Authors: John Knowles

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist


A Separate Peace, the first novel of John Knowles (nohlz), has been one of the most widely read books in the American school system. Knowles grew up in the small city of Fairmont, West Virginia, in the 1930’s when it was a coal town in decline. In 1942 he left for Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. Because the school during the years of World War II instituted an “anticipatory plan” that allowed boys to receive their diplomas early, before being drafted into the armed services, Knowles finished his studies in the summer of 1944 and was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Corps. He qualified as an aviation cadet and spent eight months in training programs in the United States before being discharged in 1945 when the war ended.{$I[AN]9810001046}{$I[A]Knowles, John}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Knowles, John}{$I[tim]1926;Knowles, John}

John Knowles

(Kimberly Dawson Kurnizki)

Upon returning to civilian life, Knowles attended Yale University, majoring in English and writing for student publications. After graduating in 1949 he went to work as a reporter for a Hartford, Connecticut, newspaper and later as a correspondent and editor for Holiday magazine. In 1952 he became a freelance writer and traveled extensively in Europe, where he began writing a novel, to be entitled Descent into Proslito. On the advice of Thornton Wilder, who had become his mentor, he decided against trying to publish the work. In 1955 he returned to the United States and began to write short stories that would be the seed from which his novel A Separate Peace would grow. In 1959 the British edition of A Separate Peace was published; the critical reception was so favorable that an American publisher bought the rights. Although initial sales of the hardcover edition were not huge, the critics liked the novel, and it won Knowles two awards for fiction.

A Separate Peace grew out of Knowles’s schoolboy experiences at Phillips Exeter and is a classic coming-of-age story. The title is taken from Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) and alludes to the fact that Knowles’s protagonist also declares a private armistice in the midst of a war. The war that provides the historical background in A Separate Peace is World War II, though Knowles does not deal with the battlefield at all, concerning himself with the home front, specifically the setting of a preparatory school called Devon Academy. The impact of the war on the lives of schoolboys who are not yet involved in the conflict is one of the concerns of the novel. Knowles also probes the psychological forces at work in the relationship between the two main characters, Gene Forrester and Phineas, whose last name is never given. The suspicion, enmity, and hostility that beset their friendship are intended as a microcosm of the fears and hatreds that cause warfare between nations.

Knowles’s subsequent novels resemble A Separate Peace in setting and in using situations with which he himself was familiar. Morning in Antibes and Spreading Fires, for example, are set in the Mediterranean and concern foreign cultures in which he lived; these cultures are subjected to the same intense scrutiny as the “culture” of Devon Academy had been in A Separate Peace. Another concern that Knowles has transposed from A Separate Peace is the use of a world crisis against which the personal conflicts of individuals are played out. In Morning in Antibes it is the Algerian struggle for liberation from French colonialism in the late 1950’s, which serves as a metaphor for the main character’s internal quest for freedom, though many consider this parallel to be less convincing than that in A Separate Peace.

More satisfying than Knowles’s fiction about his experience in Europe is a book of essays about his travel entitled Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad. Underlying this collection is the belief that there is a germ of wildness that lies beneath the restrained surface of the American character. The tension between the savage core and the careful Protestant exterior makes for an unintegrated national personality. This assumption is also a presiding motif in Knowles’s fiction, where it becomes the paradigm for the dichotomy between wildness and civilization that is the basis for his plots.

When Knowles returned to the United States he moved to Long Island. Having become established as a serious writer of fiction in the early 1960’s with the success of A Separate Peace, he continued to write and publish. Peace Breaks Out, a novel again set in Devon Academy, takes place during the 1945-1946 school year, a postwar setting that provides an opportunity for Knowles to focus on the fear and paranoia of enemies domestic and foreign that swept America during the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Again the school is used as a microcosm to mirror the problems of the larger society. The rather pessimistic theme of Peace Breaks Out is that the violence of World War II did not quell fears or dampen the capacity to imagine threats where none existed. The schoolboys at Devon had been trained to prepare for war and become heroes, and when the war ends they are left frustrated rather than relieved at being able to avoid the fighting.

Knowles’s reputation rests largely on A Separate Peace, which won the William Faulkner Foundation award for a first novel, the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and an Independent Schools Education Board award. Though all his other novels suffered by comparison with this work and none received similar acclaim, A Separate Peace continues to be read and discussed in classrooms and analyzed by critics.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace.” New York: Chelsea House, 2000. A useful collection of critical essays, excellent for students reading the novel in class.Bryant, Hallman Bell. “A Separate Peace”: The War Within. Boston: Twayne, 1990. One of Twayne’s masterwork studies, this is a helpful guide for the student of the novel. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Bryant, Hallman Bell. Understanding “A Separate Peace”: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002. Extensive background material for the study of Knowles’s novel.Degnan, James. “Sex Ex Machina and Other Problems.” The Kenyon Review 31 (Spring, 1969): 272-277. By analyzing “Phineas,” the source of material for A Separate Peace, Degnan shows how Knowles succeeds when he adheres to treating the torments of the sensitive intelligent male adolescent. In other novels, however, he fails because he leaves this theme.Holborn, David G. “A Rationale for Reading John Knowles’ A Separate Peace.” In Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, and John M. Kean. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1993. An essay championing the novel and its importance in the literary canon.McEwen, Fred. “John Knowles: Overview.” In Twentieth-Century Young Adult Writers, edited by Laura Standley Berger. London: St. James Press, 1994. A standard introduction to the author and his works.Weber, Ronald. “Narrative Method in A Separate Peace.” Studies in Short Fiction 3 (Fall, 1965): 63-72. To show how Knowles’s narrative method relates to his themes, Weber explores comparisons with J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). He shows how, because he is such a precise craftsman, Knowles provides the clearer statement about life.
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