Knowles, John 1926–2001

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Knowles, John 1926–2001

PERSONAL: Born September 16, 1926, in Fairmont, WV; died following a short illness November 29, 2001, near Fort Lauderdale, FL; son of James Myron and Mary Beatrice (Shea) Knowles. Education: Graduate of Phillips Exeter Academy, 1945; Yale University, B.A., 1949.

CAREER: Hartford Courant, Hartford, CT, reporter, 1950–52; freelance writer, 1952–56; Holiday, associate editor, 1956–60; full-time writer, beginning 1960. Writer-in-residence at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1963–64, and Princeton University, 1968–69. Taught creative writing at Florida Atlantic University, beginning c. 1986.

AWARDS, HONORS: Rosenthal Award from National Institute of Arts and Letters, and William Faulkner Foundation Award, both 1960, for A Separate Peace.


A Separate Peace (novel), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1960, reprinted, Rinehart and Winston (Austin, TX), 2000.

Morning in Antibes (novel), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1962.

Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad (travel), Macmillan (New York, NY), 1964.

Indian Summer (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1966.

Phineas (short stories), Random House (New York, NY), 1968.

The Paragon (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1971.

Spreading Fires (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 1974.

A Vein of Riches (novel), Little, Brown (Boston, MA), 1978.

Peace Breaks Out (novel), Holt (New York, NY), 1981.

A Stolen Past (novel), Holt (New York, NY), 1983.

The Private Life of Axie Reed (novel), Dutton, 1986.

Backcasts: Memories and Recollections of Seventy Years as a Sportsman (memoir), Wilderness Adventure Books, 1993.

ADAPTATIONS: A Separate Peace was adapted as a film by Paramount Pictures in 1972, and was recorded as an audiobook, Audio Bookshelf, 2002.

SIDELIGHTS: John Knowles is an acclaimed American novelist whose first—and most famous—novel, A Separate Peace, received both the Faulkner Foundation Prize and the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. A Separate Peace is Knowles' most lyrical work, describing in rich, evocative language the idyllic lives of school boys during the first years of American involvement in World War II. The plot is deceptively simple. The narrator, Gene Forrester, and his friend, Phineas (Finny), are both students at Devon, an Eastern seaboard private school much like Exeter, which Knowles attended. Gene is the more conscientious student of the two, and Phineas the more athletically and socially gifted. Though their bond is a strong one, it eventually suffers from competition. Gene, growing increasingly resentful of Phineas's popularity, finally causes him crippling injury by pushing him from a tree. A kangaroo court session ensues, with Gene accused of deliberately injuring Phineas, who leaves suddenly, again injures himself, and dies during surgery.

From this episode, Gene eventually accepts the necessity of exploring himself based upon his admission of guilt. Jay L. Halio, writing about A Separate Peace in Studies in Short Fiction, observed that "the prevailing attitude seems to be that before man can be redeemed back into social life, he must first come to terms with himself." 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 concluded in the English Journal, 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 encapsulated Knowles' twin purposes: to both explore the competing sides of an individual's personality and to imply that the conflict of nations is an extension of self-conflict and 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 in Knowles' fiction. It first appears in A Separate Peace, but it is never far from the center of his subsequent works.

Published twenty-two years after A Separate Peace, Knowles' Peace Breaks Out promised to "take its place alongside the earlier books as a fine novel," Dick Abrahamson maintained in the English Journal. Knowles' second Devon School novel takes place in 1945, and its main character and center of consciousness is Pete Hal-lam, a young teacher of history and physical education who has returned from World War II. Hallam has not only been wounded, captured, and incarcerated in a prison camp, but has also been abandoned by his wife. Because of the traumas he has suffered, he is not always articulate and tends to be somewhat cynical in his attempt to retreat into the past. Although also essentially romantic in nature, he has lost the ability to love, and he returns to Devon to lay the past to rest and to regain some sense of love and compassion.

At Devon the innocence Hallam remembers from his days as a student is now missing. Schoolboys, too, have been affected by the war—or perhaps Pete has simply matured enough through his own suffering to recognize the flaws in human nature. The conflict that helps Pete to understand himself is between two bright, articulate, and bitter students, Hochschwender and Wexford, who "hated each other. But also and simultaneously they seemed to hate something about themselves. There was a curious, fundamental similarity between them which made their mutual aversion almost incendiary." Bright and insecure, Hochschwender riles the other students with his outrageous statements about German superiority and his denial of the atrocities of World War II. Motivated in part by his insignificant Wisconsin background, his obviously Germanic name, and his fears of rejection, Hockschwender primarily assumes this position to test the tolerance of others, believing that under the surface of American liberalism is a strong strain of intolerance and bigotry. He is correct, and he himself becomes the target of that bigotry.

A second group of Knowles' novels—Indian Summer, A Stolen Past, and The Paragon—deals with Wexfordlike characters who have power and authority generated by money, which becomes a substitute for human warmth and sexual expression. The forum for this exploration is no longer Devon but Yale University and its immediate environs. All three novels depend upon the mutually reinforcing opposition between the rich and the middle class, the quest for money and the desire for a good life, and excessive rationality and healthy sexuality.

