A Separate Peace: 1942 & 1972
Author John Knowles and stars Parker Stevenson and John Heyl talk about then and now
A Separate Peace - John Knowles' modern classic - is as meaningful to today's generation as it was to its own generation. Why? To explore the continuing relevance of the book Ingenue invited the 47-year-old author to take part in a roundtable discussion on the differences between growing up in 1942 and growing up in 1972. Also participating in the discussion are the two 19-year-old stars of the film - John Heyl (Finny), a freshman at Bowdoin College in Maine, and Parker Stevenson (Gene), a sophomore at Princeton. Following is a record of their rap session.
KNOWLES: The first time I saw the film version of A Separate Peace, I was on the edge of my chair throughout, thinking "This is where they're going Hollywood, this is where they're going to lose." But they never did.
INGENUE: Could you compare the reactions to war among the young people in the early 1940's of the book and today?
PARKER: I remember the day when I found out my draft status. I had been assuming for a month that my number wouldn't be coming up for quite a while. One day someone passed me the newspaper and said, "Your number is 187 isn't it?" I was really floored and kind of staggered around in a daze because it just hadn't occurred to me that I could end up in Vietnam. I think my reaction was really different from what it would have been in 1942. Then everyone was ready to go and fight for the good guys. It was so simple.
INGENUE: Will the current generation accept even a "righteous" war like the 1940 generation did?
KNOWLES: Well, you know, there was the most enormous youth rebellion during the thirties. There was the Peace Pledge Union which supposedly involved the cream of British youth. They thought wars were ridiculous and said just what everybody says today. They said they would not fight in any war. Yet, when the chips were down, when their country was attacked, many of these boys joined the R.A.F. and were killed in the Battle of Britain. If the U.S. were attacked today, I think you'd find exactly the same reaction.
JOHN: Sure. If somebody were attacking my own house, my own country, I'd kill to protect them.
PARKER: I think the reaction to a World War II situation would be the same today as it was in 1942. Initially, people would question, but once patriotism got stirred up, the whole thing would gather momentum and we'd be in the same position as we were then - people all pulling together.
INGENUE: Besides the attitude toward war, what would you say is the greatest difference between the boys in the novel or the film and the present generation?
JOHN: The length of the hair.
PARKER: Well, in making the film, we had to almost kind of regress. I mean, we were playing people who were sixteen and seventeen and yet we were always told to think in terms of someone from our generation who was around fourteen or fifteen. In other words, we had to keep thinking of ourselves in terms of someone maybe two or three years younger. Young people are forced to mature sooner now than in the forties. I was doing things at age fourteen that guys in the movie were just beginning to do at sixteen and seventeen.
INGENUE: As I remember, the book didn't involve any dating. Wasn't that part of the Exeter scene?
JOHN: Dating was almost nonexistent. Exeter Academy in 1942 was in the middle of nowhere.
KNOWLES: I think you were only allowed three weekends a term, provided you had the grades, and you had to have a letter of invitation from somebody.
INGENUE: Do you think that fourteen-year-old boys are more promiscuous now than in 1942?
JOHN: Fourteen-year-old boys now are doing what I'm doing at twenty. I have my own car; I drive all over the place. Kids who are fourteen are doing the same thing; they don't have their own cars, but they're still getting all over the place. That's weird.
INGENUE: Well, how do you think a sixteen-year-old at Exeter today would look at the sixteen-year-olds of the book?
JOHN: They'd see them as conservative, probably term them uneducated, because they would have so little to offer. A 1942 sixteen-year-old wouldn't have done anything, what could he say?
INGENUE: In the forties, everybody who went to Exeter went directly on to college, didn't they? Mostly Ivy League colleges, too. What's the situation now?
JOHN: In my class, there were twenty-five of us who didn't have any plans for the year after graduation.
KNOWLES: That's a big improvement. You see, young people in my generation were sort of in lockstep, and it wasn't just the forties, either. In the thirties and in the fifties it was the same. No one ever dropped out unless he got sick or got kicked out or. . . Once in a blue moon some student would go to Wyoming for the winter to take care of horses, and we'd think, "What kind of breakdown did he have?"
INGENUE: And now it's accepted?
