I went back to the Devon School not long ago, and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before. So begins John Knowles’ 1959 novel, “A Separate Peace.”
Knowles, who was born in West Virginia, graduated from Phillips Exeter in 1945. He stayed in Peabody Hall and was on the swimming team and his time at Exeter was largely ordinary for a young student in forties. But from the inspiration of that time was born “A Separate Peace,” the story of the tumultuous relationship of two boys within the pristine confines of Exeter—or, okay, “Devon,” but the air quotes are very heavy there–against the backdrop of the Second World War.
“A Separate Peace” is written with beautiful, agonizing detail and is widely considered to be one of the best coming of age novels of all time. It falls into a particular category of “Prep School Angst” along with J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Julian Mitchell’s “Another Country,” but has a kind of warmth to its narrative that makes it stand out as a classic in its own right.
Devon School, the fictional institution that the protagonist, Gene Forrester attends, is located in a picturesque New Hampshire town. It has a regular and summer session, refers to its grade levels as uppers and lowers, is surrounded by streets with names like Main and Front, and has a building directly referred to as the academy building, which is furnished with steep white marble stairs.
Knowles stated many aspects of “A Separate Peace” were based on his experiences in the summer session, which had a particular affection for. He portrays it in his essay “A Special Time, A Special School” as: “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. […] Studies now were easy for me. The summer of 1943 at Exeter was as happy a time as I ever had in my life.”
Like the central characters of “A Separate Peace,” Knowles was part of a secret student society and, specifically like Phineas (Finny), did actually hurt his foot jumping out of a tree as some kind of hazing action for the society. (The Summer Times wants to remind you not to try this at home. Or on campus, for that matter.)
Knowles speaks about Exeter with fondness and great understanding in two essays, the aforementioned “A Special Time, A Special School” and another originally published in the magazine Holiday “A Naturally Superior School.”
He describes a complex relationship with Exeter, acknowledging that it is a place that is flawed in that is in unchanging and separate from the world around it and yet for him, it was a paradise that allowed him to experience his youth in a unique and incredible way.
In “A Naturally Superior School” he writes that, “The first fact to establish about Phillips Exeter Academy is that it does not have an old-school tie.” He goes on to say in a later paragraph: “Then I knew that Exeter hadn’t changed […] And in a sense, that is Exeter’s chief problem. There seems to be no pressing requirement to change.” Although this essay was written when Exeter was still a much more conservative all-male school, Knowles’ insights about the school still ring true.
“A Separate Peace” is an engaging book that’s fun to pick through for the direct references to Exeter, but it also provides a window into another time in Exeter’s ongoing story. Knowles’ writing is incredibly vivid and the reverence he has for his alma mater — however imperfect it might be, like any other place — shows through.
“A Separate Peace” is an integral part of Exeter’s history, and one can find both of Knowles’ aforementioned essays in the archives of Phillips Exeter Library. Additionally in the collection is Thomas Hinkle’s “A Separate Peace: Moods & Setting” which is a photographic essay including gorgeous old photos of Exeter matched with excerpts of the novel, which is a powerful new way to experience it. If you’ve never picked it up or even heard of it, there is no time like the present.