Second only to A Separate Peace in critical acclaim, Knowles' Indian Summer concerns Cleet Kinsolving and his gradual realization of the emptiness of wealth and position. The spontaneous, impulsive, and intuitive Cleet, grandson of an Indian woman, contrasts with the more controlled, rational, spoiled, and mercantile Neil Reardon. Unlike many of Knowles' characters, Cleet understands himself: to "roll out his life full force" meant "to be strong, to be happy, to be physically tired at night, to land sex at one and the same time, to be proud of himself." When Cleet follows his native instincts, he feels complete and satisfied; when he becomes trapped in the rationalist-mercantile pursuits of others, he nearly destroys himself. Related to this view of the self is the perception of place. The Midwest and West are equated with personal freedom and lack of social restraint; Connecticut and the East are equated with acquisitiveness, self-denial, and atrophying social conventions.

After his discharge from the Army Air Force in 1946, Cleet takes a job in Kansas, working for a small crop-dusting firm and living in a tiny motel cabin. This Thoreau-like existence under the "vaults and domes of sky" emphasizes a simple, natural life, undiminished by material possessions. Here, in the midwest, Cleet's feelings and senses—his sight, hearing, taste, and sexuality—are at their finest. What Cleet fears most is the entrapment symbolized by the East. The appearance in Kansas of his childhood friend, Neil Reardon, realizes those fears. Cleet, in accepting Neil's offer of a $200—per-week job in Cleet's home town of Wetherford, sells himself out to the Eastern establishment. Neil embodies the lust for acquisition, and he uses emotional attachments, generosity, loyalty, and philanthropy for his own ends so that they become deception, bribery, ambition, and willfulness. His marriage is empty, and his books and lectures merely hide his fear of failure. Even his desire to have a son is born of fear, and is in reality a need to ensure material immortality against an uncertain future.

Although the fictional narrator of Knowles' 1983 novel A Stolen Past has also been born in the East (Maryland) and educated there (at Devon and Yale), he has been no more faithful to it than Cleet. As a mature adult recalling his college experie, nces, Allan Prieston is realistic, knowing that he can never totally recapture the past; but he is also philosophical, understanding that the past will take its toll unless fully recognized and incorporated. A writer, Allan attempts to find his own literary voice and separate himself from his formative influences, notably mentor Reeves Lockhart. Allan recalls Reeves as an exceptional teacher, but in dignifying Reeve's memory, Allan failed to understand the loneliness, alcoholism, and crippling perfectionism that also plagued this teacher. By coming to terms with Reeves's weaknesses, however, Allan is better able to deal with his own limitations and feelings of inadequacy so that he can finally affirm himself as a "mischievous, conniving rascal and a cheat: a writer."

Whereas Allan's friendship with Reeves represents the possibilities and limitations of the mentor-student relationship, his friendship with Greg Trouvenskoy addresses peer admiration. Initially Allan idolizes Greg's maturity, good looks, popularity with men and women, and background. The son of noble Russians who escaped the Bolshevik revolution, Greg conveys a sense of wealth and prestige, punctuated by the family's possession of the wonderful Militsa diamond, their sole remaining treasure from the grand days in St. Petersburg. Handsome and elegant, full of wonderful stories of the Romanoffs and other Russian figures, Greg's parents fulfill Allan's every exotic impulse. They also make him aware of the weaknesses of the aristocratic, feudal system, for they have been dispossessed and are now U.S. citizens and New Deal Democrats. They have survived because they have the inner resources to make the transition from wealth and power to more average social positions.

In The Paragon main character Louis Colfax learns that individual people and events together create history. Of a family that had been rich in the nineteenth century, Louis grows up with few material advantages and is surrounded by family members who are psychologically and socially damaged—passive, pious, repressive, oppressive, and alcoholic. Louis feels himself psychologically impaired by his environment. In his many despairing moments he withdraws and hopes to put an end to the cycle of biological and environmental determinism. In the end, he recognizes that his problems have been determined not only by his bizarre family but also by his own independent character and actions.

In The Paragon Knowles suggests that each person and culture has a repressed side referred to as "the animal inside the human." Indeed, in talking with his fiancée Charlotte Mills, Louis says, "I love you too much, like a man and like a woman…. I think I'm a lesbian." He believes she has her masculine side, just as he has his feminine side, and that both must be recognized and embraced. Knowles implies that all human beings have these opposing characteristics, one often suppressing another and destroying the balanced personality, and he suggests that this is even true of institutions and nations. Juxtaposed against male institutional power in The Paragon is the power of nature. The image of an Hawaiian volcano represents for Louis all of nature's raw power: "This was the ultimate, uncontrollable force on earth. No fence could stop it, no wall, no channel. No will could stop it, no bomb." The Paragon, then, pits the masculine against the feminine, the rational against the emotional, and the institutional against the natural.