JOHN: Very. It's more than accepted, it's almost as if people think there's something the matter with you if you go straight on to college. Almost.
INGENUE: How about other differences between teenagers then and now?
KNOWLES: I feel there's been a lot of change in attitude and emphasis, along with all the surface changes like long hair - though I must say I don't think there's been any revolutionary change. On the whole, I think there's been improvement. Teenagers today are more free to be themselves and to accept themselves.
PARKER: I think that's true.
KNOWLES: It's always been very difficult for the oddballs, the Leper Lepelliers of this world. Today, Leper Lepellier would fit right in! In fact, the healthy part of it is that a Leper would be kind of treasured by young people.
INGENUE: How about a Finney; what about the attitude toward the jock?
KNOWLES: Well, he was more than just a jock. He had a very magnetic personality, let's face it. I suppose his "jockness" wouldn't get as much admiration today, but I think his personality would prove just as magnetic.
INGENUE: But what would give him prestige nowadays? Who's worshipped in schools like Finney was in 1942? Is it the athlete? The musician? The student? Or is it the screwball? Is the funky person today's hero?
JOHN: The black heroes. Or maybe the person who gets things organized best. I think it's a guy who can get himself well enough organized so that he can move on and get other things going - a guy of action, a together guy.
PARKER: You might say someone who's an intellectual. Intellectuals would be much more accepted now than in the forties. The same way that Leper would be more accepted today.
KNOWLES: Yes, I think that's a good point. At Exeter, a good student was respected in 1940, but in a small town he wasn't, unless he was a football hero too.
INGENUE: Between 1942, when you were at Exeter, Mr. Knowles, and 1960 when the book was published, do you think there were many changes?
KNOWLES: No, not at all. The fifties and the forties were Tweedledum and Tweedledee as far as changes are concerned. It was rather suddenly, in the early sixties, that something hit this country.
JOHN: I think a lot of it is just purely numbers. I remember the Woodstock Festival very distinctly. I was fifteen, and the thing that impressed me was how we all got such a rush out of just the whole crowd clapping because it made so much damn noise. That was the thing I remember most about Woodstock - how many people were there. Maybe you can call that a youth movement, just realizing how many of you there are!
Knowles: That's true. There are simply more young people than there ever were. you get this feeling of strength. Also, large numbers can be a drawback, making it difficult to lose one's anonymity.
Ingenue: Well, what do you think, besides "numbers" is causing these changes now?
Parker: The improvement of transportation is something that has played a major role, because in the forties, if you took a weekend and went to New York, it meant going there by train, and it took a long time and was awkward. Now, you get on the shuttle and it takes an hour!
Ingenue: In terms of dress, while you were at Exeter, John, and you at Brooks, Parker, were there dress codes that you had to conform to?
John: Yeah, definitely, very much so!
Ingenue: Do they still exist today?
Parker: They are certainly on the way out. Toward the very end of my stay at Brooks they started experimenting with relaxing the code and eliminating the coat and tie.
John: That's one thing that will never happen at Exeter. They're really steeped in the tradition of the coat and tie.
Parker: At least you're allowed to wear blue jeans at Exeter! We weren't even allowed to wear blue jeans at Brooks.
Ingenue: What do you think a young person who reads or sees A Separate Peace today can gain from it?
John: As far as I'm concerned, Finny and Gene were in love - not physically but emotionally - and the book shows that there's nothing wrong with that.
Parker: And yet, look what happened to Finny. I think the thing people get out of the book is identification with the process of growing up. It's rather comforting to see that other people do go through this, you know.
John: An incident like Finny's fall from the tree, or something with that emotional impact, must happen to most youth before they really grow up.
Ingenue: The recognition that something you do can play an important part in somebody else's life?
Parker: And affect your own life too. In the book, Gene learns that he can control his own growth as an individual, he can go through with the act of pushing Finny out of the tree. Which, I guess, is really kind of the beginning of his own emergence as an individual.
Knowles: Of facing up to his own real nature. The enemy he kills, of course, is his own self-ignorance, not Phineas.
Ingenue: So have we come to any conclusion about the differences between the world of Gene and Finny and the world of John and Parker?
John: People grow up faster, but basically it's the same thing happening.
Parker: And that's the appeal of the book - that there are so many things that are still similar.