when confronted with the smaller, vicious battles of his students, he is no longer sure about who was right or wrong. Even America can produce neo-Nazis. Even America can allow the innocent to suffer. There is no paradise.
The other students are overwhelmed when confronted by the antagonistic forces of Eric Hochschwender’s blatant Nazism and Wexford’s moral righteousness. Both of them proclaim that America is still poisoned, that the great war they all have endured did not end in a clean peace. In fact, Wexford insists, America is more corrupt than ever; because the country did not physically suffer, its vices were not bled or scraped away. The adolescent logic may be faulty, but the passion behind it is difficult to battle.
Just as McCarthy would soon be looking for internal dangers to the American way of life, so Wexford is already looking for an internal menace to the “Devon Spirit.” “Americans haven’t really been . . . tested,” he states, and so the corrupters still exist, ready to attack the freedom that the rest of the population takes for granted. Who are those corrupters? Perhaps only individuals who disagree, those people who undermine one’s power and influence, the individuals who challenge the status quo.
At the same time, the question of the basic American principle of freedom of speech becomes important here, because Eric Hochschwender very loudly proclaims his own racist beliefs while seeking the protection of the United States Constitution. If America is secure in its freedom, if it is actually based on the principles that it announces so loudly, then Hochschwender or anyone else should be allowed to say anything. The institutions that hold up America should not be so fragile that the ravings of one eccentric student will bring them down. This is the issue that Knowles raises in Peace Breaks Out. It is not a minor issue, and it is one that will continue to be relevant for a long time.
It is significant that the student Nick Blackburn, at one point in the novel, is shown reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). That nineteenth century novel of the power of intolerance and the repercussions of actions based on hatred and intolerance has a great deal to teach the students at Devon School, but they are too caught up in their own times to see the relevance of past eras to their own, and are too engrossed with their own passions and sensibilities to take a lesson from the passions or moral conflicts of fictional characters of the past. With the superiority of the young and the righteousness all too often characteristic of Americans, they barge blindly ahead, not stopping to think about who might suffer as a result of their stubborn arrogance.
As have so many Americans since the founding fathers, these intelligent—if only partially educated—boys are eager to scorn the “latest rotten European ’isms.” Their parents by and large agree with them. Of course, the most potent European “ism” to be guarded against—from their affluent point of view—is socialism, but Fascism, Communism, or any other “ism” is just as much to be guarded against: a symbolic evil, representing an alien world, “un-Americanism.” The fathers might talk of taxes and the destruction of “Rugged Individualism,” but to the boys the menace is only the shadowy, vague menace of those who are “different.”
In the end, of course, the innocent suffer as a result of the intolerance of a few individuals. As in any moral tale, the plot becomes schematic and somewhat predictable. Much of the strength of A Separate Peace came from the fact that it was understated, set against a background of implied violence. The horror was—until the very end—psychic and emotional, and the lesson to be learned was not underlined in red ink. The story in A Separate Peace was as spare in its telling as the message was restrained. In Peace Breaks Out these virtues have been replaced by a more obvious, flat-footed style, and a much more blatant message. Although Knowles’s intentions remain of the highest order, the quality of his art has suffered.
Nevertheless, the novel contains many good scenes and moments of finely rendered truth. When he is observing young men together, confronting their own vulnerability and moral limitations, Knowles is as good as any writer working today. It is when he is forced to invent, when he leaves behind his closely observed reality and ventures into more rarefied territory that he loses control. Peace Breaks Out could have been a novel as fine as A Separate Peace, a classic in modern American literature. Instead, it must be relegated to a lower rank, to that shelf reserved for well-crafted failures, books that suffer from their own excess of good intentions. Whatever reservations one might have about it, Peace Breaks Out remains a worthy effort by one of America’s most interesting and skillful novelists. The regret is that it is not what it might have been, or what Knowles might have achieved.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55
Christian Century. XCVIII, October 7, 1981, p. 1002.
English Journal. LXX, September, 1981, p. 75.
Horn Book Magazine. LVII, August, 1981, p. 461.
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School Library Journal. XXVII, February, 1981, p. 80.
Time. CXVII, April 6, 1981, p. 80.
Wilson Library Bulletin. LV, June, 1981, p. 773.
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