[(essay date December 1969) In the following essay, Mengeling offers a critical reading of A Separate Peace, interpreting the novel as a modern Greek myth.]
As Americans we have always been hotly concerned with growth and process. In our literature, process often becomes the all-inclusive and sometimes lonely end in itself. Thus much American literature, growing in such native psychological soil, seems obsessively concerned with the process of individual maturation through search. Just as America's westward-shifting, geographical frontiers were chopped off piece by piece, tamed and civilized, so do some of the most representative characters of American fiction attempt to chop off, then understand and control, bits and pieces of their wild and shadowy selves. Then, at book's end, having moved toward greater self-understanding and psychological maturity, they may consider even farther horizons, perhaps those of man's most free and utopian dreams. The American wish-fulfillment, then, is not simply to preserve from attack that which we already possess, to freeze or can the first ripe fruits, but to arm ourselves mightily to harvest yet more, and after that, yet more again. This, after all, is much of what Melville's Moby Dick is all about. And this is no less true of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
In 1959 John Knowles stepped into this healthy American literary tradition of growth through search. And in his first and best novel Knowles has defined that farthest frontier vision toward which all Ishmaels, all Hucks, and perhaps all mankind, should be striving. A Separate Peace stands as a book of classic richness and meaning, one whose major worth as a work of art emanates from the subtle interaction of two chief levels of significance: the literal and the mythic.1 It is with the mythic level that I am most concerned.
Returning in 1957 to Devon preparatory school after an interval of fifteen years, Gene Forrester reflects that preserved along with the varnished, museum-like aspect of this New Hampshire boarding school, "like stale air in an unopened room was the well-known fear which had surrounded and filled those days, so much of it that I hadn't even known it was there."2 In the interval he has escaped this fear. His return to Devon has satisfied him about that. But what exactly was this fear, from what source did it take its root and derive its nourishment? To borrow a coinage from George Orwell, during those Devon years Gene Forrester suffered from "double-think"3 concerning the process of his own maturation. On the one hand, he wishes desperately to cut the maternal childhood cord and become emotionally adult. But before him stands the majestic and fearsome tree, at first symbolic of knowledge and that which Gene wishes to become, "those men, the giants of your childhood" (p. 5). But he was "damned" (p. 6) if he would climb it or jump from one of its outstretched limbs into the cold waters of the Devon River. "No one but Phineas could think up such a...