[(essay date 1975) In the following excerpt, Umphlett compares A Separate Peace to Mark Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly, arguing that both novels utilize the plot device of having an athlete die in his prime as a catalyst for the self-reexamination of the supporting characters.]
it seemed clear that wars were not made by generations and their special stupidities, but that wars were made instead by something ignorant in the human heart.--John Knowles, A Separate Peace
Dying old is in the cards, and you figure on it, and it happens to everybody, and you are willing to swallow it but why should it happen young to Bruce?--Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly
The aura of innocence surrounding the traditional figure of the sporting myth is compellingly dramatized through the image of the dying athlete in both John Knowles's A Separate Peace (1959) and Mark Harris's Bang the Drum Slowly (1956). The predicament of dying young when contrasted with the sporting hero's quest for immortality is strikingly used in these novels to comment on the meaning of individuality in our day. In both works this definition grows out of the interrelationship of their two main characters--that between Gene and Phineas in A Separate Peace and Henry Wiggen and Bruce Pearson in Bang the Drum Slowly. In both novels, too, the death of one character results in self-knowledge for the other, who in both cases happens to be the narrator. While Gene Forrester gains a fuller understanding of the evil that separates man from man, Henry Wiggen acquires a greater respect for the worth and dignity of the individual.
Essential encounter in A Separate Peace, while set against the larger background of World War II, focuses on the minor wars declared among the schoolboys of Devon, a prominent New England preparatory school, in order to explain the larger question of why wars come about. The friendship between Gene and Phineas, two offsetting personalities in that the former is a superior student and the latter an accomplished athlete, is eventually disrupted by what at first appears to be a trifling incident but is later expanded to support the novel's inherent theme: wars are caused by "something ignorant in the human heart."
In schoolboy literature related to the sporting myth, the major conflict exists between the ivory tower and the playing field, or authority and self-expression; thus much of the significance of A Separate Peace is projected through the imagery and metaphor of the game. It is appropriate to observe here, too, that because they provide opportunity for self-expression, the playing fields of Devon are equated with the traditional wilderness of the sporting myth. As Gene informs us near the beginning of the novel:
Beyond the gym and the fields began the woods, our, the Devon School's woods, which in my imagination were the beginning of the great northern forests. I thought that, from the Devon Woods, trees reached in an unbroken, widening corridor so far to the north that no one had ever seen...