Ah, the mainstays of high school American literature: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby — to name a few. Lately, I've been waxing poetic on elements of yesteryear on this blog. But with the start of a new decade come revelations of the past. And anniversaries.
John Knowles' A Separate Peace is turning the big 5-0 very soon, and Slate's Stephen Metcalfe discusses why the once-required reading classic still has something to tell us. The World War II era novel, set in 1940s New Hamsphire about dear Gene and Phineas, can tell us something about our bustling, technology-crazed society today. And while I remember debating in a 9th grade Language Arts class about the novel's topics such as Finny's questionable fall to a crippled life, Brinker Hadley's accusations, and the inevitability of getting drafted, Metcalfe says A Separate Peace warrants more than life in an Exeter-esque boarding school — it warrants a voice that continues to live on in society:
"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...We experience this voice now through the streamlines of identity politics—it is white, male, mostly gentile—and are convinced that to have moved beyond it is an act of collective liberation. But if the history of the novel is an interior history of the middle class, this voice deserves its moment of respect, having been easily elbowed aside by unreliable narrators and advertisements for oneself, by cynic-dandies and the fissile leftovers of high modernism. Where we now hear hegemony, its contemporaries heard the Tennessee Valley Authority, NATO, New Criticism—a voice consonant with midcentury projects whose stated goal was universal democracy.
While I've stared my collection of books in the spine and seen The Catcher in the Rye staring back at me, this coming-of-age tale may be worth another read to reminisce and understand on a different level... or at least watch the movie. This time, there won't be time constraints — and no Spark Notes either.