Both John Knowles’s short story “Phineas” and his novel A Separate Peace are bisected by the same incident: the shattering of the schoolboy athlete Phineas’s leg during a summer war game where narrator Gene “jounce[s] the limb” of a tree from which the two boys are about to jump (ASP 60; “Phineas” 363). Published in London in 1959 and in the U.S. in 1960, A Separate Peace is closely based on “Phineas,” which first appeared in the May 1956 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine (74-79). The two pieces are so similar that the novel actually reuses entire passages from the short story, including the moment that Finny falls from the tree, but what separates these two works is their portrayal of war. In “Phineas,” World War II is an ambivalent background to the action, whereas in A Separate Peace the war looms as a dismal and frightening reality in “a world on the brink of total chaos and moral disruption” (Heinz & Huss 160).

Research on the 1940s, however, notes that WWII was supported by most Americans. Historical and cultural material from that period, including political cartoons, memoirs, and even home front diaries, provide strong evidence of this.[1] Perceptions of war in the 1950s, on the other hand, became progressively more ambivalent throughout the decade due, in part, to the nuclear arms race and the potential for mutually assured destruction.[2] This article argues that, like later anti-war novels, such as Joseph Teller’s Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, the bleakness in A Separate Peace matches not WWII-era perceptions of war, but those emerging in the late 1950s. The complicated politics of the 1950s seep into Knowles’s representations of war: “Phineas” and A Separate Peace reveal a cultural shift in U.S. perceptions of war that suggests A Separate Peace must be read not only as a WWII novel but as 1950s one as well.

Historical and Cultural Context

“Phineas” and A Separate Peace deviate from WWII and postwar perceptions of war, instead reflecting the developing political temper of the late 1950s. In the 1940s, support for war was strong. Historical sources almost universally portray an American public that supported WWII, believing it to be necessary, the right thing to do, a “good war,” and “an honourable war” (Ward and Burns xiv; Ward and Burns 1; Halliwell 10; West n.p.; Berinsky 36-7; Larson 14 & 18; Halliwell 6). The Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 ended most opposition to American intervention (Casey 213; West n.p.), and the Senate voted unanimously to go to war; in the House there was a single vote of dissent from a representative who objected only to a unanimous vote (Sulzberger 147). Following Pearl Harbor, many young men either refused deferments or enlisted at the first opportunity (Ward and Burns 5 & 71; Bradley and Powers 62), and recruitment centers were overrun by enlistees (Bradley and Powers 62; Linderman 49). This sense of duty was purportedly accompanied by rage, a “fury” over Pearl Harbor (Chappell 25). The attack generated rhetoric so extreme it bordered on the genocidal (Dower 36) with the Japanese depicted as savages, evil, and sub-human (Chappell 23-38). American public support for WWII continued throughout the US’ involvement (Berinsky 57; Larson 14-5, 18-9; West n.p.). Home front diaries recorded the common belief that attaining victory required high morale (Morrison 237), which was achieved through public support of rations, the purchase of war bonds, and the growing of Victory Gardens. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 D-Day prayer noted the “righteousness” of the Allies’ cause (Roosevelt 152; Casey 162), and continued pro-war attitudes can be seen in the 1944 American presidential election campaign, during which both Roosevelt and his opponent both ran on prowar platforms (Casey 163).

After the war ended, the late 1940s was a period of affluence. White Americans in particular experienced an economic boom, thanks to policies such as the G.I. Bill in 1944, which financially assisted veterans reintegrating into civilian life. This optimism did not last. The U.S. and the USSR could not agree on nuclear weapons post-WWII, beginning with the United Nation’s 1946 proposal to eliminate all atomic weapons, thereby initiating the nuclear arms race (Egeland 318). The Soviets, glorified in 1943 by TIME magazine for fighting “the best fight [of WWII] so far” (n.p.), and their leader Joseph Stalin, valorized as the 1942 TIME Man of the Year, became the new enemy of the Cold War.

