[(essay date summer 1968) In the following essay, Nora demonstrates how Knowles altered the real landscape of Phillips Exeter Academy, his alma mater, to suit the fictional needs of A Separate Peace.]
When Gene Forrester, in the opening scene of John Knowles' novel A Separate Peace, returns to the Devon School in New Hampshire fifteen years after his graduation, the landscape he encounters is immediately recognizable, almost to minute detail, as that of the famous boys' prep school, Knowles' alma mater, The Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire. In a letter to Mr. William J. Cox, Secretary to the Academy, dated December 14, 1959, Knowles wrote, "The setting on [sic] the novel is Exeter Academy, although I have called it 'Devon' for the usual reasons. The book is fiction and it is not a roman a clef, but I believe it would greatly interest people who know Exeter."1 But art does not use reality exactly as it is, or was, and a careful study of both the school in the novel and The Phillips Exeter Academy seems to reveal that the actual buildings, playing fields, and rivers have undergone an artistic process that combines elimination with heightening, during which they have suffered "a sea change / Into something rich and strange"--the symbolic, interior landscape of the Devon School.
Gene says at the beginning of the novel, "There were a couple of places now which I wanted to see. Both were fearful sites, and that was why I wanted to see them."2 The first is The First Academy Building. Knowles uses it here in the opening scene, and later in much more detail as setting for the "inquiry" into Finny's fall, almost exactly as it still appears to the visitor today. In Latin, over the main entrance, there is the inscription, Here Boys Come to Be Made Men. The foyer, the marble staircase branching left and right, the two left turns to enter the Assembly Room with its black Early American benches and raised platform, are all there in reality and in the novel. In the portrait of "a young hero now anonymous who looked theatrical in the First World War uniform in which he had died,"3 Knowles has made a minor and unimportant omission, perhaps because he did not want to be specific about an actual person. Ensign Stephen Potter '15, who died in 1918, is fully identified on a plaque below his portrait. It reads, "First American Naval Aviator to bring down a German Plane in the World War. He lost his life in combat against seven enemy planes, April 28, 1918."
Knowles effects only one bit of very significant transformation of the realities of The First Academy Building. He gives both the Assembly Room and the foyer below it polished marble floors. Only the staircase is in reality marble. The foyer has always been finished with black and white blocks of rubber tile. The floor of the Assembly Room, also, has never been marble. Originally...