10 Facts about John Knowles's A Separate Peace

Lucy Quintanilla
Lucy Quintanilla

John Knowles’s 1959 novel about a conflicted prep school friendship has become a coming-of-age classic.

1. KNOWLES BASED A SEPARATE PEACE ON HIS OWN EXPERIENCE.

Like his protagonists Gene and Finny, who are students at the elite Devon School during World War II, Knowles attended the exclusive Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in the early 1940s. He then served in the military for a short time before graduating from Yale in 1949. The West Virginian Knowles later wrote that despite the culture clash (and the cold) he fell in love with the school. "The great trees, the thick clinging ivy, the expanses of playing fields, the winding black-water river, the pure air all began to sort of intoxicate me. Classroom windows were open; the aroma of flowers and shrubbery floated in," he wrote. "The summer of 1943 at Exeter was as happy a time as I ever had in my life … Yale was a distinct letdown afterward."

2. THE BOOK HAD AN EARLIER EXISTENCE AS A SHORT STORY.

After graduating from Yale, Knowles worked as a drama critic at the Hartford (Conn.) Courant and as a freelance writer. One of his first published short stories, “Phineas,” appeared in Cosmopolitan in 1956 and contained the narrative seeds of A Separate Peace.

3. THERE WAS A REAL-LIFE JUMPING TREE …

In several key scenes in A Separate Peace, Gene and Finny dare each other to jump off the overhanging limb of a huge tree into the river below. In the beginning of the novel, naturally adventurous Finny takes a flying leap off the branch. Gene, who is more reserved, follows his friend's lead, which cements their friendship. Later, Gene loses his balance while standing on the limb, and Finny catches him. Like his characters, Knowles admitted to being in a secret society with an initiation requirement that involved jumping from “the branch of a very high tree” into a river. Knowles did suffer his own fall, which injured his foot and compelled him to use crutches for some time.

4. … AND A REAL-LIFE FINNY.

His name was David Hackett, and Knowles met him during a six-week summer session at Exeter in 1943. Hackett attended Milton Academy in Massachusetts during the regular school year. There, he was a standout athlete on the hockey, football, and baseball teams. He also quickly befriended the future U.S. attorney general, Robert F. Kennedy, and later served under him in the Justice Department.

5. KNOWLES NEVER REVEALED IF GENE WAS REALLY TO BLAME.

At the novel's climax, Gene and Finny decide to jump off the tree branch together. Gene shakes the branch, causing Finny to plunge and break his leg. Though readers have debated Gene's intentions since the book was published, Knowles never said whether Gene meant to cause Finny's fall. Upon the author's death in 2001, his brother-in-law Bob Maxwell said, "John used to say he would never answer that question."

6. THE BOOK’S TITLE IS BORROWED FROM HEMINGWAY.

The protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms, an American soldier fighting in Italy during World War I, grows disillusioned after a disastrous battle and deserts the army. “I had made a separate peace,” he declares. Hemingway also uses the line in his 1925 short story collection In Our Time, with the character Nick saying it to a dying soldier. Knowles may have chosen the title to illustrate the parallel of the collective peace after war and the personal, subjective peace between individuals. In this case, Gene reaches a state of peace after he and Finny reconcile following the accident.

7. KNOWLES DIDN’T EXPECT SALES TO EXCEED 3000 COPIES.

Eleven publishers turned down A Separate Peace. The book first appeared in print in 1959 thanks to the London publisher Secker and Warburg, while the initial U.S. publication took place on leap year day—February 29, 1960. Though the book received mostly positive reviews, it wasn’t an immediate bestseller. But as more and more English teachers discovered A Separate Peace, they brought it into their classrooms, and the book gained a colossal momentum. Knowles’s first published novel would prove by far his most successful one, ultimately selling more than 8 million copies.

8. FINNY AND KNOWLES WERE BOTH SWIMMING CHAMPS.

Knowles once wrote about serving as the anchor man in a swimming relay race while at Exeter, beating the school’s rival, Phillips Andover Academy. He became “an athletic mini-hero for about 15 minutes.” In A Separate Peace, Finny breaks Devon’s 100-yard freestyle swimming record—but the winning time was unofficial, as Gene, who served as timekeeper, was the sole witness.

9. THE BOOK HAS BEEN SAID TO HAVE A HOMOEROTIC SUBTEXT.

Though there was no description of any sexual encounter in the novel, some readers have contended that the book has a gay undercurrent. A handful of critics have objected to this perceived dynamic, including parents in a central New York school district who, in 1980, denounced A Separate Peace as a “filthy, trashy sex novel” that encouraged homosexuality. For what it’s worth, Knowles said, “If there had been homoeroticism between Phineas and Gene, I would have put it in the book, I assure you. It simply wasn't there.”