Likewise, a myriad of tensions rose in the 1950s that changed how the American public thought about war itself. The decade was turbulent, uneasy, and anxious (Parry-Giles xxiv; Young xii & 12), so much so that some sources dub it “‘The Age of Anxiety’” (Young xii). During this time, the U.S. developed hydrogen bombs and arrested spies. Americans grappled with the injustices of racial segregation (Leib and Chapman 579). They also feared being named un-American or communist during the Second Red Scare and the era of McCarthyism (Young xii). Due to this combination of factors, Halliwell calls the 1950s “the beginning of half a century of ‘profound, embittered malaise’ that has taught us that we cannot trust ‘our neighbors, our workplace colleagues, our sources of information, or our institutions and leadership’” (80).

Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union crystalized the potential for nuclear war and mutually assured destruction. To combat public anxiety, individual states created evacuation plans (Weart 88). The school district in Savannah, Georgia, for example, drilled students by marching or bussing them to railroad stations for mass evacuation (Leib & Chapman 583). Schoolchildren in the 1950s were also taught to “duck and cover” in the event of a nuclear explosion. Films demonstrated the technique, singing and rhyming that “nuclear war with the Soviet Union was both unavoidable and survivable” as long as children remembered to duck and cover like their new friend, a turtle named Bert (Prelinger Archives). A second source of tension—and one closer geographically to the U.S.—was the Cuban Revolution, after which “a series of escalating confrontations drove the U.S. and Cuban governments apart” (Steinhauer n.p.), which further escalated nuclear tensions.

Against this tumultuous backdrop, the U.S. entered two different wars in the 1950s: the Korean and Vietnam Wars, which conscripted young men to the armed forces in the 1950s and 1960s respectively (Parker xiii; Larson 59). These conflicts differed, in many ways, from WWII. For one, “the enemy engaged in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts was less obviously ‘evil,’ and it was far more difficult to find convincing ideological or humanitarian reasons to justify the wars to the public” (Mueller 34). The U.S. Department of State sums up the Korean War as “difficult to fight and unpopular domestically.” At the time, it was the least popular conflict that the United States had ever been involved in (Sandler 19). Changes in the use of propaganda between 1945 and 1955 may have also contributed to the general population’s growing suspicion of the government: the Truman and Eisenhower administrations both utilized peacetime propaganda, whereas previous administrations had not (Parry-Giles xxiv). The public, inundated by propaganda in war and at peace, became wary of its messages.

Political cartoons from the 1940s and 50s succinctly summarize both decades’ cultural view of war. For example, the Memphis Commercial Appeal published a Cal Alley cartoon in June 1953 showing Uncle Sam hauling an impossibly large sack labelled “Korean War’s Dollar Cost;” nearby are graves. Over his head, the caption reads: “The real burden is on the heart”[3]. Similarly, in April 1953 the Omaha World-Herald published a Henry Barrow cartoon titled “A Few Come Back,” which shows a soldier limping home; above him are clouds in the shape of a face, saying, “‘Tell ‘em Howdy for me’”[4]. These cartoons, a small sample of many, reverse the tone of WWII-era cartoons, which are predominantly pro-war. For example, in October 1941, two months before Pearl Harbor, the newspaper PM published a cartoon by Theodor Seuss Geisel—Dr. Seuss—of a mother reading aloud to two children: “‘…and [Adolf] the Wolf chewed up the children and spit out their bones… But those were Foreign Children and it really didn’t matter’” (Husband 104, ellipses and emphasis in original).[5] Suess criticized American isolationist policy, instead suggesting that the U.S. was morally obligated to intervene in Europe. The cartoon calls the American people and government to military action. Importantly, the characterization of war as a form of moral action makes limited appearance in 1950s popular print culture, and it is entirely absent from “Phineas” and A Separate Peace.

