A Separate Peace and the Young Adult Novel

A Separate Peace -- tree branch

Stephen Metcalf reports that A Separate Peace is “drifting, slowly but surely, into literary oblivion.” I’m sorry to hear it. Out of all the short, sad, moralistic novels that I was assigned in school — Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, The Pearl, Fahrenheit 451 — it’s one of the few that have really stuck in my head.

Once required reading–it has sold north of 8 million copies– A Separate Peace is now little more than a harmless keepsake from that part of 1959 that stayed 1959, a time when one could still be adolescent, white, privileged, and gay and not know it.

Hmm, was the narrator really meant to be gay? That’s part of the problem, according to Metcalf:

To be clear, it is not that the book is too gay but that it is not gay enough. Unable to draw the sexuality of its characters anywhere near the surface of its narrative, a novel that might have been an elegy to forbidden romance instead becomes an exercise in near-camp. The book is impossible to read as intended: straight.

But he defends the book for its writing style and sincerity:

“I went back to the Devon School the other day,” the novel opens, “and found it looking oddly newer than when I was a student there fifteen years before.” That “I” is Gene, of course, but it’s also something more. It is the voice, to borrow Trilling’s famous praise of Orwell, of simple, direct, undeceived intelligence; and for a period of roughly 50 years, it was the voice of midcentury fiction.

Yes, exactly. It reminds me of “Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again.” Maybe that direct, reportorial, lived quality is what made it stand out from the heavy-handed parable structure of those other classics.

But in any case, the version of A Separate Peace that Metcalf wants had already been written by William Maxwell in 1945. The Folded Leaf tells a similar story: a shy, intellectual boy and his popular athletic friend, whose relationship is slowly poisoned by jealousy, with tragic results. It answers Metcalf’s main complaint, in that the sexual tension between the boys is much more evident (to the degree that that many readers assume incorrectly that Maxwell was gay himself), while preserving that same direct narrative voice that he appreciates in A Separate Peace. Maxwell epitomized that voice more than almost any other writer (or editor) I can think of.

A Folded Leaf, William Maxwell -- cover

I’m not sure why A Separate Peace made it into the high school canon when The Folded Leaf didn’t. But I have a slightly different theory than Metcalf on why they both feel anachronistic today. He thinks it’s because that style of narrative didn’t fit the “social problem” stories of S.E. Hinton and Judy Blume that would soon take over (or create, really) the Young Adult category.

There’s something to that. ASP and TFL would stand out among these books for their lack of a clear social “message.” But I think there’s something else going on too.

The old protagonists were more tragic: shy, lonely intellectuals, unsure of themselves, always a little apart from their peers. Mostly the writers were just describing their own younger selves. Maxwell said of The Folded Leaf “my whole youth was in it,” and John Knowles modeled A Separate Peace even more closely on his own time at Exeter. You get the feeling that these boys would never quite fit in as adults either, and would never quite come to terms with that. When the story extends to their adulthood — as with Maugham’s Philip Carey, for example — it’s usually not a happy one.

Leslie Howard as Philip Carey in Of Human Bondage

Along with the parables mentioned above (throw in The Old Man and the SeaThe Good EarthOf Mice and Men…) we might call this the first generation, the proto-YA novel: not written for adolescents exactly, but it’s easy to see why they’d go for them. Then came the second generation, 25 years of “problem novels” that still define the YA category today, from The Outsiders (1967) and The Pigman (’68) through Tiger Eyes (’81) to Maniac Magee (’90).

No longer being a young adult, I haven’t really kept up since the early ’90s. But I get the impression there’s a distinct third generation now, with its own rules and patterns. Two that I’ve read and liked are King Dork (2006) by Frank Portman and The Cardturner (2010) by Louis Sachar. Another that I’m reading now is Ready Player One (2011), by Ernest Cline. I haven’t read John Green’s Looking for Alaska, but it sounds like it fits the pattern too.

King Dork, by Frank Portman -- cover

In this new narrative, the kid isn’t completely alone and adrift, just into different stuff than their peers, really great stuff that the other kids just don’t get. There’s always a love interest, generally a Manic Pixie love interest who appreciates these interests (was Leslie in Bridge to Terabithia the forerunner of these?) and often an elaborate plot arc that gives them a climactic opportunity to shine for whatever weird-but-cool thing they’re into. There’s also a bigger supporting cast of sidekicks, friends and rivals, and a subplot with some mystery to be investigated.

So there’s a lot more going on, is what I’m saying. But there’s also a narrowing of focus from society to the individual, and an increasingly optimistic outlook. The message of the first generation was something like “human society really sucks, better get used to it.” The second generation said “some things about society really suck, especially when you’re a teenager, but hang in there and you’ll figure it out.” The third generation says “some of the people around you really suck, but you are awesome.” Accordingly it gives the protagonists more agency: just as many terrible things happen as in the second generation books, but the main characters don’t just “come to terms” with them, they fight back and usually achieve at least some measure of victory.

That doesn’t leave as much room for grand, pessimistic statements about society, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing. But it’s still a very notable shift. It’s hard to imagine ASP being published by a young adult imprint today, not just because it doesn’t have a strong enough message but because it doesn’t have enough action. One broken leg? Hints of sexuality? Yawn. Come back when you’ve got a real story to tell, Knowles. And a more upbeat ending than this:

All of them, all except Phineas, constructed at infinite cost to themselves these Maginot Lines against this enemy they thought they saw across the frontier, this enemy who never attacked that way — if he ever attacked at all; if he was indeed the enemy.

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