10. THE AUTHOR WAS CONSULTED FOR A FILM VERSION.

Fred Segal wrote the screenplay of A Separate Peace; Knowles read through the script and made suggestions for improving it. Directed by Larry Peerce with a largely amateur cast, the movie came out in 1972 to so-so reviews. Knowles was proud of the fact that the production was able to shoot on location at Phillips Exeter Academy, the inspiration for the fictional Devon School.

The Top 25 Bestselling E-Books on Amazon Right Now

Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

Right now, the ability to access books on your tablet or phone—without leaving your house or waiting days for an order to arrive in the mail—seems more magical than ever. With just about every book at your fingertips, however, it might be a little difficult to decide which one to choose.

You could ask for recommendations from friends and family, or use this website, which specializes in personalized reading lists based on books you’ve already read and loved. Or you could check out Amazon’s current list of bestselling e-books—updated by the hour—to see what the general population just can’t get enough of. As of this morning (March 31), Elle Marr’s highly anticipated thriller The Missing Sister sits in the number one spot; since its publication date isn’t until April 1, that means it’s gotten to the top of the list on pre-orders alone.

There are several other riveting thrillers on the list, including Dean Koontz’s latest, In the Heart of the Fire, and Christopher Greyson’s murder mystery The Girl Who Lived. Plenty of other genres are well-represented, too, from Stephen R. Covey’s classic self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Jory John’s charming children’s story The Bad Seed.

And, of course, it would hardly seem like a bestseller list if Harry Potter didn’t make an appearance or two. According to this data, more than a few people are spending their quarantine time reading (or re-reading) J.K. Rowling’s beloved series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are at number seven and number 17, respectively.

Look through March 31’s top 25 below:

  1. The Missing Sister by Elle Marr // $5
  1. Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis // $13
  1. Wall of Silence by Tracy Buchanan // $5
  1. The Bad Seed by Jory John // $13
  1. The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms // $2
  1. Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan // $5
  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey // $6
  1. When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal // $5
  1. Rough Edge by Lauren Landish // $4
  1. The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy // $1
  1. If You Tell by Gregg Olsen // $2
  1. Now, Then, and Everywhen by Rysa Walker // $5
  1. The Girl Who Lived by Christopher Greyson // $10
  1. Rain Will Come by Thomas Holgate // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Other Family by Loretta Nyhan // $5
  1. In the Heart of the Fire by Dean Koontz // $2
  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng // $10
  1. Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes by James Dean // $8
  1. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson // $15
  1. Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley // $10
  1. Lift Her Up by T.S. Joyce // $1
  1. In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn // $5

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

This Website Will Tell You What Book to Read Next

WhatShouldIReadNext.com will help you avoid the existential dread of coming to the end of a book without another lined up.
WhatShouldIReadNext.com will help you avoid the existential dread of coming to the end of a book without another lined up.
m-imagephotography/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you’ve ever finished a book and thought, "What should I read next?" then the aptly-titled website WhatShouldIReadNext.com is for you. Enter in a title, author, or ISBN number, and the site analyzes reviews and ratings from other readers and recommends books.

This, as it turns out, is a really fun game for any bibliophile. Entering Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers leads to recommendations like The Secret Life of Lobsters, My Lobotomy, The World Without Us, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, and The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Two Men Who Battled to Save Victorian London.

Pop in The Devil in the White City and the site suggests The Monster of Florence, The Anatomy of Deception, and The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Enter The Stranger, and you’ll get titles like Antoine De St Exupery: The Life and Death of the Little Prince and William S. Burroughs’s The Cat Inside. A Tale of Two Cities returns recommendations for The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories by O. Henry and The African Queen by C.S. Forester. (Also on that list? The children’s classic The Stinky Cheese Man.)

The site doesn’t just serve up book recommendations, either: There’s also a blog, as well as a section that allows the user to find famous quotes and mark the ones they love. And there’s an option to create your own lists of books, which could include everything from a list of favorite books to a list of books you’ve read to a list of books you want to read. Signing up for the premium version of the site—which costs $9 a month, or $90 a year—will get you access to online book clubs, author interviews, and more.

While there are occasionally books that don’t return any recommendations (like The Inventor and the Tycoon) chances are, you’ll get recommendations that both delight and surprise you—and give you plenty of inspiration for titles to add to your "to be read" pile.

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