Knowles’s Work as Cold War Fiction

Knowles’ work occupies an interesting in-between: though materially about WWII, the ambivalent portrayal of war in “Phineas” and its darker portrayal in A Separate Peace, reflect the “embittered malaise” of the 1950s, not the prowar attitudes of the 40s. The novel is narrated retrospectively by an older Gene who now understands the reality of WWII after having served in it. The narration frames the story in the aftermath of war, separating the schoolboy from the more mature Gene. “Phineas” also utilizes retrospective narration, but is narrated by Gene the schoolboy, preparing to apologize to Finny not long after his fall from the tree. Set in New Hampshire, both “Phineas” and the novel open with the Devon School’s first-ever Summer Session. This session had an historical basis in Knowles’s high school experience at Phillips Exeter Academy, where summer sessions accelerated students’ progress to ensure they would graduate before getting drafted (Bryfonski 13).[6] They also allowed for the introduction of courses that would prepare students for military service. Despite this new summer semester, however, the boys at Devon remain only distantly aware of WWII. In “Phineas” Gene remarks that it was “such a peaceful summer” (358); in A Separate Peace he calls it a “careless peace” (25). Even when WWII touches the boys’ lives more closely, such as through the news, the war is trivialized. Finny celebrates Allied victories with the same seriousness as mundane school events by wearing a special pink shirt to celebrate each of the following: the U.S. Navy’s success at the Battle of Midway, Finny’s receipt of a C in history, the retirement of the school dietician, and school sports victories (“Phineas” 358-9).  The war, then, is no more serious than soccer, hockey or lacrosse wins.

It is no coincidence that the game of the summer—jumping from a tree into the Devon River—pretends at war: the tree is a troopship under fire, and Finny, in both the novel and the short story, encourages his friends to jump from it. Upon jumping, Finny cries, “‘Here’s my contribution to the war effort!’” and then, from the river, adds, “‘That’s the most fun I’ve had this whole week’” (ASP 16; “Phineas” 360). To Finny, the war is a game, and there is no real discussion of the dangers of torpedoed warships or having to jump from them. The boys do not take the war as a threat to their wellbeing, argues James Ellis: “For Finny the war and the tree, which represents a training ground for the war, are only boyish delights. The reality of war is lost upon him […]” (314). Finny’s creation of the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, a club that meets nightly to jump from the tree, further illustrates this delight. Even when Gene almost falls, permanent injury or death do not register until that night, hours later, when he realizes how seriously he could have been hurt.

In A Separate Peace, the Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session is compounded by another war-themed game: blitzball. Affronted by the summer’s athletic program, Finny creates this kill-the-carrier-type game using a heavy medicine ball. Blitzball becomes “the surprise of the summer” (ASP 38)—a pleasant and good surprise that coalesces war and games (Tribunella 89). These war games put the reality of the war at odds with the boys’ peaceful existence. Finny says as much to Gene after a mandatory social gathering at which the Masters discuss current events, when he admits that he cannot imagine that the Allied troops bombed Central Europe. Gene agrees, not because he cannot imagine it “but because our place here was too fair for us to accept something like that” (ASP 30). The message is clear: the privileged world the boys inhabit is too beautiful, or just, for war. Although this sentiment is never expressed so directly in “Phineas,” the game-like atmosphere that surrounds WWII in the short story matches that of the novel.

At the end of the summer, though, those fair days end: during a double jump with Finny, Gene “jounce[s] the limb” of the tree and Finny falls (ASP 60; “Phineas” 363). Gene’s inner struggle over his role in Finny’s injury dominates the remainder of the short story, except for one line in the penultimate paragraph. Gene, about to knock on the door of Finny’s home, acknowledges the war and the fact that his life is about to change because of it: “Tomorrow, back at Devon, I would be someone else. A week later I was going to turn seventeen and begin the last acceleration which   would pitch me into some corner of the war” (366).

War is something Gene will deal with later. More immediate is the conflict with Finny, and “Phineas” ends not with WWII but with Gene repeating to himself what he wants to tell Finny before knocking on his door. Gene’s deferral of the war finds little correspondence in the history of enlistment, which highlights young men’s eagerness to serve (Bradley and Powers; Linderman; Ward and Burns). This eagerness is missing from the characters in both of Knowles’s pieces, highlighting their innocence of the conflict as well as their separation from it. Instead of worrying about the war, and the complications of adulthood, Gene is primarily concerned with his relationship to Finny. Gene is “constructing his own sense of identity” (Flum and Porten n.p.), but this adolescent focus on the self does not last, particularly in A Separate Peace, where the plot continues through the remainder of the school year. In the novel, political reality draws closer, as “the distant trumpets of war […] increasingly penetrate the ivy-league isolation at Devon” (Heinz and Huss 160).

