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Knowles is best known for his first novel, A Separate Peace (1959). Set in the World War II era, the work has been consistently popular with young adults since its publication. Here, as in many ofhis other works, Knowles examines young heroes facing the tests of modern life and arriving at the painful realization that evil exists in society and in themselves—realizations that Knowles sees as major steps toward adulthood.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A Privileged Upbringing
John Knowles was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, on September 26, 1926, to James Myron and Mary Beatrice Shea Knowles. He has an older brother and sister who are twins as well as a younger sister. Knowles left West Virginia at the age of fifteen to attend the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire during the World War II years, a setting and time period that would be significant as inspiration for his best-known work. After graduating in 1945, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force Aviation Cadet Program, eventually qualifying as pilot. Following his discharge after eight months, Knowles attended Yale University, serving briefly as an assistant editor for the Yale Alumni magazine after graduating in 1949; he then worked from 1950 to 1952 as a reporter and occasional drama critic for the Hartford Courant. Knowles was a freelance writer from 1952 to 1956. After a year or so abroad, touring Italy and southern France and writing his first novel (which he decided not to publish, partly on the advice of his mentor Thornton Wilder), Knowles returned to the United States in 1955. He took up residence in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York City, where he shared an apartment with actor Bradford Dillman. He wrote occasional drama reviews while his first short stories (including ”A Turn with the Sun” in 1953 and “Phineas” in 1956) were being published. During this period, he continued to benefit from Wilder’s interest in his work and began to write A Separate Peace.
The idea for A Separate Peace grew out of his short story ”Phineas,” which appeared in Cosmopolitan in May 1956. It describes in rich, evocative language the idyllic lives of schoolboys during the first years of American involvement in World War II. During this time, patriotic sentiment in the United States was widespread, and while it was common for young men to feel anxious about going to war, avoiding the call to duty was extremely rare. Knowles draws from his experiences as an adolescent at Phillips Exeter Academy to create the narrator, Gene Forrester, and his friend, Phineas (Finny), who are both students at Devon, an Eastern seaboard private school much like Phillips Exeter. Though their bond is a strong one, it eventually suffers from competition. Gene, growing increasingly resentful of Phineas’s popularity, finally causes him to suffer a crippling injury by pushing him from a tree. From this episode, Gene eventually accepts the necessity of exploring himself based upon his admission of guilt. Frequently compared critically to J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and written despite Wilder’s initial skepticism about the feasibility of the project, A Separate Peace is today one of the most widely read postwar American novels; by the time of its thirtieth anniversary, over seven million copies were in print. In 1960, it won the first William Faulkner Foundation Award for a notable first novel as well as the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Success Makes Travel Abroad Possible
After Holiday magazine published his article on Phillips Exeter Academy in late 1956, Knowles moved to Philadelphia in 1957 to assume the post of associate editor for Holiday. When it became clear soon after its American publication that A Separate Peace was to be highly successful, Knowles, then thirty-four, resigned his editorship in August 1960 to embark on a two-year tour of Europe and the Middle East. His 1964 travelogue, Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad, recounts his sojourn.
His second novel, Morning in Antibes (1962), was published while Knowles was still abroad. Established as a professional writer, Knowles returned from Europe and moved to New York City, where he lived throughout the 1960s while continuing to travel abroad for short periods. During these years, he served as a writer-in-residence, first at the University of North Carolina for the 1963-1964 session and then at Princeton in 19681969. His third novel, Indian Summer, which was dedicated to Thornton Wilder, was published in 1966, and a collection of short stories, Phineas, appeared in 1968. Two of his essays were published in the New York Times. ‘Where Does a Young Writer Find His Real Friends?” in 1962 and ”The Writer-in-Residence” in 1965.
In 1970, the year his father died, Knowles took up permanent residence in Southampton, Long Island, where his neighbors in nearby villages have included Truman Capote, Winston Groom, Willie Morris, and Irwin Shaw. His fourth novel, The Paragon, appeared in 1971, and a motion picture version of A Separate Peace was released in 1972. Peace Breaks Out, designed to be a ”companion piece” to A Separate Peace, was published in 1981, followed by A Stolen Past(which can be read as a companion piece to The Paragon) in 1983.
The novel The Private Live of Axie Reed was published in 1986. This book relates, as its tabloid-like title suggests, the private life of Alexandra Reed, an aging movie star who is at the end of her film career as she approaches her fiftieth birthday. The greatest crisis of her life occurs during the late summer of 1981, when she has an accident that causes a life-threatening injury. In 1995, Knowles published an autobiographical work A Special Time, A Special Place, in which he talks about the experiences he had growing up that formed the basis for A Separate Peace. John Knowles died in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on November 29, 2001.
Works in Literary Context
Knowles’s work was influenced by his own experiences coming of age at boarding school, serving in World War II, and living in American society that was forever changed by the impact of war.
