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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES
John Knowles was only 33 years old when A Separate Peace was published, in 1959, in England (see The Critics section at the end of this book for a good idea of how popular the book was there) and then, in 1960, in the United States. The book was an immediate and stunning success, receiving the William Faulkner Foundation Award and the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
But John Knowles had begun writing seriously a decade before the success of A Separate Peace enabled him to abandon full-time employment. He was assistant editor for the Yale Alumni Magazine where he'd attended college, he worked as a reporter and drama critic for the Hartford Courant, and then he wrote his first novel, Descent into Proselito, while living in Italy and France. That novel was never published; his friend and teacher, the playwright Thornton Wilder, felt it was not good enough.
Knowles was born in Fairmont, West Virginia, on September 16, 1926, the third of four children. At age fifteen, during World War II, he went away to boarding school, the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. The pressures of this environment at such a dire and impressionable time laid the foundation for A Separate Peace-and, even before that novel, for a short story called "Phineas," which takes us through the events of the first half of the novel.
Like so many writers before and since, John Knowles found his way to New York City, renting an apartment in the Hell's Kitchen area of the West Side, where he applied himself rigorously to his craft in the mid-1950s. Determined to make a name for himself, he busily turned out drama reviews, short stories, and freelance articles. A story about Phillips Exeter Academy published in Holiday magazine received wide acclaim, and Knowles moved to Philadelphia to work for the magazine from 1957 to 1960.
Once again he was able to travel abroad, and he tied two more books directly into his life experience, a travelogue called American Thoughts Abroad and Morning in Antibes. Then he tried his hand at teaching for several years, at the University of North Carolina and at Princeton.
Since 1970, he has lived in Southampton, Long Island, where he focuses his attention on novel writing.
When we take a sweeping look at John Knowles' work, we understand him as a writer involved in a continuous autobiography through fiction. One major theme occurs over and over again: the inner struggle we all must endure between the "civilized" and "savage" parts of ourselves; and that struggle-or "battle," as Gene Forrester calls it in A Separate Peace-in the larger sense of man versus his environment.
His years as a travel and magazine writer gave John Knowles a knack for describing the atmosphere of places, as you'll notice immediately when you begin to read A Separate Peace. A Vein of Riches (1978), another novel, takes place in a West Virginia mining town similar to Fairmont, where John Knowles grew up. The Devon School (modeled after Phillips Exeter) returns in the guise of Wetherford Country Day School in Indian Summer (1966); Yale University figures strongly in The Paragon (1971); and the sultry atmosphere of the French Riviera, where Knowles spent so much time traveling and writing, is captured vividly in Spreading Fires (1974).
Gene Forrester feels sometimes hemmed in, at other times protected by the close-knit setting of the Devon School. In the same way, many of John Knowles' major characters fight to achieve an understanding with where they are, testing themselves constantly against their current situations. Knowles' novels express his own unresolved conflicts, conflicts that every serious writer must feel inside himself to some degree: Who am I? What shapes me? What is the true extent of my power, and how successfully can I shape my own future? To what degree do I represent "the American Character" (Knowles' term), and to what degree do I represent myself alone?
None of John Knowles' subsequent novels has achieved the peak of popularity that A Separate Peace has reached (in 1982 it was in its 55th printing). But readers and critics agree that he possesses a sensitive awareness of human nature-of what makes us tick-and that he is a craftsman of prose style who has produced an enduring classic: the novel you're about to read.