The War Approaches

Upon the boys’ return to Devon in the fall, Finny is away on medical leave, and in his absence the war begins to encroach upon the boys’ lives. Chapter seven states so directly, opening with Gene’s assertion that peace has “deserted” him and his classmates (ASP 72). Gone are the Super Suicide Society and playing at war—these have been replaced with lessons in the swimming pool, where the boys are taught to make “big splashes” with their hands after jumping from a torpedoed troopship, “to scatter the flaming oil” on the surface of the water (84). Compared to the earlier jumping out of the tree, this lesson is a darker and more realistic portrayal of the dangers of abandoning a troopship. It serves as a foil to the games of the previous summer (Tribunella 89). Gene’s narration glosses over these poolside lessons, suggesting his desire to avoid recounting them. Instead, the scene remains focused on the personal and the individual: Gene practices how to jump from a damaged troopship to survive an attack. The bleakness of this scene evokes the antiwar sentiments of the 1950s, where schoolchildren were routinely exposed to national fears of nuclear war and learned to duck and cover in the classroom (Leib & Chapman; Prelinger Archives; Weart).

Not everything is dark for the boys of A Separate Peace, though, not yet. That fall they are recruited and paid to harvest apples for understaffed orchards. The prospect of earning money excites them. Classmate Brinker Hadley even composes the “Shortest War Poem Ever Written” while they work called “The War / Is a bore” (ASP 92, emphasis in original). Though the dangers of torpedoed troopships and flaming oil have intruded upon the fun of jumping from the tree, the war is still distant enough for the boys to enjoy themselves as apple pickers. This extension of innocence is possible because of the boys’ elite class privilege, which insulates them, and separates them from, the realities of war.

Apple picking is one of the final times that the war bores Gene and his classmates. After a snowstorm that winter, the boys are paid to work again, this time shoveling snow at a local railyard “as part of the Emergency Usefulness policy adopted by the faculty that fall” (ASP 93), a policy that lets the boys, too young to fight in the war itself, do their part on the home front. The railyard scene is one of the few in which the portrayal of WWII in A Separate Peace aligns with historical evidence.[7] Once the boys clear the rail lines, they watch, in awe, the troops on the trains. Gene narrates, “They seemed to be having a wonderful time, their uniforms looked new and good; they were clean and energetic; they were going places. […] Stranded in this mill town railroad yard while the whole world was converging elsewhere, we seemed to be nothing but children playing among heroic men” (97).

For the first time the boys see a piece of the war with their own eyes—not filtered through photographs or newsreels or even the radio—and they are swept away by the possibilities of enlistment. The war is no longer distant. It is right there in New Hampshire. On the way home the boys’ conversation is dominated by enlistment, a stark departure from the jokes and poems at the apple orchard not long before. Brinker and Gene decide to enlist together. Gene hopes his enlistment will allow him to escape the guilt he feels over Finny’s injury (Ellis 316), but the plan falls apart when Gene returns to his dorm and finds that Finny has returned. In many ways this section of the novel reflects the social and political attitudes of the war years. It also follows a pattern in coming-of-age literature, as the characters move from innocence to experience. Gene occupies a spot somewhere in the middle of that pattern, moving towards experience until Finny’s return, which stalls Gene’s momentum and introduces more complex representations of WWII, in Finny’s fantasy and the Butt Room legend.

