John Knowles won both critical and popular success with his first novel, A Separate Peace. In the 40 years since its publication, the novel has become a classic for both young adults and adult readers. Although he has written eight other novels, including Peace Breaks Out, which shares the prep school setting of the earlier novel, Knowles has not yet repeated the success of his first work. The author's reputation as a writer of fiction still rests on A Separate Peace.
Knowles was born in 1926, in Fairmont, West Virginia. He spent his childhood in the small town of a coal-mining region, attending public schools. At 15, he left Fairmont for Phillips Exeter Academy, an elite prep school in New Hampshire. Knowles found Exeter both socially and academically challenging, and his experiences there inspired at least two of his later works: A Separate Peace (1959) and Peace Breaks Out (1981), in which Exeter is reconceived as Devon School.
Knowles graduated early from Exeter in August 1947 because of his participation in the summer Anticipatory Program, a special wartime term, like Devon's Summer Session, meant to prepare boys for military service. In the fall of 1944, Knowles entered Yale University to study English. After serving for eight months in the U.S. Army Air Corps, Knowles returned to Yale, receiving a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1949.
Jobs and Literary Writing
After graduating from college, Knowles worked as a reporter for the Hartford Courant and occasionally wrote theater reviews for the newspaper. By 1952, he was a freelance writer, with several articles published in Holiday magazine, where he became an associate editor. The success of A Separate Peace gave Knowles the financial freedom to devote himself entirely to writing fiction.
Early in his career, Knowles wrote a novel that was never published and a short story that appeared in a small fiction magazine. He began to experiment with the material that would inspire the early chapters of A Separate Peace with the short story "Phineas," published in Cosmopolitan in 1956.
Knowles submitted his completed novel to American publishers, but the manuscript was rejected. Knowles found a British publisher, Secker and Warburg, for his work. A Separate Peace appeared in 1959 and quickly earned the praise of British reviewers. By the spring of 1960, when the New York edition came out, American critics were acclaiming the novel as well.
The success of the novel freed Knowles to write and to travel. His next two books, the novel Morning in Antibes (1962) and Double Vision: American Thoughts from Abroad (1964), a collection of travel essays, take for their inspiration Knowles' wanderings on the Riviera and in the Middle East.
With Indian Summer (1966), Knowles returned to the theme of boyhood friendships he had explored in A Separate Peace, but critics declared the new novel a disappointment compared to Knowles' first great work. Knowles found a new subject and tone in Spreading Fires (1974), a gothic thriller set on the Riviera. He explored the effects of the past on the present in A Stolen Past (1983) and The Private Life of Axie Reed (1986). His West Virginia childhood inspired A Vein of Riches (1978), a historical novel about coal mining.
Returning to New England themes, Knowles set The Paragon (1971) at Yale University and then finally came back to the fictional Devon School with Peace Breaks Out (1981). Again, critics praised the author's craft, but most agreed that the best novel written by Knowles was his first, A Separate Peace.
Honors and Awards
A Separate Peace won Knowles the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters.The work also received the William Faulkner Award for the most promising first novel of 1960. In 1961, Knowles accepted the National Association of Independent Schools Award.