There’s something incredibly liberating and equally terrifying about your 8th grade English teacher unknowingly confronting you with your foibles. I wish I could set the scene, but much escapes me now: memories lost to time or set adrift in the wake of larger revelations. I do remember her shoes: stylish comfortable blue flats. Unremarkable, but they struck me as especially practical. The dampened rhythmic thump of her heels striking the carpet seemed comforting, but the piercing ominous clicks of stilettos striking hard wood floors would be more fitting. Alas middle school English teachers, for all their exposure to great literature and the intrigue of student cliques, seem to lack the necessary solemnity and drama to foreshadow mood.
Handing me the assignment, with an off handed comment, she recounted her triumph at finally catching me cheating and her dismay at ultimately failing in the task. As a proud member of the Environmental Club, in a self-aggrandizing soapbox style, I sought to save the world, or the bit which might be noticed and receive public acclaim, reusing waste paper by printing my assignments on the other side. On the back of my assignment appeared several website addresses whose titles suggested blatant plagiarism, but as my teacher discovered really presented detailed author biographies and discussions of the historical socio-economic conditions. At the time I was just hungry for lunch, but as the day progressed, my teacher’s off handed comment gained weight and sunk in my mind.
By evening I was forced to confront the reality of my character as distinct from my idealized imaginings. To find even my teachers rooted against my brown-nosing self in quests to humble the excess of my pomposity and self-advancement presents a stark reality. I would happily wrap up this recollection with a hope and redemption; however, reflecting one and a half decades later, I find the unmitigated continuity of my character flaws disconcerting. The intractability of personal faults as one’s self-illusions crumble and desperate lengths we’ll go to is a situation the protagonist of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace can well relate.
John Knowles’ classic, A Separate Peace, captures the essence of shattered innocence and the subsequent confrontation and accommodation with the harsher realities of the world and one’s own character in far better drama than my short reminiscence. A Separate Peace is mundane in its storyline: a rehashing of well-worn literary tropes as the quiet intellectual Gene and extroverted athletic Finny strip away the innocence and naivety of youth and forge new identities at a private New England bordering school in the shadows of World War II. In the face of so many similar narratives which reappear with each generation, it’s easy to look over A Separate Peace today, yet the book resonates strongly with me.
Knowles chronicles more than just the loss of innocence and identity formation of a few characters. Through A Separate Peace, Knowles captures the emotional journey through denial and understanding of an entire Nation during World War II from a self-absorbed adolescence to a more thoughtful and responsible early adulthood. What I find more intriguing is the lessons A Separate Peace offers for a contemporary world confronting new social and economic realities in the exhausted remains of unmet economic promises and idealistic social goals.
Rather than just a fictional historical chronicle, Knowles offers cautionary advice and warnings to guide our contemporary identity project in the post-Modern and post-everything-else era. Knowles’ particular genius is revealing the little separate islands of imaginary peace we carve out in our shattered innocence through personal deception, idealized romanticizing of a bygone past, and the assumption of collective identity and co-dependence. Knowles illustrates both a danger and a place for such practices as his characters’ escapism from the harsh realities of self and the world at large create and confront tragedy. As local communities and a global society we have the privilege and responsibility to embark on a new contemporary identity project. I hope we heed the reminder Knowles’ American classic offers: while we may carve out a separate peace for a time, whether we choose to or not, in the end we must confront our contemporary individual and collective realities.
Pages: 204 FoA Pages: 12,463