Peace Returns

If peace deserted Devon when Finny was away, then it also returns with Finny. As Ellis notes, Finny’s return to Devon marks a turning point in the novel’s portrayal of WWII, a return to the peace of the summer session (316-317). When Brinker comes to Gene’s room to cement their enlistment, Gene tells Brinker that he would not enlist with him even if Brinker was General MacArthur’s son, or Elliott Roosevelt, and Brinker fires jokes back (ASP 108). The seriousness of the war, and the awe inspired by the troop trains, has evaporated, and “Gene no longer cares about the war” (McGavran 73). Finny plays no small role in that, as Finny and peace are intertwined for Gene (72). But just as Finny has returned to school injured, his leg permanently shattered, the peace Finny brings with him is injured as well: it exists at the expense of acknowledging their reality. Finny’s fantasy discounts all sources of information about the war, including Devon school authority figures, photographs, newspapers, and the radio. When Gene admits that he has not joined any sports teams in Finny’s absence because the war overshadowed sports, the injured boy replies with “cool self-possession” that “‘the fat old men […] cooked up this war fake’” to keep young people in their place (ASP 114-5). Even when Gene argues, Finny refuses to recant. This refusal creates an alternative or separate peace (Witherington 800). Gene cannot help but play along, as photographs, newspaper headlines, and voices on the radio are all impersonal and distant compared to Finny’s compelling and physical presence.

Finny’s denial of WWII is one of the most interesting facets of Knowles’s novel, made more intriguing by its roots in the turbulent and uneasy culture of the 1950s (Halliwell; Parry-Giles; Young). Finny’s refusal to believe photographs and newspaper reports about the war, in particular, echoes the 1950s wariness of both propaganda and those in power (Parry-Giles xxvi). His “fake-war” fantasy can be read as adolescent rebellion. Kirk Curnutt compares A Separate Peace to The Catcher in the Rye, arguing that rebellion is the morally correct action for the novels’ protagonists as they come of age, because “[y]outh’s rituals of disaffection are not expressions of antisocial behavior but confirm rather that they are ‘engag[ed] in an arduous quest, searching, seeking, grasping, testing in an effort to find the proper [moral] course’ in life (265, 269)” (95). War is ugly, and Finny wants no part in it even if the conflict is supported by the majority of Americans. Instead of submitting to the reality of war, Finny endeavors to keep the world peaceful, fun and innocent, and Gene willingly follows his friend. Curnutt’s reading of A Separate Peace is similarly championed by James Ellis, who states that “To accept the war is for Finny to accept a fallen world” (317), and at this stage of the novel, Finny is not capable of doing that.

Some scholars argue that Gene’s willingness to follow Finny in this fantasy, as well as in other situations, lays the groundwork for a queer reading of A Separate Peace. Tribunella writes that Finny’s arrival at Devon marks a return of “queer possibility” for Gene, which “effectively suspends Gene’s enlistment and the verification of his masculinity” as well as his “‘ascension’ to a proper”—heterosexual—“manhood” (87). Others suggest that queer readings are pointedly understated because “Knowles was recreating a World War II-era experience in the late 1950s” (McGavran 70-1), two eras in which queer vocabulary was limited. In 1987, Knowles himself refuted homoerotic readings of A Separate Peace in an interview for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel newspaper, insisting that if Gene and Finny were gay, “it wouldn’t have been the same story” (Mabe and Books Columnist n.p.). This pronouncement has not dissuaded scholars, perhaps because the novel depicts a homosocial, all-male world, and Tribunella in particular traces his queer reading of A Separate Peace in coming-of-age terms.

At this stage in the novel, though, Gene has not yet moved into the “hegemonic and necessarily heterosexual masculinity that adolescent readers of the novel are tacitly encouraged to emulate and valorize” (Tribunella 83). Instead, he must learn to navigate Finny’s fake-war fantasy, which does not diminish when it comes into contact with the boys’ reality but actually expands to accommodate it. If the war is fake, then the cancelled 1944 Olympics must really be on. Finny, who offhandedly admits that his shattered leg might not be in shape in time, announces that he will train Gene in his stead. When Gene tries to argue, Finny “uses his remaining strength to deny his loss” (Greiling 1272)—that of his mobility and his own Olympic dreams—and tells Gene, “‘Leave your fantasy life out of this’” (ASP 117), as though Gene is the one creating false narratives. Again, Gene submits. It is during one of these Olympic training sessions that Finny’s fake-war fantasy is first introduced to others. Mr. Ludsbury, in charge of one of the dormitories, spots the two boys up early one morning and asks Gene if he is training for the Commandos. When Finny tells him that they are training for the Olympics—for games and not war—Mr. Ludsbury reminds the boys that any and all physical fitness should be aimed towards the war, but even an adult in power cannot dissuade Finny. He responds with a single word: “‘No’” (ASP 121). Mr. Ludsbury, flustered by such direct dissent, does not argue further. This incident prompts Gene to fall completely into Finny’s fantasy, and “privately and together [the boys] resist the war” (Raven 50) in all its forms.