Despite The Paragon's complexity, critics have not been altogether appreciative of the book. Jonathan Yard-ley stated in the New Republic that he liked the novel but found it derivative of A Separate Peace and inherently false in tone. James Aronson in the Antioch Review agreed: "the dialogue is faked and stagey, the characters are stereotyped, the parallels between 1950 and 1970 are tritely obvious, and the shape of the novel is curiously disjointed." However, Webster Schott in the New York Times Book Review, found much to admire, especially in the conception of the protagonist: "the title is important. It's not 'A Paragon.' It's 'The Paragon.' And Knowles's model or pattern of perfection for youth and manhood is a seeking, nonconforming, erratically brilliant and socially maladjusted college student. For Knowles the perfect model must be less than perfect. Not an irony. A moral position."

In A Vein of Riches Knowles presents his strongest indictment of the rich by sympathetically portraying West Virginia miners who struck against rapacious coal barons between 1918 and 1921. The Catherwood family—Clarkson, Minnie, and Lyle—represent the attitudes of other mine-owner families towards the laboring classes and their own family affairs. The first part of the book primarily centers on the Catherwoods' views of the strikers, black servants, and the economy; the second, on the family's increasing financial difficulties and their problems in discovering personal fulfillment and meaning. In their personal roles and attitudes to others, the Catherwoods become a microcosm of the ownership class-what the strikers call "bloated capitalists" and "economic royalists." Shortsighted and greedy, they do not have the ability to manage the mines and guarantee prosperity and calm in both good times and bad.

Morning in Antibes, the first of Knowles' Mediterranean novels, treats class conflict, marital issues, and international relations. Here the setting is Juan-les-Pins on the Riviera, the playground of the rich from America—Nicholas and Liliane Bodine and Jimmy Smoot; France—Marc, Constance, and Titou de la Croie; and elsewhere. In contrast to the rich, those who work on the Riviera—the restaurateurs and servants, even the transvestites who participate in nightclub acts—are faced with arduous work schedules, little money, and the scorn of their patrons.

Also set in Southern France, Spreading Fires is a gothic tale of insanity and guilt, and in it Knowles explores deeply seated sexual attitudes. The book's protagonist is Brendan Lucas, a well-heeled American diplomat who rents a spacious villa overlooking the Mediterranean near Cannes. This area exudes sexuality in "the musky air, the sticky sea, the sensuous food, the sensual wine." Although Brendan does not overtly share in that pervasive spirit, he has, as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt put it in the New York Times "unresolved Oedipal rage" and homosexual anxieties. The conflict between sexuality and repression serves as the central issue of the book. For Knowles, sexual emotion is a side of the self that must be recognized.

Though best known for his novels, Knowles also produced Phineas, a collection of stories about adolescent boys and young men reaching a greater understanding of life. James P. Degman of the Kenyon Review admired Knowles' dramatization of the torments of sensitive and intelligent adolescents, particularly in the stories "Phineas," "A Turn with the Sun," and "Summer Street." An early version of the scene from A Separate Peace in which the narrator causes Finny to fall from a tree, "Phineas" focuses upon the narrator's attempts at confession and reconciliation. "A Turn with the Sun," set like "Phineas" at the Devon School, portrays an alienated young protagonist whose beautiful dive into a cold river ironically consolidates his relationship with his comrades and brings on his death. "Summer Street," in which a young boy copes with his anxieties about the birth of a sister, treats the development of imagination-both the quality of wonder and enchantment, as well as the fear of the unknown. Some people, Knowles implies in his story, have little imagination and will be mired in their environment; others suppress their imagination and lose access to a rich world; still others have this talent but need to foster and channel it so that it does not prove an instrument of evasion.

Conflicting personality traits, genders, and ways of functioning infuse all of Knowles' fictional work, as well as his nonfiction book, Double Vision: American Thoughts Abroad. In this travel account, Knowles shares with readers his impressions of Arab spontaneity and Greek hospitality, but he also criticizes the United States' puritanical Protestant habits, repressed sexuality, tendency toward violence in its cities, and unfair distribution of jobs and wealth. Knowles' own personal apprehensions and fear about the strangeness of Arab culture, its "paralyzed battlefield," raises another theme: 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 was not altogether negative about the United States and its ideals. In his book he expresses appreciation for American directness and honesty, the great energy of its people, and the security of governmental stability. He ends his book with the hope that that the United States would, with time, create a civilization in harmony with nature, one that would stress tolerance and equal rights for African Americans and women.

Knowles once noted that A Separate Peace was rather an albatross; in the eyes of critics as well as, perhaps, his own, nothing he produced ever equaled it. However, he also recognized that the novel, published so early in his career, allowed him to do as he wished the rest of his life. His final novel, The Private Life of Axie Reed, was published in 1986. His final published work, the memoir Backcasts: Memories and Recollections of Seventy Years as a Sportsman, was published seven years later, in 1993.



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Knowles, John 1926–2001

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