Coming of Age through Love and Acceptance
The setting and plot of A Separate Peace play upon a series of contrasts between negative and positive elements, the combination of which stresses the need to tolerate, understand, and integrate radically opposing perceptions and experiences. The school itself stands between two rivers, the Devon and the Naguamsett, one pure and fresh, the other ugly and dirty. As James Ellis concludes, the Devon symbolizes Eden, a place of joy and happiness, while the Naguamsett indicates a landscape destroyed by personal greed and callousness toward the environment. The winds of war, blowing just beyond the lives of the boys, and the battle between Gene and Phineas encapsulate Knowles’s twin purposes—to explore the competing sides of an individual’s personality and to imply, as some critics have noted, that the conflict of nations is an extension of self-conflict and of the antipathy one person feels toward another. These internal and external conflicts result from fear, whether based on hatred, inadequacy, exposure, or rejection. This view of life as a battle between two opposing selves, persons, or camps—the solution being acceptance and love of others—is the most dominant theme of Knowles’s fiction. It first appears in A Separate Peace, but it is never far from the center of later works.
A Balanced View of American Culture
Throughout his fiction, Knowles shows a concern for middle- and upper-class Americans. He sees, and perhaps shares, their hunger for wealth, but he also knows their weaknesses and those of the American system. He exposes the effects of greed, obsessive social propriety, puritanical religion, and stifled emotions—qualities that lead to rivalry, suppression, and self-destruction. Yet, these forces can be countered, Knowles suggests, by letting go, by abandoning urban competition, by restoring the primacy of emotions, by allowing love to flourish, and by returning to nature.
Conflicting personality traits, genders, and ways of functioning infuse all of Knowles’s work. These themes are reinforced in Knowles’s nonfiction book, Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad. In this travel account, Knowles regales the reader with his impressions of Arab spontaneity and Greek hospitality, while he also criticizes America’s puritanical Protestant habits, repressed sexuality, tendency toward violence in its cities, and unfair distribution of jobs and wealth. Knowles’s own personal apprehensions and fear about the strangeness of Arab culture, its ”paralyzed battlefield,” raises another concern, the American fear of other cultures. This fear of the unknown, the strangeness of other people, is, the author implies, deeply human, but especially characteristic of Americans. Yet Knowles is not altogether negative about America and its ideals. He likes American directness and honesty, the great energy of its people, and the feeling of governmental stability. He is hopeful that America will, with time, create a civilization in harmony with nature, one that stresses tolerance and equal rights for blacks and women.
Works in Critical Context
Outside of commentaries on A Separate Peace, there has been little serious critical attention paid to Knowles’s work. Critics of his work, both pro and con, generally concur in their assessment of Knowles as both a master craftsman and a serious student of that seemingly irreducible dualism he perceives at the heart of the American character.
A Separate Peace
Referring to Knowles as ”a master of characterization,” literary scholar Anne Hiebert Alton praises A Separate Peace for ”its structure, and particularly its treatment of time” and its ”remarkable economy of language.” Despite these attributes, Alton feels that A Separate Peace contains a few flaws: ”Its detailed descriptions of setting are rarely well-integrated into the narrative. In addition, many of the minor characters (with the exception of Leper and Brinker) are poorly developed. … Furthermore, Knowles’ symbolism falls short of its potential.” Some recent critiques of A Separate Peace focus on the enduring nature of the work and its ability to attract young readers. For example, writing for The New York Times Book Review, Julian Moynahan argues that
The continuing appeal of A Separate Peace has little to do with its wartime atmosphere, though that is well handled. Rather, the attraction is its central character, Phineas, the 16-year-old epitome of ”schoolboy glamour” who is done to death over the course of a school year.
- Bryant, Hallman Bell. A Separate Peace: The War Within. New York: Twayne, 1990.
- Carragher, Bernard. ”There Really Was a Super Suicide Society.” New York Times (October 8, 1972) section 2, p. 2.
- Ellis, James. ”A Separate Peace: The Fall from Innocence.” English Journal 53 (May 1964): 313-318.
- Gardner, John. ”More Smog from the Dark, Satanic Mills.” Southern Review 5 (Winter 1969): 224-244.
- Greiling, Franziska Lynne. ”The Theme of Freedom in ‘A Separate Peace.”’ English Journal 56 (December 1967): 1269-1272.
- Halio, Jay L. ”John Knowles’s Short Novels.” Studies in Short Fiction 1 (Winter 1964): 107-112.
- Henkel, Wayne J. ”Pas de Feux.” Washington Post Book World (June 23, 1974): 2.
- MacDonald, James L. ”The Novels of John Knowles.” Arizona Quarterly 23 (Winter 1967): 335-342.
- Slethang, Gordon E. ”The Play of the Double in ‘A Separate Peace.”’ Canadian Review of American Studies 15 (1984): 259-270.
- Veitch, Colin R. ”The Devon School Fiction of John Knowles.” Arete: The Journal of Sport Literature 3 (Spring 1986): 101-113.
- Weber, Ronald. ”Narrative Method in ‘A Separate Peace.”’ Studies in Short Fiction 3 (Fall 1965): 63-72.
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