This, of course, does not mean that the war stops intruding on the boys’ lives. Instead, after Christmas Break, the war comes to Devon in its most direct way yet: a recruiter from the U.S. ski troops visits and shows a film. Faced with footage of U.S. troops, Finny posits that the troops in the film are actually Finnish, and aren’t involved in WWII at all but in another conflict with the Russians—a second war that might also be a lie. While Finny is busy working the film into his fantasy, the skiers charm classmate Elwin “Leper” Lepellier, who enlists. Leper is the school’s first enlistee, and the boys must grapple with his absence when he departs. Instead of pushing Gene and Finny to deal with the reality of the war, Leper’s enlistment buoys the fake-war fantasy, for “No real war could draw Leper voluntarily away from his snails and beaver dams” (ASP 123). The other boys feel this sense of un-reality too: “For a few days the war was more unimaginable than ever. We didn’t mention it and we didn’t mention Leper […]” (126). The boys struggle to fit Leper’s absence into their private explanation of the world, particularly because they view him as the student least fit for military service (Pitofsky). Leper’s enlistment is not exciting, and it does not start a trend that crowds recruitment centers. Instead, Leper’s enlistment creates fear and unease typical of the 1950s as an Age of Anxiety.

Though Leper’s enlistment could have forced the boys to acknowledge WWII in the same way that shoveling the railyard did, they eventually create a “liaison” (ASP 126) with the war by sticking to jokes. One night, the boys are smoking in the Butt Room when Brinker starts building his own fantasy about the war by announcing that it was Leper who nearly killed Hitler. The other boys are happy to jump onboard. From that point on, every Allied success is achieved by Leper, and Leper alone, including the entire Tunisian campaign, various bombings, and victories at Stalingrad and Burma Road. He is also the obvious appointment to lead the Free French (126-7). Much like Finny’s fantasy, which acknowledges the war only to deny it, Leper’s faux achievements allow the boys to acknowledge WWII without grappling with the reality of it: after all, if quiet, absentminded Leper is singlehandedly winning the war, what could there be to fear? Gene privately wonders—and imagines the other boys do as well—if any of them will meet the army’s standards, hoping beyond all logical hope that Leper really is as great as they hypothesize. Contrary to the attitudes expressed in the Butt Room jokes, the American public was in fact not only pro-war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, but also angry, racist, and genocidal. Knowles’s characters belong to a privileged social class, but their aversion to the war is nonetheless historically anomalous. If in real life the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to go to war with the Axis Powers (Sulzberger 147), this unanimity is one that the Butt Room crowd could have replicated only in reverse—in a vote against war. US support for the war did not dissipate in the years following Pearl Harbor and had not waned by the 1942-1943 school year during which A Separate Peace takes place. Knowles’s representation of schoolboy anti-war sentiment is at odds with the prowar position of the majority of Americans during WWII.

