At least to my generation—the one born in the 1930s—the experience of summer camp was so much a part of our lives that we often measured the rest of the world by its standards. I once knew the editor-in-chief of a publishing house who found it hard not to defer to a subordinate who happened to have been his cabin counselor when he was a child.

To judge from Michael D. Eisner's recently published Camp (Warner Books, $22.95), an affectionate memoir of Camp Keewaydin, on Lake Dunmore in Vermont, which the CEO of the Walt Disney Company began attending as a boy of eight in 1950, the beat goes on.

What a perfect setting for a work of fiction: this stripped-down world, where all that matters is the weather, your bunkmates and counselors and the world of nature surrounding you. Here is civilization in a nutshell, like a ship at sea, an infantry unit in the field or a boarding school. The shelves of American libraries must be weighted down with novels about summer camp.

Or so I assumed when about 10 years ago I set out to write my own novel set in a summer camp. Based on some of the most vivid experiences of my life—what I considered the richest portion of my writer's capital, to borrow Louis Auchincloss's phrase—I was certain my story would write itself. That it obstinately refused to do so, that it tied me in knots and took me forever to finish I blamed on my own limitations.

When I finally did finish and decided to look at the competition, the only novels I could find with legitimate camp settings were Herman Wouk's City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder and The War of Camp Omongo by Burt Blechman.

So slim are the pickings that the richness of summer-camp literature feels greatly increased by a single addition—the publication of Sleepaway: Writings on Summer Camp (Riverhead, June), an anthology edited by Eric Simonoff containing 20 selections, by writers ranging from Margaret Atwood to David Sedaris, from James Atlas to Diana Trilling.

How to explain the relative thinness of what I thought would prove a fat vein of literature? I had begun to sense the problem with my own attempt at a camp novel. I wanted to bring a campfire horror story to life—hence the title of the book, The Mad Cook of Pymatuning. But what was the real threat of the summer-camping experience? Homesickness? Social cliques? The malice of nature? Where was the horror?

Kenneth B. Kidd, in his recently published Making American Boys: Boyology and the Feral Tale (Univ. of Minnesota), tells us that camping was originally "a boy work strategy rather than an activity or location in its own right." This helped me to see that I had been wrong to define summer camp as a civilization in a nutshell. Camping, at least at its roots, is less a reflection of civilization than an escape from it designed to place young people in a crucible by isolating, liberating, testing and thereby reshaping their characters.

Such a view is useful for understanding camp literature like City Boy, in which the dumber, more athletic boys rise to the top at Camp Manitou; the eventual triumph of fat but brainy Herbie Bookbinder is to outsmart them all in a setting where intelligence is demeaned. The camp setting in The War of Camp Omongo unleashes all that is savagely competitive and militaristic in American life. The ultimate summer-camp novel has to be William Golding's Lord of the Flies, in which a group of boys in the wilderness turns savage, lacking as it does a staff of adult counselors and a camp director to take charge.

Kidd's study suggests the pitfalls of writing about the summer-camp experience; it certainly highlights the difficulties I ran into. When things go wrong at summer camp it is not so much that a civilization in miniature breaks down as that the test of character goes haywire. As young people are pushed to their limits, the ideals of what they ought to be break down. Gender boundaries are challenged. Vulnerable psyches are shattered. The horror is that the ugliest possibilities of humans are laid bare. The deepest social taboos are violated. Where narrative wants redemption, madness reigns.

Lehmann-Haupt is a former daily book reviewer for the New York Times.