Instead the novel’s anti-war stance is reminiscent of the 1950s, when the US public grappled with the Cold War, the Korean War, and the start of the Vietnam War—and quickly tired of all three conflicts. Finny loses interest in Brinker’s legend about Leper just as quickly, refusing to participate in the imaginary game it initiates because it admits the war is real. Nonetheless, Finny is eager to include the others in his fantasy through events such as his Winter Carnival, during which the boys drink cider and play sports. For a time, Finny’s “choreography of peace” (ASP 136) allows everyone to forget the war; his charisma has “induc[ed] others temporarily to suspend their practical, logical systems of belief to follow his non-logical development” (Witherington 796). It produces something like a switch between Gene and Finny, where Gene performs athletic feats in Finny’s stead (McGavran 75-6), an afternoon which McGavran notes is brimming with queer potential. The boys share an afternoon playing at the Olympics, even lighting a fire to open the Games, but such innocent fun cannot last—the war encroaches upon the boys’ lives once again when a classmate arrives with a telegram for Gene. Finny announces that it must be the Olympic Committee, which is the only thing that makes sense within his fantasy, and, unbelievably, none of the boys argue. Of course, the sender is not the 1944 Olympic Committee but Leper, who begs Gene to come immediately to Leper’s Vermont home because Leper has “escaped” the service (ASP 137). This is the beginning of the end for fantasy in A Separate Peace, and it is here that Finny’s “Dionysian celebration” (Mengeling 1327) and “choreography of peace” (ASP 136) begin to lose their power.

The Dissolution of Fantasy

Upon receipt of the telegram, Gene leaves immediately for Vermont, but Finny and his fake-war fantasy still have him in their grip. En route, Gene decides that Leper could not have escaped the service; he must have meant that he escaped spies. This conclusion is tenuous at best—Gene even notes this—but it gives him peace of mind. At the Lepellier household, Leper reveals with pointed seriousness that the army wanted to give him a Section Eight discharge—which, he explains, “‘is for the nuts in the service, the psychos, the Funny Farm candidates’” (ASP 143-4). Mengeling notes how important it is that Gene does not immediately try to leave or hide from Leper’s story, suggesting that Gene is already moving towards an acceptance of the war (1328) now that he is outside of Finny’s geographic influence. That said, Gene has not yet fully accepted the war, so he avoids the more unpalatable parts of Leper’s story. Later, on a walk, Leper returns to his worst experiences, detailing his struggles eating and sleeping as well as the hallucinations that ensued—a corporal’s face changing into a woman’s face, and a broom that turned into a leg. Faced head-on with Leper’s very real experience of the armed forces, Gene yells at Leper and then abandons him in a field, a scene that suggests Leper’s breakdown is “self-inflicted” and a result of poor judgement (Pitofsky 406), a fate that Gene hopes to avoid. Gene distances himself through geographic separation from Leper, insisting all the way back to Devon that he will have nothing to do with the war (ASP 151). Gene’s denial is a futile attempt at protecting himself: admitting the reality of the war means admitting that “if Leper was psycho it was the army which had done it to him” (144). Gene and all of his friends are headed for graduation, and the draft, in the spring. What, then, will the army to do them? War is not heroic or exciting in this scene in Vermont, as it was when the boys shoveled snow and watched the recruiting video. Gene’s fear finds resonance instead in the bleakness of Korean War political cartoons. The insinuation that the Korean War was not worth the dollars paid or lives lost is very much present in the price that Leper has paid, his peace of mind, and that Gene fears he and his friends will also pay.

Though visiting Leper inspires Gene to recommit to “his and Phineas’s withdrawal from the ugliness of the world” (Ellis 317), this is short lived. At Devon, after Gene recounts his visit with Leper, Brinker shatters the fake-war fantasy by drawing attention to Finny’s inability to fight. Gene immediately denies the reality of the war, but hearing of Leper’s fate has “puncture[d] Finny’s willing suspension of disbelief” (Bryant 57). The dynamic between the boys changes, and they all move towards an acceptance of the war. In a study session not long after, Finny further rationalizes the war’s effect on the mind (Witherington 796). He states, “‘If a war can drive somebody crazy, then it’s real all right. Oh I guess I always knew, but I didn’t have to admit it’” (ASP 163, emphasis in original). Finny later reveals he denied the war only because he could not take part in it (189-91), but this is not the high morale of the WWII home front that Morrison notes. Rather it is an unwilling acceptance of the now-unavoidable truth.

It is no coincidence that after Finny has admitted the overarching evil of WWII and accepted the “fallen world” (Ellis 317), he must next grapple with the more personal evil between him and Gene—Gene’s role in Finny’s injury. With the dissolution of Finny’s fantasy, the novel moves away from Tribunella’s queer potential and “towards acceptance of the outside world” (Witherington 795). In the spring the boys discuss their inevitable futures in the service. They are attracted to an officer-training program run by the Navy, which “sounded very safe, almost like peacetime, almost like just going normally on to college” (ASP 158). Gene chooses the Navy to avoid being drafted as infantry, and Brinker joins the Coast Guard, refusing to share his father’s “‘Nathan Hale attitude’” (200) about serving. Unlike Hale, Brinker and the others are unwilling to die for their country, and the boys’ apathy about serving as an entire graduating class cements the novel’s portrayal of war as a coercive rather than collective event. Unfortunately for the boys of A Separate Peace, their lack of support for the war is irrelevant: upon graduation, they are thrust into it anyway.


The representation of WWII shifts from background device in “Phineas” to menacing presence in A Separate Peace.  The novel is bookended by Gene visiting Devon 15 years after graduation in the late 50s, in a retrospective narration that occurs long after he graduates from Devon and serves in the war. The bleakness of A Separate Peace reflects the cultural mood of the 1950s as the Cold War hardened and the U.S. became embroiled in long wars in both Korea and Vietnam, drafting a new generation of young men and sending them overseas to fight. Understandings of war itself also changed in this period due to the nuclear threat of mutually assured destruction. Understanding both WWII and 1950s historical contexts allows for a deeper engagement with Knowles’s work, revealing the degree to which his portrayal of WWII is inflected by contemporary fears about the imminent threat of nuclear war.

Though coming-of-age and queer readings accurately critique Knowles’s work, the historical perspective further recontextualizes the novel not only as a WWII novel but also as a reflection on the culture and politics of the 1950s. War is a central concern of A Separate Peace, just as it was in the 1950s. The boys at Devon cannot ignore the war, not even with their privilege and social standing: it is unavoidable, and terrifying, and ugly. Examining how the culture of the 1950s displaces earlier understandings of the necessity and justice of war illustrates the ways in which the passing of time can change and complicate historical and political positions and their representation. Gene’s complex interactions with Finny, Leper, Brinker, war, enlistment, and his experience at Devon as a whole reflect larger cultural changes in the assumed righteousness of war and those in power, as well as fears of war’s increasing potential for global destruction.

This evolution of the representation of war is highlighted even in the titles of Knowles’s two works: whereas “Phineas” focuses attention on Finny as a character, A Separate Peace examines a peace that anticipates war and the changes it brings, right from the title page. It suggests that Gene’s interpersonal violence against Finny might therefore be reflective of something larger, something “as deep and as big as evil itself” (Menan), a complicated evil that finds root in post-WWII cultural context.


With gratitude to Dr. Paul R. Petrie, for advice, suggestions, and feedback. Special thanks to librarians Lisa Bier and Winnie Shyam for their research expertise.


[1] See Berinsky; Bradley and Powers; Casey; Chappell; Dower; Halliwell; Husband; Larson; the Library of Congress; Linderman; Morrison; Roosevelt; Sulzberger; TIME; Ward and Burns; and West. Each of these sources will be discussed in the following section.

[2] See Halliwell; Larson; Leib and Chapman; the Library of Congress; Mueller; Parker; Parry-Giles; Prelinger Archives; Sandler; Steinhauer; the U.S. Department of State; Weart; and Young. Each of these sources will be discussed in the following section.

[3] For a visual, please visit:

[4] For a visual, please visit:

[5] For a visual, please visit:

[6] Knowles himself served in the Army Air Force for approximately a year, from the fall of 1944 to November 1945 (A Study Guide, “Author Biography”); unfortunately, no published information exists about his experiences, making it impossible to know how serving in WWII affected his perception of it.

[7] It matches the tone put forth by historical documents such as Ward and Burns as well as Bradley and Powers, among others.

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